Blog

April 15, 2019

Long-Term Effects of OxyContin

OxyContin is a brand-name, time-release form of the semi-synthetic opiate oxycodone. First made available for painkiller prescriptions in 1996, OxyContin played a role in the subsequent dramatic rise of oxycodone-related fatalities: an increase of more than fivefold from 1996 to 1999. The next 18 years would see fatal overdoses on prescription opiates increase another fivefold, topping 217,000 by 2017.

Overdose deaths and opiate addiction may grab the big headlines, but there are other, longer-term dangers to becoming dependent on OxyContin. Even people without actual addiction, if they use the drug extensively for several years or decades, can suffer dangerous long-term effects to their health.

OXYCONTIN AND ADDICTION

All oxycodone drugs are classified by the U.S. government as Schedule II controlled substances, meaning they are considered “high risk for abuse” despite being used in prescribed medications. OxyContin’s most common medical use is to relieve moderate or severe pain: and, as with other opiate painkillers, there’s always the risk a patient will come to depend on it as something to be swallowed indiscriminately at the first twinge of discomfort.

Risks of developing opiate addiction disorder, the best-known short-term and long-term effect of OxyContin, are high if:

  • The patient takes more pills than officially prescribed.
  • The patient begins to develop tolerance (needing more pills to get the same effect).
  • Someone takes OxyContin without a prescription (or begins obtaining it from sources beyond the original prescription).
  • OxyContin is treated as a means not simply of feeling “normal” (free from physical pain), but of feeling “high” or euphoric.

The worst red flags, almost certainly indicating an addiction problem, come when someone begins to:

  • Bypass the time-release effect by crushing pills for snorting or injection.
  • Supplement the OxyContin with stronger opiates such as heroin.
  • Experience withdrawal symptoms (heavy perspiration, extreme nausea, runny nose and eyes, faster breathing and heart rate) after going without OxyContin for 24 hours. If no more of the drug (or any other opiate) is taken, these symptoms will continue to intensify, and the patient will suffer severe flu-like illness (withdrawal) for two or three days before symptoms (and immediate physical cravings for more opiates) begin to dissipate.

Professional medical treatment is always advisable for anyone who may be addicted to OxyContin. Although the odds of actually dying during opiate withdrawal are small, the risk is substantially greater when someone is separated from qualified help. A person may vomit to the point of fatal dehydration or become desperate enough to attempt suicide. Or they may give up on detox and reach for a fresh dose of opiate, which is likely to become an overdose when the user’s judgment is impaired and the body is weakened (and has probably already lost some of its tolerance for the accustomed dose).

And even when someone rides out “at-home” withdrawal without serious immediate harm, there are other reasons this approach shouldn’t be depended on as a permanent cure for addiction:

  • It fails to address the larger problems behind the addiction. (In the case of OxyContin, these may include serious and chronic physical pain, where attempting to go without any treatment at all is something few have the willpower to manage.)
  • It provides no long-term planning or support, leaving the person doubly vulnerable to relapse temptations. (And with opiate addiction, the average risk of relapse is over 50 percent.)
  • It ignores the need to have a doctor check for any damage OxyContin may have done to physical health.

LONG-TERM EFFECTS OF OXYCONTIN USE

With or without full-blown addiction, taking OxyContin (or any opiate) for too long can cause a number of physical and mental health problems:

  • Dry mouth
  • Frequent headaches and/or stomachaches
  • Chronic fatigue or dizziness
  • Chronic severe itching
  • Cold sweats
  • Heightened sensitivity to pain, or, conversely, numbness
  • Digestive problems
  • Reduced appetite, and weight loss
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Sleep apnea (labored breathing at night, often accompanied by frequent arousal and heavy snoring)
  • Heart damage
  • Liver damage (often associated with combined use of OxyContin and acetaminophen for pain management)
  • Kidney failure
  • Mood swings
  • Difficulty thinking or concentrating
  • Brain damage, especially in users under age 25

Some of the above are temporary side effects that go away on their own after OxyContin use is discontinued. Others, such as damage to the heart, liver or brain, can last a lifetime.

Anyone who has recently detoxed from OxyContin addiction should have a complete physical checkup to find and treat any “invisible harm” the drug has done. If the user has experienced any of the following symptoms, the need for a checkup is urgent:

  • Signs of possible kidney disease: bloody (or foamy-looking or unusually dark) urine, swollen hands or feet, puffy face, noticing a metallic taste to food
  • Signs of possible liver failure: yellowing skin, severe pain in the upper right abdomen
  • Signs of possible heart trouble: chronic pain or pressure in the chest, regular shortness of breath without obvious cause, chronic lightheadedness with fainting or near-fainting

ALTERNATIVES TO OXYCONTIN

Direct physical dangers aside, medical experts now warn that even five days on opiate painkillers can increase the risk of developing dependence or addiction. Although OxyContin and other opiates are powerful pain relievers, they aren’t the only medications that can be used for chronic pain. Other possibilities include:

  • Ordinary aspirin or acetaminophen
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), recommended for moderate pain from arthritis, strains or cramps
  • COX-2 inhibitors, which work similarly to NSAIDs with fewer side effects
  • Anti-seizure medications
  • Antidepressants (largely non-addictive, and frequently recommended for people who suffer from mental-health issues in conjunction with chronic pain)

The mention of antidepressants to treat physical pain brings up another important point: moods and thinking habits affect physical condition. Someone who feels chronically “down” is likely to experience bodily aches and pains as more intense than does an optimistic person, even when all medically measurable factors are equal. And while pain-vs.-mood may be a chicken-and-egg question—is it the emotional pain that makes the physical pain worse, or do people hurt emotionally because they hurt physically?—there’s little doubt that both can be worsened by feeding bad moods with conscious agreement:

  • “Poor me, everything always happens to me.”
  • “It’s not fair. I never did anything to deserve this.”
  • “I’m just naturally unlucky. Nothing ever goes right in my life.”

