Chronic Pain and Addiction

Chronic Pain and Addiction to Opioids

If you live with chronic pain and take pain medicine to relieve the pain, you may be at risk of developing an addiction. When this occurs, you may need professional assistance to reduce the risk of experiencing an adverse effect from the medication.

In this article, we’re taking a closer look at chronic pain and addiction to opioids.

Chronic Pain And Addiction To Opioids

A dual diagnosis in the field of psychiatry typically refers to a mental illness, like depression or a mood disorder, coupled with addiction. However, the term is also used to describe when an addiction is coupled with another mental and physical struggle – chronic pain.

The correlation between chronic pain and substance abuse is rather simple: pain medication. Chronic pain is a condition wherein pain lasts for a substantial amount of time, and it can occur for any number of reasons from physical nerve damage to psychosomatic issues. In all cases of chronic pain, the first thing you get is a prescription of analgesic drugs – medication designed to relieve pain.

The big issue here, however, is that most of the commonly effective analgesic prescribed for major pain issues happen to be opioids. This is because opioids release dopamine to near-euphoric levels, introduce a mellow calmness and take the edge off the pain – all while being incredibly addictive.

Here’s what you need to know about chronic pain and addiction to opioid pain medicine

What Is An Opioid?

An opioid drug is named such because of opium, the original opioid drug derived from poppy flower seed pods. Opioids are substances that bind to receptors in the nervous system and cause pain relief and a sensation of happiness – your body contains and releases them naturally in the form of endorphins, especially during physical trauma and during exercise. Opioid drugs are designed mostly to provide pain relief by slowly entering your bloodstream, but they also provide you with a high.

Common opioids prescribed for analgesic purposes include:


Heroin is another opioid, yet its potency and delivery system straight to the bloodstream means that it’s not much use for pain relief due to how immediate and short-term its effects are – but it does produce a very powerful high, and thus has a pretty high rate of addiction versus other hard drugs.

Aside from reducing pain and acting as powerful addictive substances, opioids can also cause drowsiness, nausea and constipation, and can be dangerous in conjunction with antidepressants or sleeping pills. Opioids also slow down your breathing, making them particularly dangerous to people with respiratory issues. If your lungs are at normal capacity and you don’t have any history of serious respiratory failure, and are suffering of a chronic pain that simply won’t go away, then chances are your doctor will prescribe you one of the above medications as a means to manage and shoo away your ills.

When Does Pain Become Chronic?

Chronic pain is medically diagnosed when the sensation of pain has lasted for more than twelve weeks. Three months sounds like a long time for a diagnosis to be considered valid, but that’s in order to rule out the possibility of most injuries.

Chronic pain has a very wide array of causes and reasons, all of which set it apart from acute pain, which is the immediate and short-term sensation of pain following an injury of some sort. Chronic pain can be sharp or dull, hot or cold, constant or waning – the exact specifications can help determine a cause, but don’t change the actual definition of the diagnosis.

What Causes Chronic Pain?

Causes for chronic pain include:

  • A badly-healed or unhealed injury.
  • A mental trauma.
  • Poor diet and lifestyle choices.
  • No discernable cause.

Chronic pain can sometimes be identified as a specific type of nerve damage, inflammation or muscle issue, and at other times, it may have no actual physical indicator and may be purely psychosomatic (in the head). This makes it a pretty tough diagnosis to deal with, as chronic pain requires extensive and thorough therapy to best determine its nature and how to manage it wisely.

Chronic pain is most common in the back and in the joints, due to posture issues, injury or arthritis. However, chronic pain can occur in absolutely any part of the body, from chronic headaches to a sharp chronic pain in your left foot.

Treating Addiction To Pain Medication

When approaching addiction to opioids used to treat chronic pain, it’s important to focus on both the pain and the addiction equally. Sometimes, the solution involves entering a partial hospitalization program (PHP) followed by pain management classes and lifestyle changes to both inhibit a relapse and reduce the pain.

It’s not enough to just acknowledge the facts when they point out that chronic pain often leads to addiction by way of treatment – measures need to be taken to ensure that said improper treatment is met with a change in methods and practices to prevent addiction, especially with the dramatic rise in opioid abuse and overdose in recent times.

We need to change how chronic pain is treated in an effort to reduce the growth in opioid and general prescription medication abuse. It’s grown rampant in part due to the increase in which we’ve been prescribing pain medication, especially as doctors continue to look for ways to reduce suffering as much as possible.

This isn’t just an issue for doctors and therapists. The public in general needs to have a better understanding of what chronic pain is, what opioids are, and the facts surrounding drug use and possible abuse. Just because you’re being prescribed an opioid doesn’t mean you can’t get addicted to it, or that self-medicating by adjusting your dosage isn’t a sign of addiction. Similarly, while the dangers of substance abuse in cases of prescription medication are there, not everyone who takes opioids is likely to get addicted.

Reducing The Risk Of Addiction In Chronic Pain Cases

It’s a pretty complicated situation – but that’s the nature of dealing with addiction. Trying to simplify things in a widespread issue based on individual circumstances is never a good idea, and only leads to useless vilification and prejudice. Instead, it’s important to spread the word on maintaining and promoting much better chronic pain management practices, and expanded education on pain and addiction in medical school.

For the average patient of chronic pain issues, what all this means is that should you find yourself developing signs of opioid addiction, be sure to let your doctor know as soon as possible, and get the help you need before it becomes too difficult to stop.

Lastly, as the field of pain management expands, we discover and create new ways to deal with chronic pain. There are ways to deal with chronic pain without the use of opioids, including non-opioid analgesic medication, as well as other pain-management tools and therapy options that are non-addictive.