Prescription Vicodin abuse is part of an ongoing problem of opioid addiction that has been plaguing America for decades. In this age of rampant opioid overuse, many would be surprised to learn that their abuse can actually lead to a syndrome that substantially worsens their pain. The theoretical condition is known as “opioid-induced hyperalgesia”, and it is marked by an increased sensitivity to pain within the user.
Normally, Vicodin dulls pain by binding to opioid receptors lining the brain, spine, digestive system, and other organs (an effect known as analgesia). In certain instances, however, the opposite effect appears to occur (hyperalgesia). While the exact cause is unknown, scientists surmise that changes to “central mechanisms” within the brain can cause painful sensations to increase as the user develops more of a tolerance to Vicodin. In other words, the intensity of hyperalgesia seems to be directly related to the amount of medication taken.
Vicodin is known to stop being effective once the user develops a high tolerance, but medical experts believe “opioid-induced hyperalgesia” is different. In these cases, Vicodin appears to reinforce pain signals instead of dampening them. Since most are unfamiliar with hyperalgesia, many patients sense more pain and increase their dosage of Vicodin accordingly, completely unaware of how this could actually be making their pain worse.
To compound matters further, it is extremely difficult to determine the difference between pain from the original injury and pain from hyperalgesia. The condition often occurs directly at the original site of pain, making it hard to tell if the patient is experiencing pain from abusing their prescription or from a worsening of the original condition that caused them to take Vicodin in the first place. It is important to note that not all people appear to be susceptible to Vicodin-induced hyperalgesia, but the potential is very real, especially for the abusers without a prescription who are looking for a euphoric high.
Phantom pain syndromes aside, the average Vicodin abuser is setting themselves up for a myriad of health complications in the long run. Vicodin is considered an opioid agonist, meaning it has the ability to fully open opioid receptors in ways that other opioids cannot. Essentially, this causes the side effects of withdrawal to last longer and become more severe over time.
These side effects range from a reduction in peristalsis activity (functioning of the gastrointestinal tract), resulting in constipation, to an increase in opioid receptor activity, which causes itching, interferes with thought patterns and sleep cycles, and promotes depression. It is not uncommon to develop visual disturbances and even hallucinations from Vicodin abuse as well. If the person is abusing Vicodin without a prescription, all of these negative outcomes are exacerbated by the lack of a health professional to monitor the patient for appropriate signs of addiction.
America’s struggle with opioid addiction has been meticulously noted in scientific journals. A 45% increase in emergency room visits due to opioid prescription abuse from 2000 to 2002 prompted the drug manufacturer known as Purdue Pharma to begin investigating. Their research found hydrocodone (Vicodin) to be the second most popular drug of choice according to overdose records, significantly leading both methadone and morphine, and second only to OxyContin addiction.
Opioid-induced hyperalgesia is a relatively new phenomenon that needs more study to be fully understood by the medical community. Its general acceptance in peer-reviewed science journals, however, suggests that many Vicodin abusers may be worsening their current pain by overusing their medication, and even potentially creating new pain where none existed before. The irony of developing a chronic pain syndrome from abusing a painkiller is tragic and unnecessary, and only the appropriate education of opioid-induced hyperalgesia can stop this epidemic from growing worse.