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OxyContin Addiction

OxyContin is a prescription painkiller closely tied to abuse and addiction.

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This painkiller is designed to ease short-term discomfort after difficult episodes like surgeries, bone breaks, and dental extractions. If you’re hurt and can’t function due to the discomfort, a short course of OxyContin could help you get back on your feet again.

When OxyContin entered the painkiller market, the manufacturer promoted the drug aggressively. Doctors were encouraged to give the medication to all of their uncomfortable patients, and paperwork changes made prescribing easier. 

Some experts believe OxyContin started America’s painkiller (also known as opioid) overdose crisis. Plenty of people took the drug and became addicted to it. Others bought the drug for recreational use and found they loved how the prescription made them feel. 

As research about OxyContin highlighted just how dangerous this drug can be, doctors stopped prescribing it so freely. But even so, many people misuse this drug. They may hide the abuse for years, and they may drain their bank accounts, lose jobs, and face other serious consequences for their use. And some transition to more dangerous drugs (like heroin) to keep up their addictions. 

What Is OxyContin?

OxyContin is a brand-name prescription medication containing oxycodone. It’s available in pills with 10 mg to 80 mg of oxycodone, and some rapid-release formulations are available too. 

Patients should take their OxyContin tablets whole and swallow them with plenty of water. The contents hit the digestive system and slowly spread throughout the brain and body, triggering chemical reactions and neurotransmitter releases. Some formulations remain active for hours, allowing for long-term pain relief. 

Some people who misuse OxyContin don’t want to wait for the drug to be slowly released throughout the body. Instead, they use innovative methods to circumvent the drug’s manufacturer and allow all of the power in a pill to hit their bodies at once. They may do the following:

  • Chew: Rather than swallowing the pill whole, they may crush it between their teeth, circumventing the time-release aspects. 
  • Snort: They may crush the pill between spoons and sniff the powder. 
  • Inject: They may combine crushed pills with water and use needles to push the solutions into their bodies. 
  • Inhale: They may heat up a tablet on a piece of foil and inhale the vapors. 

Manufacturers look for ways to keep people from tampering with drugs. Some OxyContin formulations are hard to crush, and others turn into goo when mixed with water. Formulations like this can encourage people to switch to other opioid-like drugs, including heroin. 

Who Abuses OxyContin?

Prescription painkillers are powerful, and they can trigger dependence and addiction in almost anyone who takes them for too long. Researchers say about 32 percent of American adults got a prescription for painkillers between 2016 and 2018. Most got these prescriptions to treat pain after surgery. 

People often associate addiction with homelessness and poverty. In reality, anyone who uses painkillers for too long can develop brain changes associated with addiction. The disease doesn’t discriminate by race, class, or gender. 

In 2016, more than 11.5 million Americans admitted to abusing prescription opioids. Many of these people had addictions and found it hard to quit once they started. 

What Makes Opioids So Addictive?

Exposure to opioids makes addiction possible. In almost 4 percent of American counties, enough prescriptions were written for every person to have one. In an environment like this, it’s almost impossible to avoid opioids. 

All prescription painkillers work on dopamine levels within the brain. When the pills are active, your cells release large amounts of this feel-good chemical, allowing sensations of relaxation and euphoria to begin. Your pain may recede due to these happy feelings. 

Brain cells aren’t designed to release so much dopamine, and in time, they will down-regulate production. You won’t feel dopamine-based happiness without your drugs. And you may feel sick and uncomfortable when you try to quit using. 

Signs & Symptoms of OxyContin Addiction

People who abuse OxyContin come from all different walks of life. They may not recognize one another on the street or feel any bond with others who abuse painkillers. But they may share common characteristics like these:

Doctor Shopping

Before 1996, doctors had to fill out paperwork in triplicate to dispense powerful drugs like OxyContin. Some states did away with those rules. Experts say if they’d left the safeguards in place, they would have had 45 percent fewer opioid overdose deaths on average between 1996 and 2017. 

Doctors don’t give away OxyContin to simply anyone, especially as abuse risks become clear. But people with opioid use disorders (OUD) may visit many professionals with pain complaints, hoping to get more pills. 

Unusual Sedation

OxyContin is a central nervous system depressant, causing muscle relaxation. At high doses, it causes unconsciousness. A person abusing the drug may seem suddenly sleepy or hard to awaken.

