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The Link Between Chronic Pain and Addiction

chronic pain and addiction

When you’re in pain, your ability to function is diminished. You can’t meet your family or work obligations, and you can’t enjoy a good quality of life. Whether you’re recovering from surgery, healing from an injury or dealing with an ongoing condition that causes pain, turning to prescription painkillers may seem like your only option.

As women, we have a tendency to care for everyone else first and put our needs last. Instead of taking the time and energy to get to the root of our pain and find alternatives to alleviate it, we do the quick fix: taking pain medication.

Unfortunately, a quick fix and temporary solution can quickly morph into an ongoing problem of addiction. As your brain becomes accustomed to the painkillers, it can no longer handle pain on its own. When your body is used to painkillers, you can feel sick when you don’t have them. Worse still, your body and brain will require increasingly larger amounts to experience the same pain-killing effects.

Read on to learn more about the link between chronic pain and substance abuse. When you know what to look out for and how to get effective treatment, you can ensure your best possible life.

Women and Chronic Pain

Chronic pain is different than acute pain, which is short in duration. Chronic pain can last months and even years.

There are an estimated 116 million Americans who suffer from chronic pain — and the majority of them are women. One study of more than 85,000 people found that women are more likely to suffer from chronic pain than men. Based on the study’s findings, 45 percent of women were dealing with regular pain versus only 31 percent of men.

suffering from chronic pain

While we’re not sure exactly why women are more likely to suffer from chronic pain, we do know that women:

  • Wait longer — until the pain is extreme — before they have surgery
  • Have lower levels of testosterone, the hormone that can protect against pain
  • React differently to pain medication
  • Are more likely to get chronic conditions that cause pain, such as fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome and migraines
  • Have lower thresholds for pressure-induced pain
  • Often have their pain symptoms minimalized or attributed to emotions by healthcare professionals

Chronic pain is not only difficult to live with, but it also transforms your nervous system and shrinks your brain. Getting effective pain treatment that doesn’t rely on medications is key to living a better life.

Chronic Pain and Addiction: The Dangers of Opioid Dependence

Vicodin, Percocet and OxyContin — three of the most commonly prescribed painkiller drugs — are opioids. Both morphine and heroin belong to this class of drugs as well.

Opioids work by flooding your brain with dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter. You become relaxed, and your pain is numbed. The problem is your brain requires increasingly more of the drug to get this same effect.

Any woman who takes prescription painkillers doesn’t set out to become addicted. Opioid dependence and addiction are a slippery slope. What starts out as taking a higher dose or waiting less time between doses can quickly become a need to always be on painkillers.

An addiction to painkillers is a serious condition that can have a deadly outcome. In the United States, 18 women die each day as a result of an overdose of prescription painkillers. The number of women dying from prescription painkillers is increasing at an alarming rate of 400 percent since 1999, compared to 265 percent for men over the same time period.

women deaths from painkillers

The Path to Heroin Addiction

When insurance no longer covers the painkillers or ongoing use begins to take its toll on the family budget, women search for the relief they need elsewhere. Heroin offers similar effects as painkillers but is cheaper and often easier to get. The result is a staggering increase in heroin addiction. In fact, between 2005 and 2012, heroin addiction doubled in the United States, from 380,000 to 670,000 people.

While heroin was once considered a drug for the low-income, it’s now gaining traction in more affluent areas as well. Women and the privately insured are among the fastest-growing user segment, two groups that historically had low heroin-use rates. Women just like you, soccer moms and professionals, have succumbed to heroin as a result of chronic pain.

Signs of an Addiction to Prescription Drugs

The best way to prevent an addiction to prescription drugs is to stop it in its tracks. The sooner and earlier an addiction is identified and treated, the better the recovery outcome. By knowing the signs of painkiller addiction, you can get the help you need to overcome it.

You may be developing a painkiller addiction if you’re:

  • Requesting painkiller refills early or frequently
  • Needing larger doses to experience the same effects
  • Seeing multiple doctors to get extra painkiller prescriptions
  • No longer interested in spending time with your loved ones
  • Not meeting your responsibilities at home, school or work
  • Gaining or losing weight
  • Not taking care of your appearance as you used to
  • Unable to stop using, even if you quit for short periods
  • Facing legal problems due to your painkiller use
  • Not telling your loved ones the whole truth about how much and how often you’re taking painkillers
  • Watching the clock to see how soon you can take your next dose
  • Acting defensively anytime anyone brings up your painkiller use
  • Sleeping more, especially during the day

Physical symptoms of a painkiller addiction include:

  • Itchy, flushed skin
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Small pupils
  • Slurred speech
  • Seizures

If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, don’t wait to address the issue. You’re more likely to achieve long-term recovery and a better life when you get into addiction treatment early.

Painkiller Addiction Treatment

The most effective painkiller addiction treatment is a comprehensive approach. To achieve lasting recovery, you need to treat the pain, addiction and any co-occurring disorders — such as depression or anxiety — at the same time.

  1. Treating Your Pain

Since the pain was what led to your painkiller addiction, you need to effectively treat it. There are non-opioid treatment medications that can help control your pain without causing an addiction. Antidepressants, anti-epileptic drugs and antiarrhythmic drugs have all shown to effectively treat pain.

