How and why do people become addicted to pain killers, especially when they aren’t in pain? Last week I came across a piece by a lady who’d suffered some injury and had been prescribed pain killers. She dutifully took these but she noticed an additional effect: the anxiety she’d suffered with for years began to feel better. This was the start of a journey with pain killers, not for pain relief, but for anxiety reduction.
People become addicted to pain killers for a whole variety of reasons and what’s worse is that many don’t even realize it. How can an over-the-counter packet of headache pills become addictive? Well, the short answer is that many such pills can become highly addictive if taken in sufficient quantities. Some of these tablets are strong and contain codeine. It’s codeine, a member of the opiate family of drugs that induces a feeling of calm and well-being. For anyone suffering with anxiety its appeal is understandable, if ultimately destructive.
Over-the-counter medication abuse is a big problem. Even basic painkillers can be problematic but the effect is speeded up in those who opt for the strongest available painkillers. People take such painkillers because they feel good as a result. It’s easy to see how people can make the association between something sold as a medication and feeling better as a result of taking it. These pills are recommended, advertised everywhere, sold by the million in any number of outlets. So how does it all go wrong?
The feeling of relaxation that comes from taking painkillers lasts for a period of time. At some point the person begins to feel they need to take just a little more in order just to feel normal. Gradually the dose goes up and up until the person is popping pain killers several times a day. Some people realize what they’re doing to themselves and try to stop. It isn’t easy. The effects of opiate withdrawal can cause both physical and psychological side effects. Extreme flu-like symptoms are common and involve headaches, shivers, muscular aches, cramps and joint aches. Long term use of painkillers can also cause damage to the stomach lining and liver.
All medication represents something of a balancing act between good and harm. Over-the-counter analgesics usually represent a safe way for most people to tackle discomfort. The danger comes when they are used for purposes for which they were never designed.
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.