It is widely believed that OxyContin is responsible for setting off the opioid epidemic that is considered the deadliest drug scourge in U.S. history. The highly potent and addictive oxycodone medication was once hailed as a medical breakthrough. Since its introduction in the mid-1990s, its makers have been named in multiple lawsuits and settlements. Many of them brought to bear by parties that have witnessed the drug’s carnage — on individuals, families, and communities — firsthand.
This touching obituary of 30-year-old Madelyn Ellen Linsenmeir went viral because of how tenderly it portrayed the human toll of OxyContin addiction:
It is impossible to capture a person in an obituary, and especially someone whose adult life was largely defined by drug addiction. To some, Maddie was just a junkie—when they saw her addiction, they stopped seeing her. And what a loss for them. Because Maddie was hilarious, and warm, and fearless, and resilient.”
Since the late 1990s, OxyContin and other prescription opioid painkillers have snatched up thousands of lives from every ethnic category and socioeconomic background.
“Perfectly sane people become addicted to these medications and end up dead. Lawyers, plumbers, philosophers, celebrities — addiction doesn’t care who you are,” wrote Flea, a bassist with the storied rock band Red Hot Chilli Peppers, of the pervasive and wide-ranging nature of the opioid epidemic for Time magazine. Flea himself shared his struggles with OxyContin.
Despite the dangers of OxyContin misuse, users flock to it because of the way it profoundly impacts the brain and produces euphoric highs. Once users decline into addiction, they become locked in a destructive cycle where they are on the road toward a life-threatening overdose.
What is Oxycontin?
OxyContin is a time-release formula of oxycodone, a semi-synthetic opioid composed of natural and synthetic ingredients. OxyContin hit the U.S. market in 1995 after it was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat moderate-to-severe pain. Before OxyContin was introduced, narcotic pain medications were seen as niche drugs for the terminally ill, particularly cancer patients.
Thanks to an innovative marketing campaign, OxyContin makers were able to effectively change the prescribing patterns of doctors.
In effect, they influenced a large swath of the medical community to recommend OxyContin for a wider variety of common ailments like backaches and knee pain. The drugmakers relentlessly advertised OxyContin’s efficacy in that users only needed to take one every 12 hours, although that claim had long been up for debate.
According to an October 2017 article in The New Yorker, “Millions of patients found the drug to be a vital salve for excruciating pain. But many others grew so hooked on it that, between doses, they experienced debilitating withdrawal.”
Nevertheless, OxyContin became a blockbuster drug many times over, generating billions of dollars in revenue.
What makes OxyContin and other drugs so relentlessly impactful is the way they bind to the opioid receptors in the brain and spinal cord, blocking pain signals in the process.
While the body performs this function naturally to regulate the sensation of pain, OxyContin continuously activates receptors to the point that the brain and nervous system become flooded. This action produces pain relief and sedation, but it also causes spikes in dopamine levels, producing a rush of pleasure and euphoria in users. This is what causes them to feel “high.”
According to Flea, who was prescribed a two-month supply of OxyContin after a snowboarding accident, the effect that the medication produced appeared to be all-consuming.
“The bottle said to take four each day. I was high as hell when I took those things. It not only quelled my physical pain but all my emotions as well. I only took one a day, but I was not present for my kids, my creative spirit went into decline, and I became depressed.”
He stopped taking OxyContin after a month.
Countless others could not kick their OxyContin habit, however. The way the OxyContin rewires the brain with each use, people begin to associate it with the release of that feel-good dopamine. It’s an association that fuels the cycle of dependence and addiction.
Signs of Oxycontin Addiction
The signs and symptoms of opioid addiction may not be readily observable in the beginning. They tend to subtly manifest over time. What’s more, someone who is misusing or abusing OxyContin may not exhibit all the signs of addiction.
However, there are key indicators of dependence that will begin to show in a user. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) states that dependence occurs when neurons in the body adapt to the repeated introduction of a drug and can only function normally when the substance is present.
