Oxycodone addiction is a life-threatening condition that can damage every area of life, including physical, mental and emotional health. It can also harm relationships, careers, and futures.
Oxycodone is an opioid prescription painkiller that’s between one and two times more powerful than morphine. It’s designed for strong, severe pain that other drugs can’t address. But it’s known for causing an addiction epidemic within the United States and beyond.
Oxycodone is the active ingredient in OxyContin, a pill that became synonymous with overdose and death in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Drug reformulations make those pills harder to misuse, and changes in prescribing patterns mean fewer people are exposed to — or have access to — the medication.
But people with aches, pains and strains are often discharged from hospitals with prescriptions for oxycodone. And when they are, they can begin a cycle of misuse that rarely ends without professional addiction treatment.
4 Key Facts About Oxycodone
- More than half of people who misuse prescription painkillers get their pills for free from friends and neighbors. Only about 22% get their drugs from one doctor.
- Between 2013 and 2017, oncologists prescribed 33% fewer oxycodone painkillers to their patients, likely due to concerns about substance misuse.
- In 2014, OxyContin manufacturers switched formulations and coated their pills with a substance that turned to gel when crushed and added to water. This design change was meant to keep people from injecting time-release pills and getting the whole dose of oxycodone at once.
- Researchers say 24% of oxycodone misusers found workarounds to the new formulations and kept injecting the drug. But 66% of them switched from oxycodone to heroin, as this illicit drug was both cheaper and easier to use.
How Does Oxycodone Work?
Opioids like oxycodone are derived from the poppy plant and have been used to combat pain for decades. The human body is built to respond to these drugs.
Opioid receptors within the brain are targets for painkillers. Once oxycodone molecules attach, they prompt brain cells to release natural chemicals including dopamine. Parts of the brain promoting happiness, comfort and reward become active. While oxycodone doesn’t address pain or swelling directly, competing pleasurable sensations make discomfort easier to ignore.
Pharmaceutical companies developed powerful oxycodone medications with time-release coatings, allowing people in pain to take opioids at home and get relief for hours at a time. Sophisticated marketing plans made doctors aware of these drugs and eager to use them. While oxycodone wasn’t new, the at-home formulations were, and prescription rates took off.
Between 2000 and 2010, the distribution of opioids to American pharmacies increased by at least 100%, and the average size of an oxycodone prescription increased by almost 70%.
These drugs seemed like effective painkillers, but they came with uncomfortable side effects like the following:
- Dental disease
- Mood swings
- Sexual side effects, including a reduced drive
People using the drug for a short time might endure these problems. But some people took their oxycodone products for months or even years and developed serious issues as a result.
How Does Oxycodone Misuse Typically Start?
Many people are introduced to oxycodone after an illness or injury. They head to a doctor’s office for relief, and they emerge with a prescription that changes their lives.
From 2016 to 2017, more than 41% of emergency room visits ended with a prescription for an opioid painkiller. Dental disease, kidney stones, broken bones and back pain were all treated with very powerful pills.
Researchers say that of the 97.5 million people who take painkillers, about 12.5 million people misuse them. It’s clear that many people get prescriptions for oxycodone and use them responsibly.
But these drugs are incredibly powerful, and the changes they elicit can be harmful. Brain cells become active in ways that produce euphoria and reward, priming the person for addictions. Cells remember the pleasurable sensations, and the brain’s reward center can even believe those feelings should be repeated to keep the person alive. Hijacking a system meant to keep people safe can lead to incredibly dangerous consequences.
In the early 2000s, addiction treatment professionals saw patients with no drug use history crushing and injecting OxyContin pills. At the time, they’d never seen anything like this. Unfortunately, the problem still exists today.
Why Does Oxycodone Cause Overdose?
Officials say the United States is engaged in an epidemic of opioid overdoses. Every day, people take too many painkillers and die from them. Most don’t intend to die due to their drug habit, but the substances are so powerful that they can cause an unplanned overdose.
