Nowadays, we have painkillers as an effective treatment for many different types of pain. But if you take them for too long, most of them carry a risk of serious addiction. We all are familiar with the condition of heroin addicts, typically sad homeless people who live just for their next ‘fix’. But most of us don’t realize that painkillers we use can cause addiction too.
Osteoarthritis, headache, backache, stomach ache – your body is good at telling you when you are in pain. Further, it’s our nervous system which is responsible. A brain is connected to every part of your body through a complex network of nerves. As, below your neck, all these messages travel through the spinal cord.
‘Motor’ nerves are responsible for carrying messages from your brain. Thus, telling each muscle to move. While sensory nerves are responsible for carrying messages back from skin, limbs and body organs. It tells your brain about heat, touch, and pain.
Most of our body parts have pain sensors at the end of ‘sensory nerves’. Without them, you wouldn’t move even your hand away (quickly!) from a burning flame.
Numb the pain
The purpose of most painkillers is to diminish the sensation which your brain gets from nerve signals or to reduce inflammation. Complex chemical pathways result in chemicals being released if there’s damage or inflammation in any one of your body parts.
Pain signals from joints and muscles, as well as cancer pain, typically respond well to any painkiller similar to stronger opioid painkillers like codeine or tramadol.
But there are some painkillers which can be highly addictive. We know about heroin addiction. Actually, diamorphine which is the medical term for heroin. It has been the standard treatment for the pain of heart attack for periods. In addition, heroin is part of the opioid family.
In case of addictive medication, you need that more and more as time goes on to have the same effect. Moreover, you crave it if you don’t have it. Withdrawal symptoms of painkiller comprise dizziness and sweating, anxiety and breathlessness, but also severe pain.
Furthermore, some painkillers may make you more sensitive to pain. If you are taking a painkiller and get pain, your instinct is to take more painkillers. This can end up feeding the addiction.
It’s believed that as many as one in 3 people with chronic headaches are in fact suffering from ‘medication overuse headaches’. This is also named as medication-induced headaches.
This happens because your body adjusts to the painkillers. Then you get withdrawal symptoms when levels in your blood drop. That causes a ‘rebound’ headache, and the apparent response is to reach for further painkillers. It’s an issue for people with migraine, who seem to be more susceptible to medication-overuse headaches.
Even ‘simple’ painkillers such as paracetamol can become addictive if you take them at least 3 times a week for three months at a time.
But, codeine-containing tablets are much worse as they can cause these headaches if taken twice a week for three months or more. Moreover, it takes much longer to get over the headaches and pain which come with stopping them.
Other painkiller risks
Anti-inflammatory drugs can cause stomach inflammation and may damage your kidneys or heart if taken for too long. So, people are being switched away from anti-inflammatories to opioids or nerve-damping tablets such as gabapentin and pregabalin. Furthermore, your risk of these conditions increases with obesity and age, and the UK population is living longer than ever.
Surprisingly, the number of prescriptions for opioids issued in the UK has doubled in a decade, from 12 million to 24 million a year. And it’s believed that around 192,000 people could be addicted to them.
Don’t stop taking painkiller immediately if you are taking them for a lasting condition. But do ask yourself some questions if you are on regular doses of strong painkillers.