Oxycodone is a common prescription drug that’s used in the vital arena of pain management. People that experience moderate to severe pain symptoms may need opioids like oxycodone to help them recover or to improve their quality of life. But the use of opioids inside and outside of medicine comes at a price. Opioids can cause some side effects, including dependence and addiction. Opioid addiction can take over your life, and it increases your chance of a life-threatening overdose. But what is oxycodone addiction like, and what can you do if you’ve developed an opioid use disorder?
Oxycodone is an opioid medication that’s used in the popular prescription Oxycontin and Percocet. Like other opioids, the drug is used to treat pain symptoms and discomfort caused by injuries, wounds, and other medical issues. Oxycodone is often used after surgeries, broken bones, and anything else that may cause moderate to severe pain symptoms. Opioids can help to alleviate pain in a way that facilitates relaxation and recovery. Oxycodone can be used in hospital settings, but it may also be prescribed for pain management at home. Unfortunately, oxycodone can cause chemical dependency and addiction, especially when the drug is misused.
Oxycodone causes pain relief, sedation, and relaxation. However, it comes with several side effects, including nausea, vomiting, dizziness, constipation, itchiness, dry mouth, and sleepiness. In most people, these effects can be mild when the drug is used as directed. However, long-term use can cause you to become tolerant or dependent on the drug. Dependence causes uncomfortable flu-like withdrawal symptoms when you cut back or try to quit. It can also produce powerful drug cravings. Dependence can happen with long-term use of oxycodone, which may be done to relieve chronic pain symptoms. Dependence and addiction are much more likely when the drug is misused recreationally.
Opioids have been at the center of the rise in addiction and overdose rates for the past several years. The opioid epidemic is related to the rise in the availability of illicit opioids like heroin in the United States. But it’s also linked to the high availability and misuse of prescription drugs like oxycodone. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), almost 50,000 people died in an opioid-involved overdose in 2019. Around 21 to 29% of people that are prescribed opioids misuse them. Misuse could involve taking more than the recommended dose, taking doses more often than prescribed, or taking prescriptions with other opioids or depressants.
Around 8 to 12% of the people that misuse opioids develop a substance use disorder. Around four to six percent of people that misuse opioids eventually transition to the use of illicit heroin. Addiction to prescriptions like oxycodone can be expensive and difficult to manage. It often involves doctor shopping in order to avoid letting doctors know they’re missing the drug or finding new doctors when one cuts them off. Prescriptions can be expensive, especially if you take more than the average prescription. However, heroin is cheaper and easier to get than prescription opioids in many areas. According to NIDA, around 80% of people that use heroin started with prescription opioids.
Addiction is a severe form of substance use disorder that’s characterized by compulsive drug use, despite harmful consequences in your life. Addictions can cause drug cravings that get out of control. In many people, they don’t realize they have a problem until their addiction has already damaged their life in significant ways. However, the drug use compulsions that come with an addiction may be so powerful that even a person that knows they have a problem can feel powerless to stop it.
Oxycodone is able to cause an opioid use disorder, which can grow into an addiction. Oxycodone works like other opioids, binding to opioid receptors in the brain. These receptors are designed to work with your body’s endorphins, which are your main pain-management neurotransmitter. However, prescription opioids like oxycodone can produce more powerful effects than your natural endorphins, blocking even severe pain. However, it can also create a powerful sense of euphoria, feelings of well-being, and a sense of warmth.
This euphoria might have something to do with the way oxycodone affects chemicals in the brain like dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that’s tied to reward and positive emotions. It’s helpful in motivating you to repeat tasks that cause a dopamine release, like eating your favorite meal. The reward system of your brain is responsible for this, working with dopamine and other chemicals to encourage you to do healthy things. However, the reward center of the brain can be tricked by oxycodone and other chemicals that manipulate dopamine.
Because opioids can cause a powerful feeling of reward, they can hijack your reward system to compel you to repeat drug use. This happens in a similar way to when you’re compelled to drink when you’re thirsty or eat when you’re hungry. Compulsions to use oxycodone over and over can be so powerful that you develop an addiction.
Oxycodone addiction often involves recreational use, which can come with some physical, psychological, and behavioral signs and symptoms. Misusing oxycodone can lead to sedation, hypnosis, euphoria, sweating, itchy skin, fatigue, and sleep issues. If you take oxycodone in a very high dose, you may experience slowed breathing, a lower heart rate, and lowered blood pressure. Someone with an oxycodone addiction may show these symptoms more often as they develop a pattern of misuse. Substance use disorders may come with their own unique set of signs and symptoms, including:
The DSM-5 has a set of 11 criteria for diagnosing an addiction that includes some of the signs and symptoms above. The severity of your substance use disorders will depend on the number of these symptoms that apply to you. Two of three suggests a mild disorder, four or five is a moderate disorder, and six or more is a severe disorder.
Each day addicted to an opioid, such as oxycodone, is potentially dangerous, especially if it causes you to progress to illicit drug use. Illicit drugs are unpredictable in their strength and contents. Heroin may be contaminated with other substances, but even pills from illicit sources can be dangerous. Dealers are able to press opioid substances into pills that are almost identical to the genuine prescriptions that come from pharmaceutical companies. These pressed pills can have an unpredictable dose of active ingredients.
However, they can also include powerful additives like fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that’s much stronger than oxycodone. Fentanyl is about 10 times more potent than morphine, and a 2-milligram dose is enough to cause a deadly overdose in the average adult. Dealers that put fentanyl in pressed pills may not be able to accurately judge a safe dose since the drug is potent in such small amounts. This can lead to deadly overdoses in people that use illicit opioids. The longer you remain in active addiction, the higher your likelihood of encountering a dangerous drug overdose.
Opioids like oxycodone can lead to other long-term side effects. Opioids can slow down some functioning in your intestines, causing constipation. These effects are usually mild, and they can be managed with other medications when you take the drug with a doctor’s supervision. However, misusing opioids for a long time might lead to more digestive problems because of chronic constipation.
Oxycodone addiction may indirectly cause other long-term issues if it leads to illicit heroin use. Heroin is commonly taken intravenously, which delivers a quick, potent high. Intravenous drug use is associated with a higher risk of contracting infectious diseases like HIV and hepatitis. Injected drugs can also cause scarring, collapsed veins, and blood clots.
Oxycodone addiction can be treated with several different approaches. The first step you should take is to speak to a professional. An addiction treatment program or your own family doctor can connect you to someone that can help assess your current needs. If you have serious medical needs, you might need a high level of care in addiction treatment. Opioids aren’t associated with deadly withdrawal symptoms, but they can be unpleasant, creating a significant barrier to sobriety. A medical detox program may be able to help mitigate withdrawal symptoms and help you achieve sobriety.
Medical detox may be vital to your recovery, but it’s usually not enough to secure lasting sobriety. However, addiction treatment is a complex process that’s personalized to your needs. You may go through inpatient and outpatient treatment settings, with a variety of therapeutic options based on your needs. If you’ve relapsed several times, you may need medication-assisted treatment, which involves the use of an opioid medication that can help you avoid withdrawal symptoms while you go through treatment.
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National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020, July 08). Prescription opioid use is a risk factor for heroin use. from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/prescription-opioids-heroin/prescription-opioid-use-risk-factor-heroin-use
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2021, March 11). Opioid overdose crisis. from https://www.drugabuse.gov/drug-topics/opioids/opioid-overdose-crisis
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