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Back Pain Health Center

Back Pain: Medication and Addiction

There are risks involved with prescription drug addiction, specifically narcotic painkillers. In most cases, the benefits of these medications outweigh the risks.
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What Increases the Risk of Abuse? continued...

Miotto says she worries less about people who are simply taking too much of the painkiller than those who use the painkiller along with other drugs, such as sleeping pills or muscle relaxants. "It's the people who are mixing drugs that I find are often at highest risk of problematic use and side effects," she tells WebMD.

There's also a widely held belief that people who are in pain are less likely to experience euphoric effects from a drug. The idea is that the medication is targeted -- it "goes to the pain" only and doesn't cause other euphoric effects, meaning that people with real pain are less likely to become addicted than people who don't.

"That's lore, sad to say," Zacny says. "It may very well be true, but it hasn't been really established. There's just a lot we don't know."

The Effects of Addiction

For the relatively small number of people who do develop a prescription drug addiction, the effects can be devastating. Miotto says addiction often sneaks up on people.

"Often, you just start to call in prescriptions early, or take your spouse's medication, or take the medication when you're not really in pain, but when you're tired or depressed," says Miotto. "These behaviors can creep up on people slowly and then, all of a sudden, they have a physical dependency."

The problem is that the people who have a prescription drug addiction don't realize it. "Addiction is a disease of denial," Miotto says. It also pushes people to horrible extremes. Miotto knows one patient who eventually admitted that she pushed for surgery solely because she wanted the narcotic painkillers she knew she'd get afterward.

For many people, prescription drug addiction can cause a deep sense of shame that prevents them from getting help.

"Addiction is hard to talk about in normal terms," says Miotto. "People think of it as evil, as something that leads to lying and cheating and stealing. But we need to find a way of talking about addiction that isn't so shameful. We should treat it more like other chronic illnesses, like cancer or hypertension."

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