The word “narcotic” and the term “narcotic pain medications” are often used in the media, but what does narcotic mean? What are narcotic painkillers, how do they work, and what are the risks? Even for people who have a general understanding of narcotic pain medications, they may not fully understand how they work and how addictive they can be.
While plenty of narcotic pain pills are technically legal, they are controlled substances. In the U.S. the DEA outlines controlled substances based on their potential to lead to abuse or addiction. There are different guidelines as to how these drugs can be prescribed and dispensed, and also different penalties for possessing them illegally. In the United States, narcotics are defined as substances derived from opium, as well as chemically synthesized substances that act similarly to opium.
During the 1990s, there was a surge in the prescribing of narcotic pills. One result of this now is that the U.S. is grappling with an opioid epidemic. In recent years, there has been a big push to further limit how and when narcotic pills are prescribed to patients. For example, some regulations have been introduced limiting how long someone can take narcotics, and how often they can be dispensed.
While that is the primary reason for use, narcotic pills can also cause a sense of euphoria in users. This is referred to as a high. For patients who take the dose prescribed and follow their physicians’ instructions, there may be no high. Unfortunately, some people experience euphoria which triggers addiction. Other people may recreationally abuse narcotic pain medicines solely to get high.
When narcotics bind to central nervous system receptors, they slow down the functions controlled by the CNS, including respiration. Shallow breathing can be a side effect of narcotic medications, as can slow heart rate and blood pressure. Other symptoms of using narcotics for pain can include nausea, vomiting, itching, confusion, and drowsiness.
Along with addiction and dependence, the potential for an overdose is one of the biggest dangers of using narcotics for pain. Fatal respiratory depression is possible, and even if someone doesn’t die from an overdose, they may be left with lasting health effects.
Narcotic painkillers are similar to heroin in many ways and heroin is classified as an opioid or a narcotic. Heroin works on the brain and the central nervous system in the same ways as prescription narcotics. It is also very addictive and can cause deadly overdoses. There has been an increasing number of instances in the past decade where people have started taking narcotic pain medicines, often for legitimate reasons, and those users then eventually became addicted to heroin. This is a big part of the opioid crisis in the U.S.
To combat the risk of addiction with narcotics, some drug makers have focused on time-release medications. These opioids are intended to release slowly into the system of the user, reducing the likelihood they’ll get high. Despite this effort, people have found ways to abuse these versions of narcotics as well, including by crushing them up and snorting them. This allows all of the potency of the medication to be released at one time.
- Fentanyl (Available in brand-name drugs including Actiq and Duragesic)
- Hydrocodone (Available in brand name drugs including Zohydro ER)
- Hydrocodone/acetaminophen combinations (Available in Vicodin, Norco, and Lortab)
- Oxycodone (Available as OxyContin and Oxyado)
- Oxycodone/acetaminophen combinations (Available as the brand names Percocet and Roxicet)
Abuse of narcotic pain medications is difficult and addiction to this class of drugs is complex and challenging to overcome, but it is possible. At The Recovery Village, we work with patients who are addicted to prescription narcotics, and we understand the unique elements of this kind of addiction. If you or a loved one is struggling with narcotic pain pills, we can speak with you anytime.
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