How Long Does It Take to Get Addicted to Tramadol?Anna Ciulla
Because tramadol is an opiate analgesic painkiller, it has cultivated an underclass of opiate users who seek it out for recreational purposes. With its relatively recent introduction to the market as a safer, less addictive, alternative to more potent synthetic opiates such as Percocet or oxycodone, various misconceptions about tramadol have developed with some of these distorting its reputation for not being highly addictive into meaning not addictive at all.
While tramadol is not as addictive as those opiates mentioned above, regular use or abuse of the drug can carry serious risks and addictive potential. Reading this, you may be left wondering, then how long does it take to get addicted to tramadol? The short answer to this question is, it depends; depends on the user, their consumption habits, and a variety of other factors. Below, we will discuss these factors and delve into how tramadol interacts with the body so that you can have a greater understanding of how addiction may develop and how the need for medically-assisted inpatient treatment may occur.
What Is Tramadol?
As mentioned, tramadol is an opiate analgesic prescribed for people dealing with moderate to moderately severe pain. It is regularly prescribed to people who suffer from chronic pain or have recently undergone a semi-serious surgery. Tramadol is taken orally as a 50mg tablet.
Tramadol is commonly sold under the following brand names:
- Ultram (discontinued)
- Ultram ER (discontinued)
When purchased on the street it is often referred to as:
- Chill Pills
Tramadol the “Safer Alternative”
When first released in the mid-90s under the name Ultram, tramadol was marketed as the new wonder painkiller that offered all the benefits of other synthetic opiates without many of the drawbacks of more potent pain pills. As a result, doctors spent years prescribing this “safer” painkilling substitute; surprisingly, the DEA didn’t even have it classified as a controlled substance due to this misconception of low potential for abuse.
This perception that tramadol was relatively safe made it easier to get a hold of since it was much more freely prescribed by well-meaning doctors. People who would have never otherwise been drug seeking felt fine popping the pills like candy because their doctor told them it was a safe, non-narcotic. As you might imagine, a divergence between clinical trials and the real world set in, as an increasingly larger percentage of users wound up addicted or in the emergency room.
This aspect of seeming benignity is what makes tramadol such a threat. According to SAMHSA, 43 million Americans have prescribed tramadol in 2013, a five-time increase in prescriptions since 2003. It wasn’t until 2014 that the DEA finally rescheduled the drug as a Schedule IV controlled substance.
Tramadol’s Interaction with the Brain
In order to understand how long it takes to get addicted to tramadol, it is important to know how tramadol interacts with your brain and body. Our bodies have natural opioid receptors in various parts of our systems including:
- The central nervous system
- The gastrointestinal tract
- The peripheral nervous system
- The spinal cord
The synthetic opiates within tramadol adhere to these opioid receptors, tricking them into believing that they are natural opiates. This activates the receptors, causing somatic and psychoactive effects. Tramadol modifies the brain’s dispensation of pain signals as they journey between the brain and the nerves. It targets several different parts of the nervous system, each one contributing to feelings of pain relief and mood changing. When taken orally, the onset of effects will usually occur within sixty minutes. These include:
- Anxiety relief – Tramadol can help some users by calming their brain and body, thus reducing anxiety and unease. This alteration of brain chemistry can help mask social anxieties or other issues.
- Pain relief – Tramadol binds to receptors in both the spinal cord and brain, altering the communication and interpretation of pain signals, leading a person to feel less pain than they otherwise would.
- Energy – Unlike many other opiates, tramadol can have anti-depressant effects that create a sense of alertness, energy, and euphoria, rather than feelings of sedation commonly experienced with painkillers such as Vicodin. As a result, people may be more prone to use the drug recreationally or to go about their daily tasks.
- Elated mood – Similar to many other antidepressants, tramadol increases serotonin and norepinephrine levels in the brain, leading to increased feelings of wellbeing and bliss. When taken in larger doses, this can turn into a euphoric high that many will grow psychologically dependent upon.
Common side effects of tramadol use and abuse include:
- Dry mouth
- Heavy sweating
- Lack of appetite
Addiction to Tramadol
Despite the inherent dangers and possible side effects, the pleasant effects of tramadol make it all too easy to fall into a drug addiction. This begins with a building tolerance that eventually turns into physical dependence.
- Tolerance: Over time, tramadol alters the brain’s chemistry. It adapts to the effects and becomes accustomed to the presence of the drug. As tolerance builds, the effects of the drug will become marginally less potent. A user will have to take more of the drug, and/or take the drug more often in order to experience the same painkilling and euphoric effects.
- Physical dependence: As tolerance grows and the body becomes ever more reliant upon the drug to function normally, many tramadol users will be at risk of physical dependence. As this dependence mounts, a user may become ever more reliant upon the tramadol for their body to feel right. If a person who is dependent upon the drug stops taking tramadol, they will likely feel the unpleasant symptoms of withdrawal. To overcome these symptoms, the user must go through drug detox in an inpatient drug rehab facility.
Factors That Affect the Addiction and Withdrawal Timeline
As we first mentioned, how long it takes you to get addicted and the seriousness of withdrawal symptoms to tramadol depends on various factors including:
- Your health – A person who exercises regularly and has healthy lungs, heart, and other organs can have an easier time-fighting tramadol addiction and withdrawal since their body is functioning at higher levels than someone who does not regularly exercise.
