Understanding OxyContin Addiction

Updated February 5, 2018
woman with pills in her hand

Chronic abusers of Oxycontin can have a hard time quitting the habit and soon find themselves addicted to the drug. Addiction to the semi-synthetic opioid can disrupt a person's entire life. With the right treatment and long-term support, the Oxycontin addict can recover from her drug abuse and stay in long-term recovery.

Background on Oxycontin

The following details about Oxycontin will help you understand the addiction to the prescription medicine.

  • Oxycontin is an extended-release (ER) form of the opioid, oxycodone. This means its absorption into the blood from the gut is slower than the immediate release (IR) forms of oxycodone, such as Percocet and Roxicodone.
  • The ER pill is released slowly in the gut over the course of 12 hours, and this prolongs the effects of the drug, which is one of its favorable aspects to some Oxycontin misusers and addicts.
  • The drug has a moderate potency, slightly stronger than that of morphine, a natural opioid. It is intended for the monitored relief of moderate or severe chronic pain when other opioids are not effective or when a patient needs round-the-clock opioid dosing.

Initial Introduction to the Drug

Many Oxycontin addicts are initially introduced to the drug when their doctor prescribes it for pain relief. They find ways to get the medicine after their course of treatment although they no longer need it for pain. Other addicts first obtain the drug through illegal routes because they desire its pleasurable effects or to boost the effects of other drugs.

Understanding Oxycontin Abuse and Addiction

Patient suffering from stomach ache

Addiction to Oxycontin is not common for people who take the drug as prescribed by a doctor, according to a New England Journal of Medicine review. However, like other opioids, the drug is highly addictive when misused in unintended ways.

Many people start misusing the potent opioid because they are seduced by the sedative effects or the high or euphoria the drug gives them. It is the prolonged abuse of bigger and more frequent doses than normal that transitions and entraps the Oxycontin abuser into a state of addiction.

Why Oxycontin Is so Dangerous

The ER Oxycontin is more dangerous than the IR forms of oxycodone because of the following:

  • It contains a larger amount of oxycodone; thus, it can give a bigger initial "rush" when misused. This is one of the appeals to to many Oxycontin addicts.
  • When the opioid abuser chews the pill before swallowing, crushes and snorts it, or dissolves and injects it, the oxycodone is rapidly released and gives an immediate big "hit."
  • Abusing Oxycontin by snorting or by injection can be the most dangerous routes because the large quantity of drug gets into the blood and brain faster. These routes of abuse increase the great danger of accidental overdose, respiratory arrest, and death.

Users who are also abusing other substances, including alcohol and benzodiazepines such as clonazepam, are at the greatest risk of dying.

How the Brain Programs the Addiction

According to the National the National Institute on Drug Abuse:

  • Tractography image of the brain
    The addiction to Oxycontin occurs because opioids cause changes in nerve cells and chemical transmitters in certain areas of the brain. These effects start from the initial use of the drug.
  • With chronic abuse of the opioid, the neurotransmitter changes imprint the lure and memory of the substance on the pleasure and reward centers of the brain.
  • The imprinting establishes the addiction and soon the addict loses control over her behaviors, choices, decision-making, and her well-being.

These brain effects of Oxycontin can be long-lasting, and some are irreversible.

The Scope of Oxycontin Abuse

Oxycontin is one of the most abused prescription medicine in the United States, according to a National Institute on Drug Abuse list. A few facts about the scope of the misuse of Oxycontin and other opioids include:

  • Oxycontin is abused by all classes and races of women, men, and children. The problem is especially worrisome among high school students, according to the U. S. Department of Justice.
  • Data from the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) found more than 5 percent of people in the United States age 12 and over abused prescription opioids.
  • Statistics from a Federal Drug Administration review presentation shows in 2015, oxycodone medicines, including Oxycontin, made up about 25 percent of all opioid prescriptions in the United States, second to hydrocodone.
  • Even babies can be affected when and develop neonatal abstinence syndrome at birth when they are exposed in the womb to mothers' abuse of Oxycontin or other opioids.

