Often, people who suffer from chronic pain and addiction may experience judgment regarding their condition or medication prescriptions. I’ve had some clients tell me they hate going to the Emergency Department because, most of the time, the staff assumes they are drug-seekers, rather than patients in pain. Other clients mentioned they’ve lost friendships just because they are taking OxyContin, a type of opioid.

There is now a stigma when it comes to pain medication. But why? With the opioid crisis in full swing, we have all read horror stories about overdoses and death. Addiction has a negative connotation because when people are addicted to substances, they may be more likely to engage in hurtful and destructive behaviors —stealing, for example. But how does someone who is prescribed pain medication become “addicted?” Do they wake up one morning and realize they are addicted to their drugs? Or is it more insidious than that? And, if someone becomes “addicted,” what can they do about it?

Chronic Pain and Addiction: Becoming Addicted to Medications

chronic pain and addiction

Prescription Drug Abuse

This is a tough question because addiction does not discriminate and is not one-sided. Some medical providers over prescribe while people become addicted to medications after surgery. So, how do the mind and body become “addicted?” Here is an example: imagine your daily routine. You wake-up in the morning, brush your teeth, and the first thing you do is go to the kitchen for a cup of coffee. This is behavioral. It is a habit. You need a cup of coffee to get through the day (or at least you think you do). This is how anyone can become psychologically addicted to medications. It becomes a habit to take it, and we develop a belief system that we can’t function without it.

Then, there is the physical component. Unfortunately, the body can develop a tolerance for specific medications (Volkow & Koroshetz, 2017). When this occurs, the dose of medication no longer addresses the pain, and more is required to feel the same effect. Therefore, some patients take more medicine than prescribed.

How Do I Know if I’m Addicted to Medications?

There are several “red flags” that generally occur when people cannot stop taking their medications. They may need to take more than prescribed (and then run out at the end of the month). I’ve observed people “doctor shop” or go to the emergency department to have additional medications available. Or, one is spending a great deal of time thinking about their medicines (having enough, taking them, dosing schedule, etc.). Other signs may include changes in memory, increased irritability, anger, or worry, or increased conflicts with loved ones.

What to Do if I Believe I’m Addicted to Medications?

Weekly Pill Box

Weekly Pill Box

If you have minor concerns or have noticed that you are not taking your medications as prescribed, there are a couple of options:

  1. You can purchase a locking & alarm pillbox that will only distribute the medication at a particular time.
  2. Ask a partner or loved one to dispense the medications (assuming they are trustworthy).

If you have a significant concern that you may be addicted to your medications, first, speak with your doctor. A doctor may be able to work with you on a treatment plan. Otherwise, I know some people who have elected to go into an intensive inpatient or outpatient treatment center to detox from the medications. Also, Suboxone is a medication that can treat pain and as well as addiction to narcotic medications.

Final Thoughts

Chronic pain, along with addiction, is one of the worst conditions. It can be challenging to diagnose and treat. With so many complications and complexities, it is no wonder that those who suffer from chronic pain are at risk of developing an addiction. If you or anyone you know is in this position, please consider seeking a mental health professional who can provide evidence-based treatments (e.g., someone who is a National Certified Addiction Counselor (NCAC)).