OxyContin is a long-release oxycodone-based opioid painkiller that is prescribed to help people with moderate to severe chronic pain. This prescription narcotic is designed to stay in the body for at least 12 hours, giving people with painful chronic illnesses relief from their symptoms.
When used as directed by a medical professional, OxyContin is considered to be safe. However, even at regular doses, this powerful painkiller can be addictive, because it is an opioid. Other opioids include morphine and heroin, which can both lead to addiction, abuse, and dependence.
Due to its high risk of abuse and addiction, OxyContin and other opioid painkillers are listed by the Drug Enforcement Administration as Schedule II substances.
Intended Use and Potential for Abuse
OxyContin was approved for prescription use by the US Food and Drug Administration in 1995. It was designed specifically for patients who need around-the-clock pain relief. This painkiller has a large dose of oxycodone in it, but other ingredients allow the narcotic to release slowly, in a controlled way, into the patient’s bloodstream. That way, the individual receives relief for several hours. OxyContin is not prescribed for temporary pain, such as after surgery; instead, this medication is prescribed to individuals with chronic illnesses like arthritis, cancer, or an ongoing injury.
However, like many other prescription painkillers, OxyContin is a target for abuse and addiction. In part, this is because OxyContin is widely available via prescription. The drug also has a high dose of opioid medication, and opioid drugs are known to induce euphoria or a “high,” in many individuals, whether it is used medically or recreationally. People who abuse OxyContin for recreational reasons typically tamper with the pill in some way, by chewing the pills or crushing them to then snort the powder. In some instances, people mix the powder with liquid and then inject the solution. By bypassing the time-release aspect, individuals can get a rush of oxycodone all at once.
- Inability to feel pain
- Respiratory depression, or slowed breathing
- Constricted pupils
- Appearing drunk without alcohol
- Tremors or twitching
- Nausea or vomiting
- Flu-like symptoms
- Watery or sunken eyes
- Weight loss or appetite loss
Who Is at Risk for Addiction to OxyContin?
According to the CDC, OxyContin is one of the leading prescription painkillers that are subject to addiction and abuse. Nearly anyone, regardless of gender, age, or ethnicity, can become addicted to OxyContin. In 2014, according to a study conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 4.3 million people ages 12 and older reported nonmedical use of prescription painkillers, including OxyContin. However, there are a few groups who are more susceptible to addiction than others.
People who struggle with addiction to other painkillers, such as Percocet, Vicodin, or morphine, are more likely to abuse OxyContin. Because of the high cost of this medication, and its value on the black market due to the large dose of oxycodone it contains, OxyContin is particularly susceptible to diversion, or illegal resale of prescription drugs for illicit use. When a person becomes addicted to any kind of opioid painkiller, they may seek out illegal sources of OxyContin.
People who have struggled with other kinds of substance abuse, such as abuse of cocaine or alcohol, are at a higher risk of polydrug abuse involving OxyContin than people who have not suffered an addiction or abuse problem in the past.
In a study published on PubMed involving 27,816 patients entering addiction treatment for prescription OxyContin abuse, 78 percent reported prior treatment for a substance use disorder.
OxyContin overdose deaths rose sharply between 1999 and 2014, with the largest age group affected being people between 25 and 54 years old. Women might be more likely to develop an addiction to opioid painkillers than men. In studies, women are more likely to report chronic pain to their doctors, which means they receive more narcotic prescriptions than men.
Young people, including high school students, are likely to abuse OxyContin for recreational reasons. According to the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future Survey in 2003, 4 percent of high school seniors had abused this narcotic at least once in the past year. In addition, young adults are even more likely to abuse OxyContin than teenagers.
Symptoms of OxyContin Addiction
Signs of addiction often include physical effects or side effects of the drug; however, there are psychological and behavioral symptoms of drug addiction as well. Some signs of OxyContin addiction include:
- Altering prescriptions in any way in an effort to get more of the drug
- Impersonating a doctor in order to forge a prescription
- Stealing money to buy OxyContin or stealing the drug from other people
- Spending cash or excessive amounts of money on narcotic medications
- “Losing” prescriptions in an effort to get new ones
- Doctor-shopping to get multiple prescriptions
- Loss of interest in regular activities, like work, school, and social engagements
- Loss of motivation
Side Effects of Abuse
There are many side effects from abusing OxyContin. Although the side effects might be mild at first, such as drowsiness and sluggishness, there are very serious side effects that can occur with continued abuse, including:
- Confusion or delirium
- Falling due to a loss of motor coordination
Overdose is common when opiate painkillers are abused. Overdose is more common when OxyContin is combined with other substances of abuse, such as alcohol. It is also more likely when OxyContin is snorted or injected. OxyContin overdose symptoms include:
- Cold skin
- Excessive sweating
- Blue-tinted skin
- Extreme drowsiness or an inability to wake up
- Muscle weakness
- Enlarged pupils
- Very depressed breathing, short and shallow breaths, slow breathing, or stopped breathing
- Slow heart rate
There is also a serious risk for people who become addicted to opioid painkillers to cross over to heroin abuse. As lawmakers and medical professionals work harder to make prescription opioids less easily obtainable, people who have become addicted to strong medications like OxyContin might turn, instead, to illicit street drugs like heroin. Heroin is chemically related to opioid painkillers, as they are both derived from the opium poppy, so this drug will induce a similar high. It is also less expensive and often easier to obtain than OxyContin on the street.
When a person has become addicted to or dependent on opioids like OxyContin, and they stop taking this drug, their body will go into withdrawal. All opiate withdrawal involves uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms that are often difficult to endure, though they are not life-threatening.
Initial OxyContin withdrawal symptoms may include:
- Body aches
- Tearing eyes
- Dripping nose
- Excessive yawning
- Excessive sweating
Later withdrawal symptoms may include:
- Abdominal cramping
- An overall feeling like one has the flu
- Increased heart rate
Generally, detox from OxyContin takes 5-7 days, though it may take up to 10 days in some instances. Certain symptoms of withdrawal, such as cravings, may persist for months or even years after cessation of use. If replacement medications, like methadone or buprenorphine, are used as part of the medical detox process, the overall withdrawal process will take months or years as the person is slowly tapered off the replacement medication.
Comprehensive Addiction Treatment
While medications may make up part of the treatment protocol for opiate addiction treatment, therapy is the backbone of all treatment programs. Pharmacological assistance can be used in a variety of ways – as replacement medications, to treat specific symptoms of withdrawal (e.g., nausea, insomnia, etc.), or to address any co-occurring mental health issues, like depression or anxiety. However, medication will not “cure” an addiction. There is, in fact, no cure for addiction as it is a chronic, relapsing disease.
As a result, therapy teaches clients how to manage addiction on a long-term basis to prevent relapse. Most addiction treatment programs employ a variety of treatment approaches, allowing them to cater care for each individual client. Most programs involve individual, group, and family therapy, when appropriate, in addition to alternative therapies, such as acupuncture, meditation, and other holistic treatments.
Treatment will address factors in the person’s life that have contributed to substance abuse and help the person to find new ways to cope with these triggers to use.
A solid aftercare plan will be established before the person exits formal treatment. Many addiction treatment programs offer alumni programs to allow former clients to stay connected to their care.
The key is that care is comprehensive. It doesn’t just address the addiction; it treats the person as a whole individual. If there are any co-occurring mental health or personal issues, those will be addressed simultaneously. This inclusive approach ensures the best chance of sustained recovery for each client.