Warning: Surgery Aftercare Can Cause Prescription Drug Abuse
Opioid painkillers are commonly prescribed as part of surgery aftercare to help patients manage severe pain. But data shows that up to 92% of patients prescribed opioids after surgery end up with leftover pills — a statistic that reflects one of many causes behind the U.S. opioid epidemic. Painkillers can be an effective pain management tool when prescribed and used correctly, but these drugs also carry a high risk for dependency and addiction when misused or used for longer than necessary.
New evidence shows that painkiller use in surgery aftercare is a major unforeseen complication that increases a patient’s risk for addiction. But educating yourself and your family about the safety and risks surrounding painkiller use can help both you and your loved ones stay safe when using these powerful medications.
Here’s a close look at prescription drug abuse following surgery, and at what you can do to stay safe and seek help when needed.
Addiction as a Complication of Surgery
Nobody who has surgery ever suspects they might become a victim of prescription drug abuse as a result of surgery aftercare. Painkillers are usually only prescribed to surgery patients for anywhere from a few days to a week and a half, or until severe pain has dissipated. But in recent years, doctors have supplied patients with enough pills to last far beyond just a few days or weeks.
In a recent study examining 810 patients who underwent surgery for different reasons, scientists found that between 67% and 92% of patients ended up with leftover painkillers. Many of these patients were found to store their remaining pills in medicine cabinets, and failed to dispose of unused painkillers at pharmacies, police stations, and other drug take-back locations. Another recent study found that up to 6.5% of surgery patients who were not using painkillers prior to surgery became persistent users after taking painkillers as part of surgery aftercare.
Surgeries that Cause Prescription Drug Abuse
Certain surgeries carry a stronger risk for persistent drug use than others. Research conducted by a pharmaceutical company found that colectomy and knee replacement surgeries put patients at the highest risk for prescription drug abuse, with 17.6% and 16.7% of those patients becoming opioid-dependent, respectively. Open gallbladder surgery and surgeries in which large incisions are made were also found to carry a relatively high risk for dependence and addiction in aftercare.
Painkiller Use and the U.S. Opioid Crisis
The overprescribing of painkillers has contributed in part to the U.S. opioid crisis by putting unused pills in the hands of people who have no real medical use for these substances. Research found that in 2016, enough opioids were prescribed in the U.S. to put 36 pills in the hands of every adult and child. Some states have significantly higher opioid prescribing rates than others, like Alabama, which prescribes enough opioids for every resident to have 72 pills each.
Surgery patients who end up with leftover painkillers often keep their medications in the house where they can be taken by visitors and family members, or give them away to friends and family who may want them for their own health or personal reasons. The CDC reports that the majority of people who abuse painkillers get them for free from friends and relatives. The overprescribing of opioids also sometimes confuses patients who end up with extra pills, as they may continue using them until they’re gone and face a higher risk for dependency and addiction.
Changing the Way Doctors Prescribe Drugs
In an effort to curb the opioid epidemic on the physician level, the U.S. government has taken steps to improve prescription drug monitoring programs so doctors can stop prescribing opioids to those who already have pills at home. The CDC has also published revised opioid prescribing guidelines urging doctors to practice more awareness when prescribing painkillers to their patients. Under the new guidelines, doctors are urged to discuss the risks of opioid use with patients, follow up with patients regarding their pain levels and recovery, and set a tapering schedule so patients can stop using opioids safely.
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How Can You Avoid Addiction After Surgery?
Anyone who takes painkillers as part of surgery aftercare is at risk for prescription drug addiction. While painkillers do have the ability to make recovery from surgery more comfortable and pain-free, these drugs can easily and quickly lead to addiction when misused.
Here are five ways to avoid prescription drug addiction following surgery.
1. Develop a Structured Plan with your Doctor
Some doctors may provide vague instructions surrounding the dosage and frequency at which you should be taking painkillers based on your pain level. Many times, this results in patients using higher doses at a higher frequency than needed, which ups the risk for dependency and addiction. When meeting with your doctor, work together on developing a solid, structured plan and tapering schedule for your medication so you’re not taking extra doses for longer than needed.
2. Understand the Side Effects
Tolerance and physical dependence are common side effects of prescription painkillers, which means it’s likely you may go through withdrawal after stopping your medication. Knowing what to expect from painkiller use can help you prepare for these symptoms, which can usually be reduced through a tapering schedule following your recovery from surgery. Other common side effects of painkillers are nausea, increased sensitivity to pain, and depression.
3. Discuss your History of Addiction
If you’ve struggled with drug or alcohol addiction in the past, discuss your history of addiction with your doctor before getting an opioid prescription. Since opioids are highly addictive, it’s possible that this aftercare treatment could lead to a relapse or recurring problems with addiction. Your doctor may prescribe an opioid with a lower potency level like codeine, or suggest alternative pain treatments that carry little to no risk for addiction.
4. Explore Options for Alternative Pain Treatments
Painkillers aren’t the only solution for pain management in surgery aftercare. Acupuncture, electrotherapy, and non-opioid drugs like acetaminophen and ibuprofen have also been proven effective at reducing postoperative pain. Before deciding to use painkillers, ask your doctor about alternative pain treatments, or talk to other pain specialists who can help you explore safer, less risky options.