In addition to medication, your pain treatment plan should also include psychological, physical and occupational therapies. Through these therapies, you can develop the strategies to manage your pain and overcome its hold on your life.

  1. Treating Your Addiction

Just as pain treatment requires a multi-disciplinary approach, so does addiction treatment. Addiction affects every aspect of your life, from your emotional stability to relationships with loved ones. You need an addiction treatment plan that helps you heal on every level.

The most effective addiction treatment facilities customize therapies to your specific needs, interests, goals and challenges. Your individualized treatment plan should include a mix of different therapies, such as:

  • Time-tested treatments — From cognitive behavioral therapy to the 12 Step Program, there are treatment options that have proven to be effective at helping achieve lasting recovery. Both group therapy and one-on-one therapy sessions should be included.
  • Progressive, experiential treatments — Today’s research has shed more light into the science behind addiction. Leading treatment facilities incorporate cutting-edge therapies into their customized programs, such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and bio-feedback.
  • Therapeutic techniques — Therapeutic techniques, such as art and music therapy, help you uncover and express the underlying emotions that feed your addiction. When you bring these emotions and unresolved feelings to the surface, you can address them and fully heal from them.
  • Life-skills development — Learning how to deal with life stressors in a healthy way is key to sustaining your recovery. After treatment, you should have the tools you need to face life changes and everyday challenges, so you don’t turn to drugs for relief.
  • Family therapy — Your addiction has hurt those who love you the most. Through family therapy, you can heal your broken bonds while also learning more effective communication skills. Family therapy also gives your loved one the opportunity to learn more about the science behind addiction. When they better understand what you are going through, they can be a better support for your recovery.
  1. Treating Any Co-Occurring Mental Health Challenges

Addiction and mental health disorders often go hand in hand. Almost one-third of all people suffering from a mental health illness are also facing substance abuse.

Whether you had a mental health disorder that you self-medicated with drugs or your drug use led to a mental health disorder doesn’t matter. For long-term recovery, you need to treat your mental health disorder, too.

mental illness and substance abuse

Detox: Your First Step

The first step of painkiller addiction treatment is detox. You first need to remove the drugs from your system to identify any underlying challenges that need to be addressed, including pain and co-occurring mental health disorders.

Many women fear detox the most. They may have tried quitting in the past, only to experience uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms, such as vomiting, excessive sweating and bone pain. With professional treatment, however, you can detox in a comfortable setting. There are steps your treatment provider can take to ease your symptoms as well. One includes giving you buprenorphine, which is FDA-approved for use in detox. It can decrease the length of your detox drastically, from two weeks to one to two days.

Your treatment providers can offer support to lessen your withdrawal symptoms. You’ll get the care you need to go through the detox phase and come out healthier on the other side.

Preventing Relapse

Relapse is a common misstep on the journey to lasting recovery. Within the first year post treatment, 47 percent of recovering addicts relapse. Of those 47 percent, 61 percent will relapse a second time. For the first five years after treatment, 97 percent of painkiller abusers will relapse at least one time.

female relapse rate

While the statistics are alarming, they don’t have to be discouraging. There are steps you can take to prevent a relapse:

  1. Learn the Signs of Relapse

While your triggers will be unique to your specific situation, there are signs a relapse is imminent, including:

  • Thinking fondly about your past when you were abusing painkillers
  • Reconnecting with old friends who used with you
  • Withdrawing from friends and family
  • Having the belief that you can use painkillers again without falling back into addiction
  • Losing interest in once-loved hobbies
  • Becoming defensive regarding painkillers and their effects on you
  • Sudden feelings of depression, anxiety or other uncomfortable emotions
  • No longer believing your treatment plan makes sense for you
  1. Act on the Signs of a Potential Relapse

If you recognize these signs, you need to take action to ensure your continued recovery. While recovery is achievable, you need to do the work to maintain it, such as:

  • Reaching out to your support network — If you feel your recovery is on shaky ground, reach out to your loved ones, sponsor and therapists. Letting them know you’re struggling will enable them to provide the additional support you need to navigate this bump in your recovery journey. Schedule more time with your loved ones who bolster your recovery.
  • Taking better care of yourself — H.A.L.T stands for hungry, angry, lonely and tired. Any of these feelings is a trigger. When you experience them, it’s time to stop what you’re doing and take care of your needs. This can be especially difficult for women who are traditionally caregivers. Keep in mind, however, that you can only care for others when you are healthy and strong.
  • Adjusting your treatment plan — A potential relapse is a good indicator you need to adjust your treatment plan. This may mean incorporating new therapies or increasing the frequency of your sessions.
  • Focusing on the positives of healthy living — When you start romanticizing about the past, you need to shift your focus on what you have now. Jot down a list of all the positives that have come from your recovery.

What to Do If You Relapse

If you do relapse, it’s not a sign treatment has not worked or you can’t ever recover from your painkiller addiction. Instead of letting relapse derail your recovery, you can use it to empower it. View a relapse as your chance to strengthen your resolve and adjust your treatment plan as needed to better support your recovery journey.

As soon as you relapse, contact your therapist, doctor or treatment facility. With professional addiction help, you can overcome painkillers.

Get Started Today on Your Journey to a Brighter Tomorrow

If you’re taking painkillers and fear you may be losing control, Voyage JourneyPure is here to provide the support you need. Learn more about prescription drug abuse treatment and how we can help.

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