A Picture of the Oxycontin Addict

stressed woman sitting on bed

It is important for family and friends to understand the extent to which addiction to Oxycontin affects their loved one. The following paints the picture of how entrapment by the opioid can affect someone who is addicted and interfere with her ability to function.

Effects on Physical and Mental Health

The effects on health reflect the impact of all opioids on the brain and on other organs of the body. You might notice any of the following disruptive symptoms in yourself or others:

  • A constant state of fatigue, drowsiness, confusion, or feeling "spaced out," which can impair judgement and decision-making and make it dangerous to drive a motor vehicle or use other heavy equipment
  • Moodiness and episodes of sadness, anger, anxiety or depression, fear or paranoia
  • Slowed breathing and heart palpitations or lower heart rate
  • Night sweats, shakiness, or agitation
  • Poor appetite, nausea and vomiting, and chronic constipation
  • Aches and pains in muscles and joints and increased sensitivity to pain
  • Impaired coordination and balance and difficulty walking
  • Poor sleep and concentration, lack of focus, and lapses in memory

Drug Cravings

One of the main hallmarks of the addiction is a constant, involuntary craving or hunger for the drug that binds the addict to the opioid.

Drug Tolerance

This means the user must take a higher and higher dose of Oxycontin to get the same desired results, which is one of the reasons she becomes addicted. Tolerance to the effects of the drug starts early, even before the addiction.

Physical Dependence

An important fallout for the Oxycontin addict is the constant threat of withdrawal symptoms if she doesn't get her next dose of the opioid on time. This effect also starts before the user becomes addicted. Without the drug, areas of the brain and body malfunction, causing symptoms such as muscle and bone pain, restlessness, and cold sweats.

Psychological Dependence

The opioid user can develop a psychological dependence on her drug where she fears she cannot function without it.

Drug-Seeking Behaviors

The drug craving and dependence on the opioid are factors that drive the Oxycontin addict to take risks to seek out the drug even by dishonest and illegal means.

Disrupted Life

The drug abuser's whole life can soon become centered around the support of her drug habit and addiction. This can lead to neglect of multiple aspects of her life, including herself, family, friends, job, or school.

After awhile the adverse consequences of Oxycontin abuse can override the original desired effects, but by then the addict is hooked. The drug craving, physical and psychological dependence, and the desire to stave off the unpleasant withdrawal symptoms are driving factors that keep the opioid addict from coming off her drug.

Routes to Oxycontin Abuse and Addiction

Based on information from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), chronic Oxycontin misusers might obtain and abuse the opioid by one or more of the following routes:

  • Misuse of legitimate doctor's prescriptions
  • Obtaining extra prescriptions from doctors and pharmacies by fraudulent tactics
  • Seeking out the opioid from friends, family, acquaintances
  • Buying Oxycontin diverted to the illegal street market mostly from physician prescriptions.

When the supply of Oxycontin runs out, the opioid addict might turn to the cheaper, illicit, and more dangerous opioid, heroin, to support her habit.

Treatment and Recovery

depressed teenage girl searching for help

As reviewed by Harvard Health, treatment of Oxycontin addiction is the same as that of other opioids such as Vicodin. Distressing withdrawal symptoms can make it difficult to complete the detox and recovery alone. An opioid addict might find recovery easier and more effective if she has the expertise and support of trained medical professionals.

Long-Term Management Helps Maintain Recovery

Consider Oxycontin addiction as a chronic illness that requires long-term management and support, similar to other chronic diagnoses such as heart disease. The lasting craving for the drug, the memory of the pleasurable effects, and the threat of relapse into drug use can be present even years after coming off Oxycontin.

Doctors can also prescribe medicines such as methadone and buprenorphine. These drugs can help manage the craving and help the opioid addict maintain long-term sobriety.

Supportive Help

Empathy, compassion, and support from family members and friends can encourage an Oxycontin addict to seek treatment for her chronic problem. An effective treatment plan by addiction specialists and a good support system can help you or your loved ones remain in recovery. If you are having a problem with Oxycontin abuse, start by talking to your own doctor.

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Understanding OxyContin Addiction