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Painkillers: 7 Warning Signs of Addiction

By Kara Mayer Robinson
WebMD Feature

"Pain medication is ... not really meant to be a way to maintain or manage chronic pain.” -- Joe Schrank, MSW

Many people worry that taking narcotic painkillers will lead to addiction. If your doctor prescribed medication to treat your pain and you take it as directed, you shouldn't have a problem.

But some people do get addicted, and there are usually warning signs along the way, like these:

1. You think about your medication a lot.

One of the first signs of addiction is becoming preoccupied with two things: when you can take your next dose and whether your supply is enough, says Debra Jay, co-author of Love First: A Family’s Guide to Intervention.

Watching the clock so you can take your next dose may be a concern, notes Joe Schrank, MSW, co-founder of Rebound Brooklyn recovery center in New York.

“If it’s fresh dental work and you’re in pain, it makes sense," he says. But if it’s gone on for a while, it’s possible you’ve become dependent on the medication.

Dependency and addiction are not the same thing. You can be physically dependent on a drug but not addicted. 

Confused? Here's the difference. When you're physically dependent on a drug, your body has built up a tolerance to it, and you need higher doses of the medication to get the same effect.

When you're addicted to a drug, it's more than physical. You keep using the drug, even though it's causing you serious problems at work or school, in your family, or in your social life. 

2. You take different amounts than your doctor prescribed.

Maybe you take more than you should or take it more often than your doctor prescribed. If you think your doctor doesn’t understand your level of pain or that he meant you should take it whenever you need to, even if that’s not what he ordered, it may be a warning sign.

Do you stretch out the time between doses or shrink some doses you take so you can take more later? If you're trying to control how you take your painkillers instead of following your doctor's instructions, you may have a problem.

“Whenever we are trying to control things, it can be a really good indication of how out of control we are,” Schrank says.

3. You’re “doctor shopping.”

Do you go to more than one doctor for the same prescription?

Once you stop working with your doctor and try to find someone else who will write you another prescription, something may have shifted.

Your goal may be to boost your supply of painkillers so you have as much as you need. But if it’s not in line with what your doctor ordered, that's reason for concern.

Do you seek out doctors who are known for overprescribing, or “pill mills”? Have you lied and said you lost your prescription? “If we are telling different doctors different things to get medication, that’s a real red flag,” Schrank says.

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