5. Refuse Leftover Painkillers Offered by Friends and Family
When you’re experiencing pain, some friends and family may try to be helpful by offering you their supply of unused, leftover painkillers. But using another person’s painkillers is not only illegal, but can lead to addiction or death — especially since all prescription drugs are specifically tailored for the individuals they were originally prescribed for. When loved ones offer you their leftover pain pills, just say no to avoid the risk for addiction or an accidental overdose.
How Do You Know if You’re Addicted to Prescription Drugs?
Prescription drug addiction causes a number of physical and psychological symptoms, which are often accompanied by a series of behavioral changes that rule in favor of drug use. A person who struggles with prescription drug abuse will often neglect important life responsibilities so they can obtain drugs, use drugs, and recover from drug use.
Physical signs of prescription drug abuse:
- Slowed breathing
- Constricted pupils
- Extreme sedation and drowsiness
- Slow movement and reactions
- Noticeable euphoria
- Poor memory
Many of the above symptoms are also opioid withdrawal symptoms that occur when someone stops taking painkillers abruptly, or steeply reduces their doses. Those who abuse painkillers will often become tolerant to their usual doses, and start taking higher amounts to experience the drugs’ effects. This then leads to physical dependence, which is when users require a certain amount of drugs to keep withdrawal symptoms at bay.
Behaviors associated with prescription drug abuse:
- Doctor shopping. You may start visiting a number of different doctors in different healthcare networks to obtain extra painkillers.
- Using higher amounts. You may start requiring higher doses of painkillers to feel the effects — a stage of addiction known as tolerance.
- Withdrawing from friends and family. You may spend less time with friends and family so you can devote more time to obtaining and using drugs, and recovering from the effects.
- Preoccupied thoughts about drugs. You may find yourself constantly thinking about using drugs, or about ways to obtain additional pills.
- Using painkillers in ways other than directed. Crushing, snorting, and injecting drugs are all signs of prescription drug addiction, along with using higher doses than directed.
- Continued use when symptoms clear. You may continue using opioids long after your pain goes away, and after you’ve fully healed from your surgery.
- Mood swings and irritability. Prescription drug abuse can cause chemical imbalances in the brain that control your mood and that also increase the risk for depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses.
Physical and psychological symptoms of drug dependence and addiction can all be successfully treated at an addiction treatment center. Those who need help overcoming painkiller abuse can benefit from opiate detox and therapy — both of which treat addiction as a whole.
What Treatments are Available for Prescription Drug Abuse?
Detox and therapy are effective at treating prescription drug abuse both physically and mentally. Opiate detox helps you overcome physical dependency on painkillers, while therapy treats the mental side of addiction and teaches you how to overcome triggers and impulses that would otherwise lead to drug abuse. Opiate detox, prescription drug detox, and therapy can be conducted in a variety of ways so you can choose a treatment plan that works best for you.
1. Medical Drug Detox
A medical drug detox takes place in a hospital, inpatient, or residential setting, and allows you to withdraw from drugs surrounded by attentive, experienced medical staff who monitor your vitals and lower the risk for potential complications. Many times, a medical detox involves the use of other medications that can relieve some or all of your prescription drug withdrawal symptoms — making for a more comfortable, pain-free recovery. A medical detox usually lasts between one and two weeks for most patients, though some may experience withdrawal symptoms for longer based on the severity of their addiction.
2. Medication-Assisted Treatment
Medication-assisted treatment, or MAT, is one of the most proven effective treatments for painkiller addiction. MAT replaces the drug of abuse with medications that completely relieve opioid cravings and withdrawal symptoms — allowing patients to go about their daily lives without feeling impaired by sedation, drowsiness, and euphoria. MAT is a widely accepted treatment for opioid addiction available at most opiate detox centers.
People addicted to prescription drugs other than painkillers may be put on a tapering schedule to slowly wean themselves off the drug of abuse. Tapering is when a doctor reduces your doses gradually over time until you’re no longer dependent on or using the medication. Tapering is often combined with therapy so patients can learn how to overcome behaviors and triggers that lead to prescription drug abuse.
4. Inpatient Addiction Treatment
Opiate detox, MAT, and tapering can all be enhanced when combined with therapy at an inpatient addiction treatment center. Inpatient rehab centers allow patients to recover from prescription drug addiction at their own comfortable pace surrounded by doctors, nurses, and counselors who are all available 24/7 to offer support. Inpatient rehab also helps patients establish new daily routines without drug use, and teaches them how to steer clear of drugs and relapse in everyday situations.
The most common therapies offered at inpatient rehab centers are cognitive-behavioral therapy, support group therapy, and individual, group, and family counseling. CBT helps you identify and combat negative thoughts and behaviors driving your addiction, while support group therapy allows you to bond with others who are also overcoming prescription drug abuse. Relapse prevention training is also available at many opiate detox centers to help you stay sober in the months and years ahead.
If you or someone you love needs help recovering from prescription drug addiction, call our 24/7 confidential helpline at 800-483-2193. We’ll help you find free detox treatment covered by your health insurer, or connect you with affordable detox centers that offer all the treatments you need to safely and comfortably overcome addiction.