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Pain Medication: Are You Addicted?

What to know about becoming addicted to pain medications.

Risk of Uncontrolled Pain

Some people don't want to use pain medicines because they fear becoming addicted. That can lead to a different set of problems that stem from poorly controlled pain.

"If pain is inadequately treated, we see poor functional level, a diminished quality of life, we often see mood disorders such as depression, and we see an increased risk of suicide," Reisfield says.

These six steps can help ensure that you use pain-relieving drugs properly:

1. Weigh Your Risk Factors

Before he prescribes opioid drugs for chronic pain, Reisfield talks to patients about issues that could make them more likely to become addicted. These include:

  • A history of addiction to prescription medicine or illicit drugs.
  • Addiction to alcohol or tobacco.
  • Family history of addiction.
  • A history of mood disorders (such as depression or bipolar disorder), anxiety disorders (including PTSD), thought disorders (such as schizophrenia), and personality disorders (such as borderline personality disorder).

2. Look at Other Options

People with a higher risk of addiction may want to try other pain control strategies first, Reisfield says. These can include:

  • Physical therapy.
  • Working with a psychologist to learn how to change your pain-related thoughts and behaviors.
  • Alternative approaches such as acupuncture and tai chi.

Those methods aren't just for people who are at high risk for addiction. They're part of an overall pain management strategy that may include, but is not limited to, medications.

3. Use the Medication for Its Proper Purpose

"People need to be vigilant that the medication doesn't become a coping mechanism for other issues," says Karen Miotto, MD, an addiction psychiatrist at UCLA.

If your doctor writes you a prescription that makes your pain more tolerable, and you're using it as directed, that's OK. But if you're using it for some other reason that your doctor doesn't know about, that's a red flag. For example, if you hate your job and you're taking the drug because you find it takes the edge off, that's a sign that you could develop a problem, Miotto says.

4. Watch for Early Signs of Trouble

Here are four warning signs that you may be misusing your prescription painkiller:

  • You're not taking the drug as prescribed.
  • You're taking the medicine for reasons other than why the doctor prescribed it.
  • Your use of the drug has made you miss work or school, neglect your children, or suffer other harmful consequences.
  • You haven't been honest (with your doctor, loved ones, or yourself) about your use of the drug.

Your doctor should work with you to limit addiction risk. She may ask you about how you're doing, give you a urine test to check for medication, and ask you to bring in all your medications so she can check how many are left and where the prescriptions came from.

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