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Opioid Addiction vs. Abuse continued...

"People with pain sometimes take pain medicine inappropriately to feel a little high or improve their mood," says Karen Miotto, MD, an addiction psychiatrist at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute. "They might take one after a fight with a spouse or a hard day at work." Some people with chronic pain also have issues like anxiety and depression. They might start leaning on their pain medication to help them with these conditions too.

While we tend to focus on addiction, misuse and abuse can also be dangerous. Opioids are powerful drugs with real risks.

"In the last three to five years, we've seen a significant increase in the number of unintentional overdose deaths caused by prescription painkillers," Webster tells WebMD. "At least half of them are in people who have legitimate pain problems with legitimate prescriptions." Taking these drugs in ways your doctor didn't intend simply isn't safe.

"Our culture encourages the attitude that if one pill is good, two is better," Webster says. "With opioids, that can be lethal."

What Increases the Risk of Drug Addiction and Abuse?

The risks of drug addiction and abuse don't seem to be the same for everyone.

"It's not the pills alone that make an addiction," Miotto says. She points out that addiction develops from a number of physiological, psychological, genetic, and social factors. A personal history of substance abuse also seems to increase the risk.

Mixing drugs also increases the risk of problems. "If you're taking your pain medicine along with other prescription drugs, you ratchet up the risk of addiction enormously," says Miotto.

Webster says that pain itself is a risk factor: the greater the severity of the pain, the higher the risk of drug abuse and addiction. "After years of living with severe chronic pain, people will do anything to get rid of it," he tells WebMD.

The Effects of Addiction and Abuse

Miotto says that drug addiction may seem to start innocently. A person might just occasionally call in a prescription early, or take a spouse's medication as well as their own. "These behaviors can creep up on people slowly and then, all of a sudden, they have a physical dependency," says Miotto.

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