- A person’s size – A person’s height and weight can affect both the addiction and withdrawal timelines. A larger person would likely have to take more of the drug to achieve the same effects that a smaller person would feel.
- Co-occurring disorders – A person with underlying mental health conditions will in all likelihood fall into addiction at a faster rate since these drugs can help mask the underlying issues of many psychological problems. While this temporary salve may seem to help at the moment, withdrawal symptoms tend to be much stronger and more complicated in patients with co-occurring disorders.
- Family History – A person with a genetic history of drug or substance abuse will likely face a greater pull by tramadol or other opiates. They are more prone to use and abuse the drugs recreationally and thus fall into addiction. As a result, a person with parents who were addicted to drugs will often experience harsher withdrawal symptoms and have a harder time kicking their habit.
- Frequency of tramadol intake – A person who takes tramadol more regularly will likely get addicted at a faster rate than someone who takes it semi-frequently. The more the brain and body interact with the drug, the more they tend to rely upon it.
- Gender – Multiple studies on drugs and gender discovered that men were more likely to start using drugs at an earlier age, and abuse drugs more often and in larger amounts.
As a result, men are more likely to become addicted to tramadol. Naturally, this tends to mean that their withdrawal symptoms and detox timeline are longer and more unpleasant than those commonly experienced by women.
- Method of intake – A person who takes tramadol in ways besides oral administration will grow addicted at a much faster rate since the drug is less diluted when snorted, smoked, or injected.
- Other drug usages – Someone who abuses tramadol with other drugs, especially alcohol, may fall into addiction at a higher rate. This pattern of recreational abuse combined with the adverse effects of mixing the drugs can lead to possibly fatal consequences.
- Size of tramadol dosage – A person who takes more tramadol than prescribed not only puts themselves in immediate danger of potential overdose but also increases the likelihood of physical dependence and addiction.
Tramadol dependence and addiction will be affected by these symptoms, but on average, a person taking 200-300mgs of tramadol a day can find themselves at least somewhat physically dependent within as little as ten days. If you were taking 4-6 pills a day for a week and a half, it would not be surprising if you experienced at least moderate withdrawal symptoms after stopping.
Signs of Tramadol Addiction
There are several signs of impending tramadol addiction. Some of these signs are easier to spot than others, but by knowing what to look for on the horizon, you may be able to save yourself or someone you love from falling into the clutches of addiction.
- Physical symptoms – Even if you are taking tramadol as prescribed, you can have negative side effects. If you are experiencing any of the following side effects, it is critical that you stop immediately since the body is alerting you to the dangers of continued use and addiction. Such effects include:
o Dry mouth
o Extreme sweating
o Feelings of depression
o Inability to concentrate
o Lack of appetite
o Mood swings
o Muscle aches
o Opiate-induced constipation
o Regular drowsiness
- Physical dependence – The most obvious of the signs, if you are addicted to tramadol you will likely experience several of the following withdrawal symptoms if you stop taking the drug:
o Cold chills
o Muscle spasms
o Runny nose
- Psychological dependence – A person on the cusp of addiction to tramadol can feel psychologically dependent upon the drug to function normally. If you have abused the drug for as little as two weeks, you may start to have psychological compulsions and cravings for tramadol, whether in order to cope with anxieties, to mask pain, or to achieve that euphoric high.
- Continued tramadol use regardless of negative costs – A person addicted to tramadol will keep taking the drug despite undeniable negative consequences in their life. The pursuit of the opiate high may become the utmost priority in a person’s life. Such harmful ramifications include:
o Abandonment of personal or professional responsibilities
o Absence from work
o Failing relationships with friends and family
o Financial troubles
o Inattention to personal care and hygiene
o Serious health problems
- Taking tramadol recreationally – It is all too easy to fall into addiction by merely taking the drugs as prescribed for an extended time period. This timeline is dramatically sped up if a person is taking the drug in order to get high. Such a person might take it in higher doses, take it more frequently to maintain the high, or take it in methods other than prescribed such as snorting, injecting, smoking, or mixing tramadol with other substances.
- Drug-seeking – A person who is addicted to tramadol will seek the drug in a variety of ways such as:
o Hanging with other friends and circles who regularly engage in recreational drug usage.
o Visiting multiple doctors to get multiple tramadol prescriptions
o Going to the emergency room to get tramadol
o Repeatedly claiming that you lost your tramadol prescription
While the addiction timeline is different for every tramadol user, the ever-increasing frequency of annual ER visits clearly illustrates that this is an epidemic that must be addressed. If you feel as if you or a loved one have fallen victim to the temptation of tramadol abuse and addiction, it is essential you seek help immediately.
Because can be quite uncomfortable, it is recommended that you detox at an inpatient facility, under the medical supervision of professionals. Beach House Recovery is one such medical clinic that can help you fight your way free from the clutches of addiction. The road to recovery can be arduous and uncomfortable, but autonomy from addiction is well worth the short-term discomfort. If you are ready to change your life for the better and enroll in a longterm residential treatment facility for your drug addiction, Beach House Recovery is ready to guide you.
- SAMHSA, “Emergency Department Visits for Adverse Reactions Involving the Pain Medication Tramadol.” https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/report_1965/ShortReport-1965.html
- GVSU, “Drug Use and Gender.” https://www.gvsu.edu/cms4/asset/903124DF-BD7F-3286-FE3330AA44F994DE/drug_use_and_gender.pdf
- Mayoclinic, “Tramadol.”