Why is it so Hard to Stop Using Pain Medications?


If so, you are not alone. In 2010 there were reportedly as many as 2.4 million people in the US with an opioid problem. The majority of opioids used in the US originate from a legal doctor’s prescription, written to treat pain. There are many different types of prescription opioids (eg: oxycontin, percocet, opana), but there are also “street” opioids (eg: heroin) that are not prescribed by a doctor. Opioids are commonly taken orally in pill form but are also snorted and injected intravenously for faster action.


Cognitive Psychiatry, Opioid AddictionIf you have used pain pills or other opioids for extended periods of time, your body becomes dependent on the opioids. When you stop using the opioids, your body will start to go through withdrawal and you will start to feel physically sick. Normally withdrawal starts about 24-48 hours after your last opiate use and common symptoms of withdrawal are fatigue, irritability, aches or chills, diarrhea, and insomnia. Opioid withdrawal is not fatal but it can make you extremely sick for days to weeks, and you may be unable to function and home, school, or work. For many people, when they start to feel sick they start to feel desperate and will take opioids just to feel physically better and function again.



Opioid dependence was defined by the DSM (a handbook used by mental health providers) as 3 or more of the following in 12 month period:

Opioid abuse was defined in the DSM as one or more in 12 month period:

Opioid addiction is a more complicated term. Most people use it to describe the psychological state of cravings to use opioids and the behaviors the result from opioid abuse or dependence.

While these terms are helpful to understand, it is more important to understand how your life has been affected by opioids and how you can get help with your symptoms. The current DSM-V does not distinguish between “dependence” and “abuse” but views substance problems on a spectrum of “abuse”. When you come to your first appointment, your doctor will talk with you in detail about how opioid use has affected your life and your personal treatment goals.


Buprenorphine (Suboxone, Zubsolv) is a medication prescribed by specially trained doctors who see patients in their normal office setting. This medication is a replacement therapy, meaning that the buprenorphine acts like an opioid to prevent the physical withdrawal symptoms. Buprenorphine has special properties which make it a good choice for replacement therapy; suboxone is the brand name of a medication which combines buprenorphine with naloxone to improve the safety of the medication and avoid misuse. Cognitive Psychiatry of Chapel Hill (CPCH) has doctors that are qualified to prescribe you this medication if they think it is a good choice for you. For details on how the CPCH suboxone program works, please see the information sheet below.

Methadone is another replacement opioid therapy. It is prescribed through special programs; most are prescribed at clinics which require daily attendance. CPCH does not prescribe methadone.

Naltrexone is a medication which blocks opioids so that if you use an opioid it will have no effect. This medication can be a good choice for someone who has not used opioids for a longer period of time, or for someone who has recently tapered off replacement therapy but wants to reduce their risk of relapse. Naltrexone is available in pill form or as a once-monthly shot. CPCH doctors can prescribe you the pill form or administer the shot form of this medication.

Inpatient detoxification (detox) programs are designed to help you stop using opioids quickly in a medically supervised setting. In this program, you will stay at a hospital and you will quickly come off of opioids. You will likely have withdrawal symptoms and the staff at the detox can give you medications to help make the withdrawal less uncomfortable.

Rehabilitation (rehab) programs are often recommended after a detox program. At rehab, you live away from home and do not take any opioids. You attend groups and individual therapy sessions to try to better understand your dependence.


loss of productivity : if you are unable to get opioids for a period of time you will have physical withdrawal which will likely make it difficult to function at home, work or school, resulting in decreased productivity

financial problems : the cost of illegal opioid use can be very high, most people we see at CPCH estimate that they spend $200-$1000 per week on opioids

physical damage : chronic opioid use puts you at risk for accidental overdose and liver damage; if you snort opioids you can damage your nose, if you inject opioids you are at risk for diseases like hepatitis, HIV, and even death due to air embolism

legal problems : it is illegal to use pain pills that are not prescribed to you, illegal use of opioids can result in fines, court dates, and jail or prison


Results from the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: summary of national findings. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2011 (publication no. SMA 11-4658).

If you would like to consult with one of our psychiatrists about treatment options for opioid dependence, please give us a call at 919-636-5240 option #1 or email office@cognitive-psychiatry.com.

Live Mentally Healthy,
Dr. Jennie Byrne

Dr. Jennie Byrne, M.D., PhD.

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