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Self-medication of Chronic Pain Linked to Substance Use Disorders, Says Study

Self-medication Linked to Substance Use Disorders

Many in recovery cite the use of drugs and alcohol as a self-medication tool. Whether the ailment in question is emotional in nature or physical pain, many turn to easily accessible drugs and alcohol in an attempt to decrease the experience of pain. Unfortunately, when any illicit substance – including legal pain medications like OxyContin and Percocet – is used without a doctor’s supervision, the result can often be addiction, a disorder that comes with a slew of problems of its own.

According to a study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, self-medication for chronic pain is exceedingly common. A whopping 87 percent of participants who exhibited the criteria of a substance use disorder diagnosis reported experiencing chronic pain. Specifically, about 51 percent reported using drugs in an attempt to manage pain, and 81 percent of the people who reported painkillers as their drug of choice said that they misused the substance for the purposes of pain management.

Additionally, 38 percent of the people who struggled with heavy drinking said that they drank with the intent to manage pain, and 79 percent of the participants who were “high-risk drinkers” were also using alcohol to self-medicate pain.

Dr. Daniel Alford was lead author of the study. In a news release, he said: “While the association between chronic pain and drug addiction has been observed in prior studies, this study goes one step further to quantify how many of these patients are using these substances specifically to treat chronic pain. It also measures the prevalence of chronic pain in patients who screen positive for illegal drug use and prescription drug abuse.”


Why Do People Self-Medicate Pain?

Why are so many people choosing to take the risks that go along with illicit drug and alcohol use to manage pain when there are safer, medically supervised options? The reasons vary from person to person and may include:

  • Financial constraints: It can get expensive to attend physical therapy sessions, purchase painkillers, and make big lifestyle changes (like eating healthily in order to attain a healthy weight) to manage chronic pain. Many feel that they simply do not have the funds to do all the things that will help them to truly overcome ongoing pain and turn to cheaper, easier resources – like drugs and alcohol.
  • Inadequate treatment: Sometimes, physical therapy sessions, attempts to manage weight, and prescribed medication do not adequately manage pain. Even with best efforts and close attention to doctors’ orders, some feel the desperate need to escape chronic pain by any means necessary – even illicit drugs that are highly addictive.
  • Anonymity: For others, the issue is a desire to keep their medical issues a secret. Rather than go to the doctor and document ongoing medical issues, they prefer to attempt to manage the problem on their own.
  • Ease: In some cases, especially for those with busy schedules, it can be easier to attempt to self-medicate chronic pain rather than try to schedule physical therapy sessions and doctors’ visits.
  • Another issue: For others, chronic pain was not the original reason for using drugs and alcohol. In some cases, it is psychological stress or trauma that they are self-medicating, but many cite chronic pain as the issue because they believe it is a more legitimate cause.

Said Dr. Alford: “Pain should be treated as part of the long-term strategy for recovery. If drugs are being used to self-medicate pain, patients may be reluctant to decrease, stop, or remain abstinent if their pain symptoms are not adequately managed with other treatments including non-medication-based treatments.”


Holistic Management of Chronic Pain?

Many experts believe that there are viable solutions for chronic pain that do not involve the use of addictive drugs – or if they do, then only in the smallest doses. For most people, this means making use of a range of different holistic measures, treatments, and lifestyle changes, and working closely with a team of professionals who are trained in chronic pain management. From radiofrequency ablation to spinal cord stimulators to infusion therapy, there are many medical treatments that can effectively help to address the underlying issues causing the chronic pain rather than simply altering the person’s experience of ongoing pain through drug use.

Additionally, there are a number of other holistic treatments that can help to reduce stress, improve relaxation, and aid in better sleep and body functioning that can in turn have a positive effect on the ability to manage chronic pain or minimize that pain, depending on the cause. For example, if joint pain or lower back pain is an ongoing issue and you are significantly overweight, it will help to begin eating more healthfully and slowly get your weight down to a healthier level. Back pain lessens and pressure on joints is alleviated when you have less body mass; plus, you will sleep better as well.

Other holistic measures that may be able to offer you some respite from pain include:

  • Yoga practice
  • Meditation
  • Tai chi
  • Aromatherapy
  • Acupuncture
  • Massage and bodywork
  • Gentle exercise (e.g., walking or swimming)

Though these may not be enough – especially right away – to completely eliminate the experience of pain, they may serve to get you to a point where only the lowest dose of painkillers is necessary and for just a brief time, or where over-the-counter pain medications may be more appropriate for your needs.

Drug addiction will only worsen quality of life in the long run. The brief respite provided by a high is not as sustainable as the long-term relief provided by alternative medicine and holistic treatment options.

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