This article is adapted from an addiction recovery curriculum we are developing at Stepworks. This particular excerpt is aimed at people who (1) struggle with addiction, and (2) may potentially experience pain and desire pain medications. (Note: If this situation describes you and you are currently caught in a cycle of active prescription drug abuse, click opiate detox centers for details about our treatment program.)
Everyone experiences pain. Pain actually serves a purpose. It is a valuable indication that something is wrong.
Did you know that there is a disease that prevents people from sensing pain? People suffering from leprosy do not feel pain. Because of this, they die sooner than those of us who do sense pain. The disease makes it impossible to tell when something is wrong, so they lose fingers and hands and feet. Pain doesn’t tell them to guard their bodies and protect themselves from harm and injury. Ultimately, they can die of infection or even heart attacks. Pain serves an important purpose.
For other people, their reaction to pain is exaggerated. What most would consider normal levels of pressure will cause agonizing pain. For others, opiate abuse damages their nervous system, negatively altering the way they experience pain. Here’s something interesting to think about… something that might possibly be relevant to you: people with chronic pain who will often experience LESS pain when they QUIT their pain medication.
For now, the point is that pain is an individualized experience. The experience of pain differs from person to person. We can’t say whether your pain is “real” or not… whether it is severe or only mild. There is no objective way to measure your pain.
But if you’re addicted to opiate medications, these are some facts:
- It is easy for you to get prescription pain pills since doctors are trained to relieve pain and suffering. Pain and suffering is treated with pain medicines, and most doctors will write you a prescription, assuming that you are telling the truth.
- You may be a good liar. Sadly, dishonesty and addiction go hand in hand.
- Like your reward system, your pain system is broken.
- Opiate pain medicines pose a significant risk to your happiness and health.
Even if you remain committed to your sobriety, there will be a time when something painful will happen… something that—under normal circumstances—would result in a doctor prescribing you pain medicine. It may be a pulled tooth, a sprained ankle, surgery, or something else. You will be experiencing pain, and your healthcare provider will offer some sort of prescription. What will you do? After all, most people “need” medications in these circumstances. Right?
Well, maybe not. You will always want an opiate pain medication. You’ll be tempted to take prescription medications even for a small injury. You may understand that you don’t NEED it or that it will be harmful to you, but you will still want it. You may not even plan to use it, but you will still desire to have it… just in case things change and you find yourself needing it. This is your addiction talking.
It is extremely rare that you will ever actually “need” an opiate pain medication. Having a tooth pulled or breaking your leg is painful. There is no doubt about that. But there are non-opiate pain medications that can help you. Do they work as well as opiates? Well, not always, but sometimes they do.
Here’s what you must remember: you need to stay clean and sober. Your addiction has caused you severe pain and consequences. Yes, it would be nice not to experience pain, but you don’t want to throw away your sobriety either.
At Stepworks, our medical director shared the following true story…
The Banana Story:
I once treated a lady who suddenly started experiencing bouts of severe shortness of breath. She was hospitalized a number of times and was admitted to intensive care on a breathing machine on the verge of death. Her episodes seemed to occur randomly. She was under a lot of stress with a business failing and an unsupportive husband, but stress can’t make you stop breathing. It just didn’t make sense. After almost a year of these unexplained bouts, we finally discovered the reason: she was allergic to bananas. A single bite of a banana would send her into a life-threatening anaphylactic response. The crazy thing is that she KNEW it, but she would intentionally eat bananas. Whenever the stress was too much or her husband was too mean, she would go out and eat a banana and be hospitalized. The family would then rally around her and feel sorry for her while she struggled in intensive care.
That sounds crazy, right? Why would anyone intentionally expose themselves to a substance that could kill them? Your addiction to opiates is no different. You are essentially “allergic” to opiate pain medications. While they may not kill you immediately, relapse can—and does—lead to death.
So, you have a tooth pulled. What then? First, realize that while the dentist may want to give you a prescription for pain, and while you may WANT a prescription for pain, it’s not a good idea. You could easily relapse and lose everything you have worked so hard to obtain. THINK BANANAS. Tell the dentist that you are allergic to all opiates. (You do not have to explain all of the details of your addiction.) The dentist will probably give you a prescription for something like Motrin. Now, you may think, “Motrin doesn’t work for me!” But is that true? The truth is that your addiction has damaged your reward system and your pain system. Motrin or Tylenol DOES work if you will give it a chance. You may still have some discomfort, but it will lower your level of pain.
You may still be thinking, “Yeah, right. You don’t understand my pain.” And that’s true. But this much is true: people with opiate addictions tend to experience pain more intensely than people without addictions. Furthermore, the fear of pain is a major issue for many addicts. In fact, the fear of pain is probably a bigger reality than the pain itself. Sometimes, we take pain medications because we’re scared we might have pain, not because we’re currently experiencing it. So think about it this way: Don’t fear future pain. It’s not a good mental exercise. In fact, if you can relieve the fear, you may relieve the pain. Relieve the fear—relieve the pain. Remind yourself that Motrin will work. And don’t sit around waiting for pain… fearing it. Exercise. Studies show that exercise and moderate activity can decrease pain by releasing natural pain relievers. Act as if you are having no pain.
There are also other non-opiate medications that can be used to help relieve chronic pain. These are called “adjunctive medications.” They work by interfering with normal pain pathways in your spinal cord and brain. Some of these medications include Cymbalta, Neurontin, Elavil, Flexeril, and Lyrica.
Lastly, good sleep is important. If you are not sleeping well, your muscles and tendons will tighten and your pain will increase. Some adjunctive medications—like Flexeril and Elavil—will make you sleepy and are very useful if you aren’t sleeping well.
But what if pain meds are my last resort?
With all of that said, there may be a time when the severity of your condition actually does require the use of an opiate to lower your pain to tolerable levels. These times are rare, but they do occur. Certain surgeries, cancer, and severe injuries may not fully respond to non-opiate therapies. In these conditions, it is very important that you are totally honest with your doctor about your addiction. If this situation happens to you, hopefully the end of your prescription pain pill usage will be a proper doctor-compliant cessation. That is much safer and much healthier than spiraling into abusive patterns, in which case your only successful way out is opiate detox. You will want to put it in your own words, but here is the message you want to give:
- I am addicted to all opiate medications.
- My brain does not work the same as yours. When it comes to pain, I may feel it more intensely, and yet I am unable to be fully honest with you. My craving for opiates is just too strong.
- I am scared of being in pain, but I am even more scared of returning to my addictive lifestyle.
- Regular dosing of pain medications is better than giving it to me as needed.
- I am unable to manage my own dosing. If a prescription is necessary, it should be given to a family member or friend.
- In regards to prescriptions, please give me as few pills as necessary and do not give me refills without seeing me first.
- I want to conclude my use of this medication in a healthy way. I do not want to spiral out of control and require medical detox to “get back to healthy.”
Would you like to talk about this article? Do you struggle with chronic pain and addiction? Call us and ask to speak with one of the Stepworks team members: 1-888-982-1244.