It’s so easy to become accidentally addicted to pain medication; it happens before anyone realizes it.
In 2006, my lower back pain had become so intense that it extended all the way down the back of both my thighs, through my calves and down to my heels. Since non-invasive therapy didn’t work in 2005, my only option was surgery.
The surgery was successful, but it took nearly two years to fully recover because it was so extensive. During the first nine months, my doctor prescribed an opioid-based pain killer to reduce my pain to a more tolerable level.
Then, he wouldn’t prescribe it any more.
I nearly panicked — I was very afraid that my pain would intensify. But, I decided to try to wean myself off of it.
I had enough pills left from my last refill that I cut them in half for about a week. Then, I cut the halves in half for another week. Finally, I cut the quarters in half for my final week.
During this process, I was quite surprised that not only did my pain not increase, but also that I did not have any withdrawal symptoms. I’m safe — or so I thought — as I took my last tiny pill.
A few days later, I finally began to experience withdrawal symptoms. Fortunately, they lasted for only four or five days, even though they were very uncomfortable at the time. And, despite my earlier denials, I had to admit that I had been addicted.
About two years ago, a friend had virtually the same surgery. But, because techniques had improved over the preceding eight years, hers was only minimally invasive compared to my four-inch incision. And, her recovery was shorter because fewer muscle tissues had to be cut.
But, she did experience the same chronic pain and was prescribed the same opioid-based pain medication that I was.
The difference was that, when it came time to quit, she panicked — and, in her mind, her pain increased, substantially. Then, because her doctor refused to renew her prescription, she began “doctor-shopping,” that is, going from doctor to doctor until she found one who would prescribe a stronger medication.
Sadly, shortly after that, she stopped calling, and we haven’t been able to get in touch with her. Why? We don’t know. It might have been because she was already depressed when she had her procedure; perhaps the depression and pain worked together to make her pain worse. Or, perhaps she began to need ever-stronger relief and turned to heroin because it’s now so cheap. We hope that’s not the case.
The point is — it is easy to get hooked — to become addicted — without even knowing it. In fact, nearly three fourths of all opioid addicts will move from the prescription drugs to heroin.
What should you be on the lookout for with your parent?
A person’s behavior, especially changes in behavior, can signal a possible problem. In the case of prescription medications, a family member or friend may notice, for example, that an older adult seems worried about whether a medication is “really working,” or complains that a doctor refuses to write a prescription. He or she may have new problems doing everyday tasks or withdraw from family, friends, and normal activities.
Other warning signs of a substance abuse problem or addiction, may include
- mood swings
- rapid increases in the amount of medication needed
- frequent requests for refills of certain medicines
- a person not seeming like themselves (showing a general lack of interest or being overly energetic)
- “doctor shopping” (moving from provider to provider in an effort to get several prescriptions for the same medication)
- use of more than one pharmacy
What’s Next? Treating Substance Abuse