Lack of Money

Buying pills is expensive, especially if people use street dealers. Someone with a strong habit may not have enough money to pay suppliers for all the drugs required and may steal or sell items to pay for the addiction. 

Changing Motivation

People with addictions put substances first. They may stop going to work, refuse to care for children, or avoid social obligations. They spend more time getting drugs or recovering from a binge, leaving little time for anything else. 

Unexplained Illness

People abuse OxyContin for its brain impact. But the drug also works on the gut, and some people develop severe constipation due to drug abuse. The issue could be serious enough to require a hospital stay.

Snorting or injecting OxyContin could also cause health problems, such as bleeding, infections, and blocked veins. 

OxyContin’s Impact on Your Brain & Body

People don’t lean on drugs nonsensically. Addictive drugs cause persistent and predictable changes that lead to substance use disorders. And almost all of them cause physical problems too. 

Experts say OxyContin affects the reward regions of the brain, creating an intrinsic risk for misuse. Often, people who start taking them can’t seem to stop. In one study, 14 percent of people originally prescribed an 8-day course of painkillers were still taking them a year later. 

People who misuse OxyContin may feel sober while taking the drug and sick without it. In time, they’ll need bigger doses to get the same effect. Switching to a stronger (but similar) substance like heroin makes sense to them. 

Opioids also work on the gut, slowing digestion and motility. While people take them for mental health impact, they can develop life-threatening bowel obstructions or rupture without treatment. 

OxyContin Overdose Dangers

OxyContin is closely related to overdose conversations. For some people, this medication is synonymous with death from opioids. Researchers say it’s one of the three opioid medications most commonly associated with overdose. 

All opioids are central nervous system depressants, capable of the following:

  • Slowing breathing rates
  • Reducing body temperature
  • Slowing heartbeat 

People taking too much OxyContin may seem very sleepy, slow, and sedated. Look closely, and you may notice that their lips and fingernails are blue. Without prompt treatment, someone like this can die. 

Naloxone, readily available in pharmacies all across the country, can reverse an opioid overdose in seconds. It’s delivered via a nasal spray, and it can save lives. 

But someone brought back from an overdose with this medication still needs medical care. Naloxone can wear off too quickly, allowing the person to overdose again. 

Experts say most current overdoses are caused by synthetic drugs (such as fentanyl), not OxyContin. But some street dealers sell powerful fentanyl pills that look like OxyContin. An unsuspecting buyer can die from taking a dose that’s far too powerful. 

OxyContin Withdrawal Symptoms

While ongoing OxyContin exposure is harmful for your body, it can also seem normal to your brain and vital organs. If you quit taking the drug abruptly, you may develop severe flu-like symptoms.

During the early stages of withdrawal, you’ll feel the following:

  • Agitated
  • Anxious
  • Painful 
  • Sweaty 
  • Unattractive, as your eyes water and nose runs

During late stages of withdrawal, you’ll develop the following issues:

  • Abdominal cramping
  • Diarrhea
  • Goosebumps
  • Nausea 
  • Vomiting

While withdrawal isn’t typically life-threatening, severe dehydration can harm your organs and brain cells. Relapsing to drugs after a few days away can be life-threatening too. 

During withdrawal, your brain cells heal and reduce their tolerance to opioids. If you return to your original dose, you’ll take too much and potentially overdose. 

OxyContin Addiction Treatment

People struggling with OxyContin addiction or any OUD have a robust set of tools available to help them get well. 

Medications like buprenorphine can ease withdrawal symptoms and dampen cravings. Using a medication like this could make it easier for you to get sober, and these therapies could help you avoid relapse too. 

More than 104,000 doctors and other health care professionals can prescribe buprenorphine for opioid use issues. Connecting with one of them could help you stop your addiction and develop a healthier life. 

Therapy can also help you recover. Teams can help you build robust relapse prevention skills, so you don’t take OxyContin when you’re tempted to do so. And support groups can help you learn how others cope with their drug use issues. 

If you’re abusing OxyContin, talk to your doctor and get help for your abuse. 

Profile image for Dr. Alison Tarlow
Medically Reviewed By Dr. Alison Tarlow

Dr. Alison Tarlow is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in the States of Florida and Pennsylvania, and a Certified Addictions Professional (CAP). She has been a practicing psychologist for over 15 years. Sh... Read More

Updated May 1, 2023
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