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The Slippery Slope to Opioid Addiction Through Painkillers

The Slippery Slope to Opioid Addiction Through Painkillers

Between March 2020 and March 2021, there were nearly 97,000 overdose (OD) deaths in the United States, and nearly 68% of these deaths were due to opioids. To provide perspective, the number of deaths by OD during this time period was four times higher than deaths by homicide.

Now, combine these statistics with the following: 80% of people in the US who use heroin started by first misusing prescription opioids.

The picture the team here at Northshore Family Practice is trying to paint is that the road to an opioid use disorder through painkillers is an incredibly slippery and dangerous one. To provide you with a clearer picture, we’re going to take a closer look at how easily painkillers can lead to full-blown opioid addiction.

How opioids interact with your brain

We’re going to leave the eye-opening statistics for a moment and talk about science. The reason why prescription painkillers do their job so well is that they attach themselves to opioid receptors in your brain to block pain signaling.

At the same time, opioids also trigger the release of neurotransmitters like endorphins, which not only suppress pain, but provide you with a feeling of well-being. When this temporary state of euphoria wears off, however, your brain’s reward centers kick into gear and demand more of the drug.

Over time, your natural release of endorphins is stifled in favor of the effect the opioids produce, leaving you unable to achieve any sense of well-being without the aid of opioids. As well, your tolerance begins to build, which means you need more opioids to achieve the same euphoric effect.

At this point, an opioid use disorder can develop (or is already in effect), entrapping you in a prison in which you increasingly rely on the drugs to get through the day.

The dangers of misusing painkillers

Painkillers, when taken correctly, can do their job very well in providing you with pain relief. Unfortunately, the neural processes that we describe above lead can lead very quickly to misuse. 

For example, you’re supposed to take a painkiller every eight hours, but at about hour six or seven, your brain demands more, and you bump up your time by an hour or two, thinking it’s no big deal. All too soon, this window shrinks, and you’re taking two or three times the amount you’ve been prescribed.

To put some more numbers to this problem, 52 million Americans over the age of 12 have deliberately misused prescription drugs at least once in their lifetime. Drilling down further, 21-29% of patients who are prescribed painkillers to manage chronic pain misuse them and 8-12% go onto develop an opioid use disorder.

The primary takeaway from these numbers is that misusing prescription painkillers is the primary gateway to opioid addiction.

If this scenario sounds familiar and you’re concerned about your use or that of a loved one’s, getting help immediately can save you from a lifetime of misery. At our practice, we understand how opioid use disorders can so easily develop, and we offer the tools and services you need to break free. To get started, contact our office in Bothell, Washington, for a confidential consultation.

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