We often read about how to tell if we’re addicted to prescription painkillers and what to do if we are addicted. But what about the early signs – signs that could indicate the need to take action before we become dependent?
Few people wake up one morning suddenly addicted to prescription opiates. The process is typically more gradual, which means there are numerous opportunities for early intervention. Here are the earliest signs that your use of pain medication is beginning to cross the line into addiction:
#1 You’re starting to use your pain medication to feel better, not just to ease pain.
Most people who use prescription opiates have pain as a result of an accident, surgery, illness or other condition, and then take their medicine to relieve that pain. Those who become addicted have pain, take the medicine and find that they not only have less pain but they also feel better in other ways.
Perhaps it helps you sleep, energizes you, makes you feel more confident, or relieves stress or anxiety. When you take the medication, you may find that it numbs emotional pain, allows you to escape from difficult thoughts or feelings, or gives you a sense of pleasure.
A shift occurs where you’re no longer taking the medication because you’re in physical pain but because of the positive effects on your mood or outlook. You’re now taking the drug to get high.
#2 You’re thinking about increasing your dose even though your doctor has not recommended it.
Those who use prescription painkillers long-term for legitimate purposes may need to increase their dose over time because they have built a tolerance to the drug. In most cases, physical dependence can be managed by a prescribing physician with appropriate identification and treatment, but for those who have predisposing factors, tolerance can be a sign of addiction.
The problem starts when you begin venturing outside the recommendations of your physician by using a higher dose than prescribed, using the medication more often than prescribed or using it conjunction with other drugs to amplify the effects. For some, increased usage is intentional, while others may take the medication when they feel they need it and are surprised to find that they continually run out of medication weeks before a refill is due.
#3 You’re starting to take the medication automatically, even though your pain has subsided.
If your pain has largely subsided or your doctor no longer recommends using pain medication and you continue to do so, you may be taking it habitually without recognizing that you are taking the drug for something other than pain.
You may be afraid of the pain coming back, but in actuality, long-term use of opiates can result in what is known as “backlash” pain. You will be better off switching to a non-addictive anti-inflammatory pain reliever such as ibuprofen once the pain is not severe enough to warrant opiate medications.
#4 You’re spending more and more time thinking about and getting medication.
How much time do you spend worrying about refills, keeping track of prescriptions, and traveling to new doctors’ offices or pharmacies? If you’d rather spend time getting and using medication than doing the things you typically enjoy, such as spending time with family or friends, your medication has become your number one priority. In addition to being hard on your loved ones, this imbalance may be a sign of prescription drug addiction.
#5 You’ve lost interest in non-drug pain management options.
Even if your doctor suggests non-drug alternatives, such as acupuncture, massage, yoga or physical therapy, you refuse, preferring instead to take more medication. Skipping doctor’s appointments unless you’re going to get a new prescription is another red flag.
Every year, more than 200 million prescriptions are written for opioid painkillers. Less than 20 percent of Americans will use their medication for non-medical purposes, according to the National Institutes of Health. By staying alert to the indicators of dependency and talking to your doctor at the first warning signs, you increase the chances that you will benefit from the pain relief offered by prescription opiates without falling prey to addiction.
David Sack, M.D., is board certified in Psychiatry, Addiction Psychiatry, and Addiction Medicine. As CEO of Elements Behavioral Health he oversees a network of addiction treatment centers that include Promises, The Ranch, The Recovery Place, and The Sexual Recovery Institute.
Pills photo available from Shutterstock.
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Pain Pills | Addiction Signs | Solutions Recovery (May 10, 2012)
Last reviewed: 10 May 2012