Painkillers can lead to dependence and addiction

Being free of pain is an important part of healing and recovery. To help you heal, your doctor may prescribe pain-relieving medication to block pain signals to your brain. These medications are in a class of drugs called opioids. While this medication can help you feel better more quickly, it can also cause you to become dependent on, or even addicted to it. Talk to your doctor often about your pain and your medications.

Misuse and abuse of opioids is a national epidemic

Opioid is a term used to describe a variety of medications that work by interrupting pain signals to the brain and producing a pleasurable effect. You may recognize common names for this type of drug, including hydrocodone, oxycodone, fentanyl, morphine and codeine.

Medications such as these provide almost immediate relief from pain symptoms—but they are so powerful and effective, the brain often responds by wanting more. This can lead to “tolerance”—meaning you need more of the drug to produce the same effect because the dosage you originally received is no longer enough to make you feel better. In some people, it can even lead to the desire for stronger drugs that produce good-feeling effects even faster.

Recognizing signs of dependency on pain medication

At Main Line Health we are committed to helping you heal and minimizing your pain while also keeping you safe. Here are some important reminders for patients and families regarding opioid use.

You or your loved one may have become dependent on pain medication if:

  • You want or need an increased dosage (amount) to get the same feelings of relief you had when you first started taking it.
  • You are concerned about not having enough pain medication on hand before your next refill.
  • You are mixing your pain medication with alcohol, drugs or other medications in order to enhance the effects.

Keep in mind that withdrawal symptoms may start to occur before the next scheduled dose of medication. This feeling of discomfort may cause you to take the drug sooner and therefore run out of medication too quickly.

If you or your loved one has had problems with drugs or alcohol in the past, it is even more important to be aware of the potential for opioid dependency and addiction. Be on the lookout for patterns of addictive behavior, such as:

  • Hiding from others how much medication you’re taking
  • Thinking about ways of getting high with your medication
  • Denying the effects of the medication on you

If you are a person with an addictive disease, you may also find yourself thinking about or pursuing illegal drugs for heightened effect.

Chronic opioid use and risk of overdose

Anyone can become dependent on opioid medication. If you have become dependent, you may need a higher dosage to relieve your pain or simply to feel good. Taking a larger amount of opioid pain medication, however, can cause an overdose. You could get very sick and you could die from taking too much at once.

Please—talk to your doctor. Be honest about your feelings of dependency or addictive behaviors. We are here to help you, not judge you. There may be other less-addictive medications available to relieve your pain. In some cases, you may benefit from short-term use of opioids and then transition to another type of medication as your body begins to heal.

From dependence on painkillers to addiction to heroin

Some people who use prescription pain medication may start looking for cheaper alternatives and a faster way to feel good. Heroin is an illegal opioid that produces immediate euphoric (feel-good) effects—but is highly addictive and dangerous. It is often mixed with other unknown ingredients that can make it even more deadly.

Also referred to by street names such as China White, H, Smack, Brown Sugar, Mexican mud and many others, heroin can be snorted, smoked or injected. People who are addicted to the drug may:

  • Show sudden changes in behavior
  • Lose weight quickly
  • Have constricted, pinpoint pupils
  • Have marks on their skin (e.g., inner elbow, between toes, legs)
  • Use laxatives excessively (heroin use causes constipation)

A person on heroin may also “nod out” (be overly drowsy) or may be hyperactive. You may also notice missing spoons (used to “cook” heroin) and use of cotton balls (used to strain the drug).

It is common for people who have become addicted to drugs to lie about their addiction and to be manipulative with friends and loved ones. This may include asking for money and stealing. People with the disease of addiction may also manipulate health care professionals, convincing doctors of their pain, for example, in order to get more medication or a higher dosage.

Reversing overdose with naloxone—free at your local pharmacy

Naloxone is a medication that can reverse an opioid overdose (pain medication or heroin) and has been used safely by medical professionals for more than 40 years. It immediately blocks the effects of opioids on the brain and respiratory system, restoring breathing within two to eight minutes and therefore preventing death.

If you or a loved one is concerned about the possibility of overdose, ask a local pharmacist how to get naloxone free of charge.

Help and hope for people with addictive disease
Throughout Main Line Health, we provide education and resources to help people who are dealing with drug and alcohol dependency.

If you or a loved one is in crisis right now
Call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. All Main Line Health hospitals are equipped and staffed to care for you and your loved one. We have a team of crisis workers who can identify services and programs to assist you.

If you or a loved one needs an appointment
For an appointment for you or your loved one, please call our contact center at 1.866.CALL.MLH (225.5654). We have a team that can work with you to find providers in your area of need and close to home.

If you or a loved one needs 24-hour phone support
Call the PA GET HELP NOW line at 1.800.662.HELP (4357) 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can also call the crisis intervention number for your county:

Chester County: 1.877.918.2100
Delaware County: 1.855.889.7827
Montgomery County: 1.610.279.6100

If you or your loved one needs behavioral health services
We offer a comprehensive approach to care including:

Or simply talk with your doctor about your concerns. Your doctor may then recommend an appropriate resource or new treatment option for you.

Call us at 1.866.CALL.MLH (225.5654) for guidance.