Undergoing a surgery of any kind can be a difficult ordeal, but in almost every case, it will result in major pain after the surgery. For this reason, doctors and surgeons frequently prescribe pain medication for patients to take post-operation, typically intended to be used for 1-6 weeks after the surgery. In most cases, the more complex the surgery, the longer the pain will last, and the more pain medication you must take. Pain medication serves an important purpose, helping the body to relax so that it can heal. It also helps to ensure that you are comfortable and able to handle the pain of recovery. Unfortunately, most doctors prescribe medications like Codeine and Percocet (Oxycodone), which are often chemically very similar to street opioids like heroine. This means that the pain medication prescribed post-surgery is highly addictive.
What Medications Are Prescribed Post-Surgery?
Most doctors prescribe opioid analgesics (pain relievers), which are used for their ability to stop pain, to relax the body, and to relax the mind. This enables patients to lay in bed and sleep, so that their body heals as quickly as possible. Commonly prescribed painkillers include:
- Demerol (Meperidine)
- Lortab (Hydrocodone)
- Percocet (Oxycodone)
- Ultram (Tramadol)
- Vicodin (Hydrocodone)
In most cases, you will receive opioids, NSAID (Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug), and acetaminophen, or combinations of 2 or more of these drugs. Opioids are in almost every prescription painkiller offered for post-surgery pain.
How Addiction Develops
The primary causes of addiction to painkillers are overexposure, long-term use, and in some cases, taking painkillers for pleasure or recreation instead of only to stop pain. 94% of surgeons prescribe opioids after surgery and 91% admit to giving patients more than they need to manage the pain. While most people need opioid painkillers for a few days post-surgery, many are sent home with enough for 30 days or more, in part to ensure that they have enough and in part to reduce the burden on hospital customer service, to prevent the patient from calling back in because of pain. Thus, many people go home after surgery with more painkillers than they need, and many more find it easy to replace or fill up their prescriptions by claiming continued pain after the prescription ends. Opioids affect the brain by traveling through the blood stream to attach to proteins in the brain known as mu opioid receptors. The presence of these opioids then trigger the release of dopamine and serotonin in the brain’s reward system, causing users to feel less pain, a gentle feeling of pleasure, and relaxation. When taken in the presence of significant pain, they largely only numb the pain, but as the pain reduces, the user feels more of the pleasure from the opioids. Over time, as the brain adjusts to higher levels of opioids in the system, the brain develops a tolerance, producing less and less dopamine and serotonin in response. Therefore, the user must take more to get the same pain reducing effect or the same effect of pleasure. Because tolerance can begin to develop just a few days into taking opioids, it can quickly lead to increased usage and addiction. However, patients can also become addicted through long-term use of the drug. Even taking opioids as-prescribed for more than a few weeks can result in a serious addiction. As a result, between 10 and 18% of all post-surgery patients will develop an opioid addiction, resulting in about 7 million new addictions every year. In some cases, such as long-term pain medication for knee surgery, this rate can be even higher, with averages of about 30% of users becoming addicted. In one study, 35% of hip replacement patients and 53% of knee replacement patients were still taking opioids 6 months after surgery. The longer your exposure to opioids, the higher your chance of addiction.
If you have been prescribed opioid analgesics as part of your post-surgery recovery, you can take several steps to ensure that you do not become addicted. Talk with Your Doctor – Discuss your pain needs with your doctor and ask how long you should be taking the drugs, if it’s okay to stop sooner if you don’t feel pain, and about any likely side affects such as addiction. It is very important to mention if you have a history of addiction. In most cases, your doctor will have an alternative pain management schedule available for you if you have a history of addiction. Stop As Soon as Possible – After the first 2-4 days, you can likely wait until you are in pain to take pain medication. You can also check your pain levels without the drugs, and if they are not as severe, switch to an NSAID like Tylenol. If you’ve been given a prescription strength opiate like codeine, you can also ask for prescription strength Tylenol to replace it. Once your recommended prescription time is up, stop taking it. Only Take Pills When You’re in Pain – If you’re not in pain, don’t take the pills. If you need constant pain medication, you will likely be given a slow-release version of the drug or a Fentanyl patch, which you should use as directed. However, if you have fast-release painkillers and it has been several days since surgery, you can wait to take them until you need them. If you are ever tempted to take prescription medication for any reason other than pain, talk to your doctor.
Planning for a Surgery
If you are facing a surgery, you can take some time to discuss your concerns about addiction with your doctor. Acetaminophen and NSAID’s are both analgesic options that pose significantly fewer risks to recovering patients. While the amount of pain relief is also lessened, as many as 79% of patients who discuss their options with their doctor eventually chose a non-opioid painkiller. In some cases, doctors are working with patients to provide short-term pain relief through oxycodone or other opioids, followed by a switch to Tylenol within 2-14 days post surgery. This greatly limits your ability to become addicted, because it lowers your exposure to the drug.
What to Do If You’re Addicted to Pain Medication
If you or someone you love is struggling with an addiction to painkillers after a surgery, help is available. An addiction treatment facility can help with opiod detox to ensure that you or your loved one can detox safely, and can then provide the therapy and rehabilitation necessary to help fight mental addiction and cravings. While the signs and symptoms of addiction vary depending on the person, you may be addicted if you take prescription pills for reasons other than pain, take pills outside of your prescription, take more of your prescription pills than recommended, or stay on your pills long after the pain has gone. Opioid painkillers are powerful, painfully addictive, and they do ruin lives. If you or someone you love is addicted, it’s important to get help. Oceanfront Recovery is located in in Southern California in beautiful and sunny Laguna Beach. If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, please contact one of our professional and compassionate team at 877-279-1777 to begin the journey of recovery today.