Prescription Painkiller Addiction: 7 Myths
Experts Debunk Myths About Prescription Pain Medication Addiction
Prescription pain medicine addiction grabs headlines when it sends
celebrities spinning out of control. It also plagues many people out of the
spotlight who grapple with painkiller addiction behind closed doors.
But although widespread, addiction to prescription painkillers is also
widely misunderstood -- and those misunderstandings can be dangerous and
frightening for patients dealing with pain.
Where is the line between appropriate use and addiction to prescription pain
medicines? And how can patients stay on the right side of that line, without
For answers, WebMD spoke with two pain medicine doctors, an expert from the
National Institute on Drug Abuse, and a psychiatrist who treats addictions.
Here are seven myths they identified about addiction to prescription pain
1. Myth: If I need higher doses or have withdrawal symptoms when I quit, I'm addicted.
Reality: That might sound like addiction to you, but it's not how doctors
and addiction specialists define addiction.
"Everybody can become tolerant and dependent to a medication, and that does
not mean that they are addicted," says Christopher Gharibo, MD, director of
pain medicine at the NYU Langone Medical School and NYU Hospital for Joint
Tolerance and dependence don't just happen with prescription pain drugs,
notes Scott Fishman, MD, professor of anesthesiology and chief of the division
of pain medicine at the University of California, Davis School of Medicine.
"They occur in drugs that aren't addictive at all, and they occur in drugs
that are addictive. So it's independent of addiction," says Fishman, who is the
president and chairman of the American Pain Foundation and a past president of
the American Academy of Pain Medication.
Many people mistakenly use the term "addiction" to refer to physical
dependence. That includes doctors. "Probably not a week goes by that I don't
hear from a doctor who wants me to see their patient because they think they're
addicted, but really they're just physically dependent," Fishman says.
Fishman defines addiction as a "chronic disease ... that's typically defined
by causing the compulsive use of a drug that produces harm or dysfunction, and
the continued use despite that dysfunction."
For instance, someone who's addicted might have symptoms such as "having
drugs interfere with your ability to function in your role [or] spending most
of your time trying to procure a drug and take the drug," says Susan Weiss,
PhD, chief of the science policy branch at the National Institute on Drug
"Physical dependence, which can include tolerance and withdrawal, is
different," says Weiss. "It's a part of addiction but it can happen without
someone being addicted."
She adds that if people have withdrawal symptoms when they stop taking their
painkiller, "it means that they need to be under a doctor's care to stop taking
the drugs, but not necessarily that they're addicted."