Painkillers come in all shapes and sizes, but few are as immediately and markedly effective as those in the opioid family. As an analgesic, opioids – anything drug derived from the poppy plant and its extract, opium – are about as old as humanity itself. Cultivated in the earliest days of civilization, the use of opium grew alongside science, producing more refined, potent, and dangerous forms of the drug. Today, opioids dominate the prescription drug market – and the US dominates the world’s opioid consumption.
Among the many drugs on the market, oxycodone is one of the most popular. Prescribed and sold under brand names like Percocet and Oxycontin, it is among the five most commonly prescribed opioids.
In the middle of this nationwide opioid crisis, it is important to understand and recognize what these drugs are, how they work, and why their medical potential and potential for abuse are both valid and important to consider in the coming years.
Not everyone who uses prescription medication is addicted, but most people with access to prescription drugs – especially opiates – run the risk of forming a life-long habit of prescription drug addiction. By understanding the risks and recognizing the symptoms of misuse, patients can get the help they need to find alternative pain management techniques and seek out addiction recovery, if necessary.
What is Oxycodone?
Oxycodone is a prescription drug, prescribed for pain relief. It is available in pill form or as an intravenous/intramuscular injection, and often sold in conjunction with other pain medication, including over-the-counter painkillers such as NSAIDs, ibuprofen and acetaminophen (paracetamol).
Oxycodone is not directly made from opium, but is derived from thebaine, one of several alkaloids in the poppy plant that act as an opioid. In this sense, opioids refer to substances that bind to the brain’s opioid receptors.
All opioids function in a similar way, albeit with unique characteristics. Oxycodone was developed as a way to improve upon existing opioids, changing the potency of a dosage. The drug is more potent than Vicodin (hydrocodone), but less potent than heroin or morphine.
Once taken orally or through the veins/muscles, oxycodone travels through the blood-brain barrier to bind to the brain’s opioid receptors, blocking out pain signals and bringing about feelings of joy and euphoria. These can be so intense that the brain gets hooked on them. If a patient abuses their medication and uses more than is prescribed, especially to cope with non-physical pain, it can lead to a devastating addiction.
More often than that, however, oxycodone is abused illegally, either by taking from a willing friend or family member with a prescription, or by stealing from them. At other times, oxycodone is sold and distributed illegally, originally through the selling of excess pain medication.
Breaking an Oxycodone Addiction
Like other opioids, it is difficult to break away from an oxycodone addiction. One way to soothe an opioid addiction is using methadone in a controlled environment, like a rehab center. Another form of rehab through medication is with naloxone, which is often used in an overdose to save someone from dying due to its immediate anti-opioid effects. Naloxone completely blocks the effects of opioids, even those currently in the bloodstream, kicking them off the brain’s opioid receptors and taking their place.
However, while medication can help a patient wean off the drug, a lot of the progress is made mentally and through time. It takes time for the brain to heal from an addiction, especially from an opioid. Even long after most recovery treatments are over, former addicts may still experience a craving after a particularly stressful situation or after some form of pain, both physical and emotional.
Addiction introduces many mental and behavioral issues, including self-esteem issues, anxiety, and depression. These are temporary and can be overcome through therapy, although in some cases an addiction may cause someone to go through a major depression, going so far as to require medication to prevent suicidal thoughts.
Addiction must be treated alongside any other existing mental health issues, rather than separately. Only a holistic approach works, because treating addiction involves helping people get to a stable and healthy mental status in order to combat thoughts of relapse.
A Nationwide Struggle
Oxycodone is one of the most heavily prescribed drugs in the country, alongside many other commonly abused prescription drugs, alongside Ritalin, Adderall, Vicodin, Demerol, Codeine, Ambien, Xanax, and more. Yet while prescription drugs played a major part in the growing opioid crisis, most opioid deaths today are caused by heroin.
However, drugs like oxycodone and a lobby of companies and doctors that spend years overprescribing them built up the base for heroin demand to grow and fester – and when the government stepped in to combat the excessive prescription of pain medication in America, thousands of people formerly addicted to prescription medication made the jump to illegal heroin, a much more dangerous drug due to a lack of safe or consistent production.
With a growing demand comes a growing supply, both from foreign and domestic sources, leading to heroin overtaking prescription painkillers. Meanwhile, a tough-on-crime and tough-on-drugs stance in government policy, accompanied by a lack of affordable rehab options and proper healthcare support means the continuation of a crisis that, as of now, has no foreseeable end.
There are many other factors contributing to the growing drug problem in the country, including economic factors, rapidly growing income inequality, a disappearing middle class and lack of stable jobs with proper benefits, while the stressful and volatile gig economy grows. But not all hope is lost. Many Americans who struggle with drug use do not seek treatment even when they can afford it, partially because of a powerful stigma against recognizing and accepting addiction as a problem, and partially because of the prevalent misconception that rehab does not work.
When applied properly, drug recovery is possible, and addiction treatment works. Families have to cooperate and work with professionals to help their loved ones get clean and stay clean, and sober living homes help those who struggle heavily with avoiding relapses remain in a temptation-free sober living environment to work on their recovery.