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How the Brain Becomes Addicted to Pain Medicine

It’s one of the most critical issues facing our nation: America’s opioid crisis is a drug epidemic of mass proportions. Of the more than 63,600 lives lost to drug overdoses in 2016, more than 42,000 (66% of the total) were traced back to opioids.

The most widely prescribed class of drugs worldwide, opioids are no longer solely associated with illicit drugs such as heroin. In fact, doctors in the United States prescribe them so freely, our country consumes a staggering 80% of the global supply. It’s an alarming statistic, given that these medications are prescribed for everything from back injuries to toothaches to broken bones.

Much is known about how tens of thousands of Americans rely on pain medication to the point of addiction, but rarely does the conversation lead to an understanding of how the brain becomes addicted to these harsh substances in the first place.

The first thing to understand about pain medicine addiction is that it has nothing to do with moral fiber, willpower or social status. Addiction is a disease just as diabetes or heart disease. While the pain is real, it’s the method of pain management – the drugs – that soon becomes the problem. And the more pain medication one takes, the more the body needs to sustain the level of relief, thereby creating the need for more and higher doses.


A deeper dive into the structure of the brain and its workings sheds light to how these pain medicine addictions become so powerful, so fast. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, drugs trigger our brain’s “reward circuit” – that is, the surge of “feel good” chemical messengers, dopamine and endorphins. When one takes an opioid or pain medication such as oxycodone or hydrocodone, these neurotransmitters signal a feeling of satisfaction, reward, and pleasure, prompting us to repeat said behavior. The risk of addiction and how swiftly one will become addicted depends on the type of drug – with opioids conjuring intense urges fairly soon.


An estimated one in four people who are prescribed painkillers struggles with an addiction. In addition to the strong effect these drugs have on our brain chemistry, they also induce relaxation, distancing a patient from both physical and emotional pain. As we become detached, we neglect the actual source of pain, until we have to continue masking it with the drug. It’s a vicious cycle that keeps countless people seeking more scripts and bottles.

Driving up the Dosage

The length of time one takes opioids plays a role in whether you are prone to addiction. New research has shown that taking them for more than a few days increases the risk of long-term use – and consequently, addiction. That’s because, as one continues to take opioids, the body slows its production of those “feel good” endorphins. The original dose that once delivered a fast high no longer does, and many patients are driven to up the dosage. Doctors may be apprehensive to refill prescriptions for these types of drugs today, given the side effects associated with them.


Genetics is another factor that mustn’t be overlooked as addictions are known to run in families. Additionally, emotional trauma, depression, and post-traumatic stressors can trigger patients to develop unhealthy coping mechanisms and a dependency on drugs. What seems like short-term pain relief can end up causing life-threatening consequences.

If you, or a loved one, feel like breaking the chains of addiction is impossible – it’s time to seek help from a professional. Dr. John Murphy, a Board Certified Addictionologist and the medical director of the Recovery Center for Addiction at Lynx Healthcare has 18 years of experience on the subject of addiction, and offers comprehensive care to patients suffering from substance abuse issues. For more information, call Lynx Healthcare in Tri-Cities, Walla Walla, Oregon, Yakima, or Goldendale Pain Clinics at (509) 591-0070, or in Spokane at (509) 321-4575.

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