What begins as an innocent prescription for healing can swiftly transform into an addiction if you’re not careful. With their promise of temporary relief, the very relief painkillers provide can become a trap for some people.
Addiction to pain medication is easier and much more common than you think.
Dr Mzamo Jakavula from Cape Town, a general medical doctor with extensive experience and a passion for mental health advocacy, says painkiller addiction is also known as opioid use disorder.
He says there are postulated risk factors such as a family history of substance use, socioeconomic factors, and lifestyle, that can contribute to the cause of the addiction. People who experience euphoria (“high”) with their first dose of opioids may be at risk of developing addiction.
‘I enjoyed feeling high’
After being on antidepressants for a while, Whitney Hlophe from Johannesburg made the decision to stop taking them because they made her feel fatigued. However, she says she became addicted instead because she enjoyed the numb feeling and the high the painkillers gave her.
“Also, I like to call myself a pharmacist because I went through so many pills to find the strongest. My tolerance for painkillers is so high that if I’m sick, I have to overdose on my prescription for it to actually be effective,” she explains.
“Even though I wasn’t on drugs, it felt like I was on them. Also, I had a fear of ‘what if I pop too many one day?’. That fear resulted in me decreasing my usage to completely stopping.”
Hlophe quit in 2020 and says it’s not easy, but a process that requires patience and determination.
“There are many ways to actually get to quitting; even if it means decreasing the number of pills you take each time, you’ll eventually get to no pills at all.”
Addicted to headache powder
Michelle Mushwana from Pretoria, who suffers a lot from headaches and migraines, says certain pills didn’t work for her until she got introduced to popular headache pills.
The pills felt like they were not working, so she resorted to the painkiller powders and started noticing an addiction to them when she could take them without water and constantly craved them even when she had no headache.
“Despite the addiction, the painkiller powder really helped me during those hours. I actually got help with this addiction from friends and family around me because I was not allowed to take painkiller powders during that period, and they made sure I didn’t.
“I would advise people who are addicted to painkillers to stop using them today. So many complications could occur, and no one can be prepared for them.”
Recognising the symptoms of addiction
Jakavula encourages people to know the difference between healing dependence and addiction. He explains that physical dependence forms part of the process of substance use disorder, or what is referred to as addiction.
As the body grows accustomed to the relief of painkillers, Juluka explains that higher doses are then required to achieve the same effect, and the most severe risk is overdose and death.
“Once an individual’s body gets used to a certain substance, it develops tolerance. This means one will need to take higher and higher doses to achieve the same effect previously achieved at lower doses (in the case of opioids, euphoria). Additionally, individuals at times engage in risky or criminal behaviour in an effort to obtain substances to fill their cravings (withdrawal),” he explains.
“Dosage varies from individual to individual. But generally, if one uses the substance more frequently and for a longer duration than was originally prescribed without review by his or her treating doctor, this has to be accompanied by withdrawal symptoms if they have not taken the substance to indicate addiction.”
Depending on the cause, location, and severity of the pain, Jukuka advises that there are other, better alternative medicines for pain management (e.g., acupuncture, chiropractic care, herbal medication, etc.), physiotherapy, and other non-addictive drugs.
“Help is available for individuals with this problem. There are various modalities of therapy available. But acceptance from the individual that they have a problem and need help is crucial, as more often than not, individuals who have addiction problems downplay the severity of their illness and don’t even recognise they are in fact ill.”
To get free help for various addictions, the International Addiction Education Provider offers a list of emergency services in South Africa. Most of the listed numbers are toll-free however some may incur a charge on your mobile, VOIP, or telephonic network.
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