With 4.7m people in the United States dependent on painkiller medication and numbers in the UK that are lower than those in the US but rising quickly in what has been described as a potential ‘public health disaster’, addiction to prescribed pain relief is a serious and growing problem. New research into painkiller addiction is being carried out to help people spot the warning signs. 

Many people take painkillers to help them live with pain, with some becoming addicted to pain medication. This is a difficult problem which makes their pain even harder to control. Other people are so afraid of addiction they don’t take painkillers and suffer unnecessarily from pain.

It is hard to get the balance right between the benefits of painkillers and the risk of addiction, so a quick way to tell if you are at risk could help people manage their pain better, as well as help the health professionals who work with them.

I, along with a team of researchers at the University of Derby, have carried out some new research into painkiller addiction. Our study identified two key questions that people can ask themselves to find out whether they are at risk of addiction to painkillers. This can help people to know if they are really at risk, or whether they are worrying unnecessarily about addiction to painkillers.

They are:

·         Would you be unwilling to reduce your pain medication?

·         Do you feel you depend on your pain medication?

If your answer to both those questions is ‘yes, definitely’, you can take steps to reduce your risk of addiction to painkillers. On the other hand, if it is ‘definitely not’, then perhaps you are more concerned about addiction to painkillers than you need to be.

Our research used information from 683 people with different types of pain – the most common of which were headaches, back pain, joint pain, muscle pain and period pain.

One aim of the study was to find key signs of how likely a person is to get addicted to painkillers. We produced a short questionnaire to measure different aspects of people’s concerns about painkillers, and people’s answers to those two key questions were the best predictors of how addicted or psychologically dependent they were on painkillers.

This research built on previous University of Derby research, published in 2014 in the journal Pain Medicine, which showed people were more likely to become dependent on painkillers if they took more prescription painkillers more often, or had a prior history of substance-related problems, or were less accepting of pain.

This showed that there was more than one way to become dependent on painkillers, so people who answer ‘yes’ to the two questions identified in the most recent study might then use these questions to reflect on how the way they use painkillers may be developing into an addiction:

·         Am I using strong painkillers more often than I used to?

·         Am I using painkillers a bit like I used to use drugs or alcohol?

·         Am I getting more sensitive to pain, or having more trouble living with it, than I used to?

We hope to use the findings to develop better information and education for people about painkiller addiction.

For the moment, anyone who is worried about how they use painkillers should talk to their doctor, or pharmacist, or even a friend or family member about how their relationship with painkillers may be changing.