Another category of toxic thinking, particularly familiar to people recovering from OxyContin addiction, relates to “needing” the drug itself:

  • “I’ll never be able to stand the pain without my medicine.”
  • “I’m just too weak to cope without a pill.”
  • “I don’t have time to take breaks/get healthy exercise/practice active pain management: it’s quicker to just take a pill.”

The best answer to that last argument/rationalization is, You don’t have time not to learn nondrug pain management. That “quick solution” of pill-popping will ultimately cost you weeks or years in lost productivity due to addiction, in time spent detoxing from addiction, and in treatment for other medical conditions brought on by the long-term effects of OxyContin. And that “quick solution” may also literally take years off your life by terminating in fatal overdose, or in complete failure of the heart or other vital organs.

STOPPING PAIN WITHOUT THE LONG-TERM EFFECTS OF DRUGS

Do talk with your doctor about alternate pain-management medications as well as nondrug means of pain management. Talk also to a specialist if needed. In the meantime, here are some proven-effective methods of managing pain without chemical aids:

  • Yoga, or other stretching and breathing exercises. (Check with a doctor in advance if exercises require more than gentle stretching: and stop any exercise immediately if the pain worsens.)
  • Mindfulness (thinking exercises that involve being deeply aware of surroundings and inner sensations, without resisting or judging them).
  • Meditation and/or prayer.
  • Chiropractic, massage or acupuncture treatment.
  • Maintaining a healthy weight. Obesity puts unnecessary strain on bones and muscles, while being underweight increases the body’s fragility and susceptibility to injury.
  • Getting adequate sleep, and maintaining a sleep-conducive bedroom environment (comfortable mattress and sheets, dark room, temperature below 70 degrees Fahrenheit).
  • Having an evening “wind-down” routine (hot bath, soft music or other relaxing input, no vigorous activity/caffeine/television or computers).
  • Taking regular breaks from daily activities to avoid overuse of any muscle (including those used in sitting, keyboarding and focusing on computer monitors).
  • Eating a diet rich in protein and antioxidants, to reduce muscle inflammation.
  • Focusing on one’s blessings. Keeping a gratitude journal, saying regular thank-you prayers, and returning favors really does get the mind off problems and
  • Thinking positive. Dwelling on “this hurts so much” will encourage it to hurt more, and self-pity or expecting the worst only ensures that the worst is all you’ll notice. Expecting good things to happen lessens pain and improves the odds of “good luck.”
  • Actively learning to refocus thinking patterns toward the positive and rational (this usually requires professional guidance: look for a counselor licensed in “cognitive behavioral therapy”).

If OxyContin and other medications have long-term effects, so do healthy habits. Which would you prefer for the long term: a life of getting by and “managing” pain at best, and of drug addiction and serious overall health damage at worst? Or a life of making the most of every day, working hard to be your best and enjoying it? The real pain relief and good feelings come from knowing it’s possible to live a happy life without a chemical crutch.

SOURCES

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2018, December 19). “Prescription Opioid Data.” Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/data/prescribing.html

Cunha, John P. (2019, February 25). “OxyContin.” RXList.com. Retrieved from https://www.rxlist.com/oxycontin-side-effects-drug-center.htm

Darke, Shane, Sarah Larney, and Michael Farrell (2016, August 11). “Yes, People Can Die From Opiate Withdrawal.” National Drug & Alcohol Research Centre, University of New South Wales. Retrieved from https://ndarc.med.unsw.edu.au/blog/yes-people-can-die-opiate-withdrawal and https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/add.13512

Hill, P., K. Dwyer, T. Kay, and B. Murphy (2002, August). “Severe Chronic Renal Failure in Association With Oxycodone Addiction: A New Form of Fibrillary Glomerulopathy.” Human Pathology, Vol. 33, No. 8, pp. 783-787. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12203209

Mammoser, Gigen (2018, February 21). “Is OxyContin Losing Its Luster?” HealthLine.com. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health-news/oxycontin-losing-its-luster#1

Mayo Clinic. “Chronic Pain: Medication Decisions.” Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/chronic-pain-medication-decisions/art-20360371

Mayo Clinic (2019, March 1). “Drugs and Supplements: Oxycodone (Oral Route): Side Effects.” Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/drugs-supplements/oxycodone-oral-route/side-effects/drg-20074193

Nall, Rachel (2018, April 24). “What Are the Risks of Being Underweight?” MedicalNewsToday.com. Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321612.php

National Institutes of Health. “LiverTox: Clinical and Research Information on Drug-Induced Liver Injury: Drug Record: Oxycodone.” Retrieved from https://livertox.nih.gov/Oxycodone.htm

National Kidney Foundation (2017). “Kidneys and Pain Killers.” Retrieved from https://www.kidney.org/blog//kidney-cars/kidneys-and-pain-killers

WebMD.com. “What Conditions Does OxyContin Treat?” Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/drugs/2/drug-2798/oxycontin-oral/details/list-conditions

For related information on opiate painkillers and the long-term effects of addiction, see the following articles:

Alternative Methods for Managing Pain Without Opiates

Common Forms of Prescription Drug Abuse and Their Dangers

How Long Does It Take to Get Addicted to Oxycodone?

How Untreated Drug or Alcohol Addiction Affects Other Health Issues

Long-Term Effects of Morphine Abuse 

Long-Term Effects of Substance Abuse

Painkillers Explained: Understand What Medications Doctors Are Prescribing For Your Pain and How They Affect You

close