The Link Between Chronic Pain and Addiction

The line between chronic pain and addiction to painkillers is a delicate balance that should be treaded carefully, especially for those with a history of addiction. The majority of people who take prescription painkillers can safely take their medication as prescribed without fear of addiction, but that’s not always the case. Those who suffer from chronic pain, especially those with a history of addiction, run the risk of becoming physically dependent upon the drug.

Chronic pain is defined as any pain that persists or progresses over a long period of time, usually more than three months, and can range from mild to debilitating pain. Those who suffer from chronic pain usually turn to prescription painkillers to help them get through their daily lives. The most commonly prescribed are opiate or narcotic pain medications such as Vicodin, Hydrocodone, Norco and OxyContin. Opiates can be highly addictive, especially when taken for long periods of time, and sudden discontinuation can result in severe withdrawal symptoms that can last up to two to three weeks. Early symptoms of withdrawal often mimic the flu and include muscle aches, runny nose, sweating, insomnia, anxiety and agitation. Late symptoms of withdrawal include diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramping, back and bone pain and intense craving for the drug. Withdrawal is not life threatening but can be extremely painful. Those who become physically dependent on the medication often mistake withdrawal symptoms as the chronic pain, causing them to continue taking the medications long after they’re prescribed. This leads to a vicious cycle between chronic pain and addiction.

The time it takes to become physically dependent on opiate painkillers varies from person to person. Many people fear that taking medications such as Vicodin for chronic pain will lead to a dependency problem, but the truth is that the majority of people will never have to worry about addiction. In fact, the American Pain Society reports that less than 3% of all patients suffering from chronic pain and without a history of drug abuse will show signs of physical dependence or abuse when taking these medications for pain relief. Another study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that only 7% of patients who are prescribed narcotic or opioid medications to treat chronic pain will become addicted. This means that many chronic pain sufferers can safely treat their condition with opiate-based painkillers without fear of addiction or abuse.

While the majority of chronic pain suffers won’t become addicted, it’s a very real threat for those with a personal history or family history of addiction. If you or a family member has ever had an addiction problem, it’s important to discuss this with your doctor and come up with alternative treatments for treating your chronic pain. Luckily, most forms of chronic pain respond to non-opioid pain relievers and anti-inflammatory drugs, such as aspirin, ibuprofen, acetaminophen and naproxen. Alternative treatments such as physical therapy and cognitive behavior can also lessen chronic pain and should be used to supplement pain medication whenever possible in order to lessen the risk of addiction.

Chronic pain and addiction does not need to be an inevitable path for those suffering from persistent pain. If you feel that you’re at risk for becoming physically dependent on prescription painkillers or you are noticing the early symptoms of abuse, it’s important that you discuss alternative treatments for your chronic pain with your doctor.  There are many ways to treat chronic pain without turning to opiate-based medications, and a multi-faceted approach to pain relief is often more effective in the long run. If you feel like you’ve developed an addiction to opiate painkillers, talk to your doctor to see what options are available.


This blog is for informational purposes only and should not be a substitute for medical advice. We understand that everyone’s situation is unique, and this content is to provide an overall understanding of substance use disorders. These disorders are very complex, and this post does not take into account the unique circumstances for every individual. For specific questions about your health needs or that of a loved one, seek the help of a healthcare professional.