When someone engages in long-term OxyContin use, the person will eventually exhibit physical and mental side effects, which indicate a growing problem. Those effects include:
- Increased sensitivity to pain
- Chronic constipation
- Gastrointestinal issues
- Sexual dysfunction
- Frequent drowsiness
- Bouts of nausea and vomiting
When OxyContin dependence has progressed into addiction, a user will exhibit compulsive and obsessive behaviors to the point where obtaining OxyContin becomes the main priority in their life.
Because the drug becomes the driving force behind nearly every action, that person will use OxyContin in the face of adverse situations, including job loss, legal woes, and strained personal relationships, or worse.
These are surefire behaviors that indicate OxyContin addiction. Among them are:
- Using OxyContin more often or in larger amounts
- Increasing tolerance to OxyContin’s effects
- Experiencing cravings and withdrawal
- Using OxyContin without a prescription
- Forging prescriptions or “doctor shopping”
- Stealing money or valuables
- Noticeable decline in personal hygiene
- Becoming socially withdrawn and isolated
- Hiding OxyContin use from others
- Unable to function or be “normal” without it
- Inability to stop using OxyContin
If these signs look familiar in yourself or a loved one, then it is vital that you get professional treatment. Avoiding treatment or going “cold turkey” could introduce the risk of fatal overdose.
How is Oxycontin Addiction Treated?
Opioid withdrawal symptoms tend to be mild when compared to the hazardous effects that result from benzodiazepines. Yet, an OxyContin detox should never be attempted alone because the symptoms are painful and uncomfortable enough to cause patients to relapse.
The first step in a professional opioid addiction treatment program is medically supervised detoxification, a four-to-seven-day process where the OxyContin and other toxins are flushed from your system. In some cases, replacement medications are used to help patients who are undergoing withdrawal.
During this phase, medical staff will administer around-the-clock care, and experienced clinicians will assess your best treatment options going forward.
After detox is completed, the next step in your recovery program is ongoing care at a treatment facility. For severe addictions, residential treatment, which typically lasts between 30 to 90 days, is highly recommended.
In residential treatment, you will stay at a facility away from home and receive individual, group, and family therapies daily. These therapies are arranged to help you identify and address the underlying issues, emotions, thoughts, and behaviors that have fueled your addiction.
For people who have completed residential treatment or do not have the flexibility to live at the facility and receive therapy, there is outpatient care. In outpatient, you will have the ability to live at home (or at a sober living facility) and receive ongoing treatment daily or weekly at a designated center.
The advantage of outpatient care is that it allows you to remain connected to a recovery community, which can mean the difference between sustained sobriety and relapse.
How Dangerous is Oxycontin?
OxyContin is dangerous because it can produce life-threatening overdose symptoms like kidney or liver damage. Other overdose symptoms of OxyContin include:
- An extremely weak pulse
- Uncontrolled vomiting
- Dangerously shallow and slow breathing
- Bluish skin around lips and fingernails
- Impaired reflexes
- Difficulty moving
- Cold and clammy skin
- Slipping in and out of consciousness
When OxyContin is consumed with alcohol or another drug, the risk of fatal overdose heightens. If someone is exhibiting signs of overdose, then it is vital that they immediately seek emergency medical attention. You should also be aware that even if emergency services are alerted in time to reverse an overdose and prevent death, severe and permanent brain damage is possible due to a lack of oxygen. This involves the following:
- Memory loss
- Impaired vision or hearing
- Difficulty processing complex thought
- Impaired coordination
- A nonresponsive, vegetative state
Oxycontin Abuse Statistics
- An estimated 2.4 million people in the U.S. had an opioid use disorder, including heroin and prescription opioids like OxyContin, says the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
- From 1999 to 2017, almost 218,000 people in the U.S. died from prescription opioid-related overdoses, including OxyContin, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
- In 2017, there were 17,087 deaths attributed to overdosing on commonly prescribed opioids, including OxyContin, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
- Nearly 80% of Americans who use heroin (including those in treatment) reported misusing prescription opioids like OxyContin first.