Oxycodone is a central nervous system depressant, slowing heart and breathing rates while triggering euphoria. Brain cells adjust to each dose of oxycodone they’re exposed to, releasing fewer chemicals and reacting sluggishly.
In time, people need their oxycodone doses to make brain cells release vital chemicals that keep them free of sickness. But those large doses can suppress the nervous system too much and cause an overdose.
Oxycodone overdose symptoms can be grouped into the following categories:
- Consciousness: The person doesn’t respond to their name, vigorous shaking or loud sounds.
- Cardiovascular: Heartbeat and breathing rates slow or stop.
- Appearance: The person looks pale or blue-tinged and may have vomit or drool at the corners of the mouth.
- Temperature: The person may feel cool to the touch.
Rapid administration of the medication naloxone can reverse an overdose in seconds. Sometimes, more than one dose is needed, and emergency medical assistance should always follow naloxone administration to ensure the overdose doesn’t return once naloxone wears off.
But this prescription medication doesn’t treat the underlying cause of oxycodone misuse. Without follow-up care, people revived from an overdose often return to drugs.
Why Does Oxycodone Cause Withdrawal?
With repeated use, bodies become physically dependent on oxycodone. When people quit using the drug, their cells malfunction. In advanced cases, people experience cell malfunction between doses of oxycodone.
This is drug dependence, and as many as 26% of people using opioids for chronic non-cancer pain will develop it. A higher number of people misusing the drug will develop it too.
Opioid withdrawal symptoms include the following:
- Muscle aches
Research performed on rats suggests that the experience of enduring withdrawal can lead to increases in drug doses during relapse. In other words, withdrawal is so painful and upsetting that animals will take more of the drug when they can get it. This makes overdose more likely.
This withdrawal pattern explains why it’s so hard to quit drugs. Our brains make it extremely difficult for us to quit.
Why Does Addiction Treatment Help?
Research suggests that 1 in 550 people starting on opioid painkillers die of opioid causes within about 2.6 years. Treatment programs can help to save lives.
Doctors use medications like buprenorphine to help their patients recover from oxycodone misuse and opioid use disorder. This medication can ease withdrawal symptoms and correct brain chemical imbalances.
People can get sober without feeling sick. And they can stay sober, as the medication helps reduce the body’s call for drugs. Because they aren’t fighting daily cravings for opioid misuse, they can build a healthy life in recovery. With this strong foundation in place, they are set up for a healthy and happy future.
Buprenorphine medications containing naloxone (like Suboxone) are appropriate for at-home use. People can use these medications to get sober, and they can keep taking them to ease relapse risks and cravings for drugs.
Medication for Addiction Treatment (MAT) programs offer Suboxone to patients for as long as their relapse risks are present. For some people, that means using prescriptions for just a few months. For others, that means using them indefinitely.
You could need oxycodone treatment if you share these characteristics:
- You’ve tried to quit using oxycodone and failed.
- You want to quit and don’t know how to get started.
- You feel sick between oxycodone doses.
- Your family and friends have asked you to quit using opioids.
- Your doctor will no longer give you refills.
- You have visited multiple doctors to attempt to get more prescriptions.
- You’re facing serious consequences (like job loss or homelessness) due to your drug use.
Get Started With Bicycle Health
Bicycle Health, a leading telemedicine MAT provider, brings the help you need to your home. Visit with a doctor via your computer or phone, and pick up your prescription at a pharmacy near you. Access help when you need it via the platform, and never worry about anyone seeing you or your car in a treatment parking lot.
Care is effective, convenient and completely confidential. Contact us to find out if it’s right for you.
Reviewed By Peter Manza, PhD
Peter Manza, PhD received his BA in Psychology and Biology from the University of Rochester and his PhD in Integrative Neuroscience at Stony Brook University. He is currently working as a research scientist in Washington, DC. His research focuses on the role ... Read More
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