OxyContin Abuse & Addiction

OxyContin, a narcotic pain medication prescribed to treat acute pain, is made up of the semisynthetic opioid drug oxycodone. This drug is derived from the opium poppy plant and comes in the form of extended release tablets for oral use.1 On its own, oxycodone is marketed as OxyContin, and it may also be referred to as Oxy, Ox, OC, hillbilly heroin, and kicker.2 The drug has the following effects:1

  • Blocking pain sensations by binding to opioid receptors in the brain, slowing down functions of the central nervous system and promoting relaxation.
  • Creating a euphoric “high”. The drug is often misused and abused for this purpose.

Patients on OxyContin who have a personal or family history of substance abuse or mental illness may be at higher risk of misusing or abusing the drug, as well as of developing addiction.1 In these cases, addiction treatment can be highly beneficial. Additionally, this is why the use of this drug for pain management in such patients requires intensive counseling about the risks and proper use of the opioid, as well as ongoing monitoring for signs of addiction, abuse, and misuse.1

oxycontin addiction treatment

What Are the Potential Side Effects of OxyContin Use and Abuse?

Physiological effects of oxycodone include:2

  • Pain relief.
  • Sedation.
  • Respiratory depression.
  • Constipation.
  • Papillary constriction.
  • Cough suppression.

Abusing OxyContin has both short-term and long-term health effects and many potentially dangerous side effects:1

  • Side effects may include constipation, nausea, drowsiness, vomiting, fatigue, headache, dizziness, abdominal pain, intestinal blockage, increased rate of fractures.
  • When the drug is taken, the central nervous system is suppressed, which means that breathing, blood pressure, heart rate, and core body temperatures are all lowered.
  • Movements become sluggish and uncoordinated.
  • Thinking and decision-making processes are impaired.
  • A person is more prone to accidents or injuries while under the influence of the drug.
  • Poor choices can include risky sexual encounters that may result in unwanted pregnancy or the contraction of sexually transmitted or infectious disease, like hepatitis and HIV/AIDS.

What Qualifies as OxyContin Abuse?

Taking a medication when there is no need to do so, or taking it beyond its prescribed dosage or purpose, is considered drug abuse. People may take OxyContin between prescribed doses or more often than is actually necessary when abusing the medication.1 An individual may continue to take the drug after a prescription has run out or go to multiple doctors in a practice called “doctor shopping,” to try and get more prescriptions.3 Anytime the drug is taken in a way it isn’t meant to be, such as chewing it or altering it to smoke, inject, or snort it, it is considered abuse.1

Individuals may go to great lengths to obtain OxyContin, asking friends or relatives for it, buying it on the street, stealing it, or forging prescriptions to get it.4 The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) publishes that the majority of people who misuse prescription medications get them for free from non-medical sources, typically relatives or friends.5

Potential Signs of OxyContin Abuse

Signs of oxycodone abuse may include:1

  • Severe mood swings.
  • Extreme relaxation or sedation, sluggish movements, and slurred speech.
  • Impaired motor coordination and potential falls or accidents as a result.
  • Increased risk-taking behaviors and lowered inhibitions.
  • Increased secrecy.
  • Strange sleep patterns.
  • Appetite and weight changes.
  • A possible shift in personality.

Does OxyContin Come with Risk of Dependence?

OxyContin can be habit-forming, whether taken as directed or abused. Physical dependence can be formed rather quickly as brain chemistry and circuitry are impacted by the drug. The use of the drug should not be stopped suddenly as dependence can lead to significant withdrawal when the drug wears off. Instead, opioid drugs are often slowly tapered or weaned off in a controlled fashion during OxyContin addiction treatment in order to minimize withdrawal.1

Health Risks of OxyContin Abuse and Addiction

Although OxyContin was reformulated to make the tablet more difficult to manipulate for misuse and abuse, the risk of abuse remains high. How the drug is abused, whether by snorting, smoking, injection or ingestion can lead to a variety of specific health risks. Namely, OxyContin interferes with cardiac, gastrointestinal, and respiratory functions, and prolonged use or abuse can damage these systems. The immune system may be negatively impacted by long-term abuse of this drug as can the musculoskeletal, endocrine, and central nervous systems.1

More than 150,000 people in the United States received emergency medical care in an emergency department (ED) for a negative reaction to the abuse of an oxycodone product in 2011.6 The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) publishes that around 2 million Americans battled prescription opioid painkiller addiction in 2015.5 The following factors can contribute to a higher risk for addiction:1

  • Genetics
  • Biological and environmental factors
  • Polydrug abuse
  • Potential underlying co-occurring mental or medical disorders

Can OxyContin Abuse Lead to Addiction?

The drug labeling for OxyContin warns users of the high risk for drug dependence and addiction that can occur when taking the product even as directed with a specific and legitimate medical need.1 Namely, when a person takes it on a regular basis, the brain can become tolerant to its effects and more of the drug will be needed with each dose in order for it to keep working as intended.7

Much like is the case with other illicit and licit opioids, addiction to OxyContin is a cluster of behavioral, cognitive, and physiological phenomena resulting from repeated substance use which includes the following:1

  • Cravings for the drug
  • Difficulties in controlling its use
  • Persisting in drug use despite harmful consequences
  • Neglect of all other activities, obligations, and interests
  • Increased tolerance and physical withdrawal

The risk of overdose and addiction are possible side effects of OxyContin abuse and such risks go up with elevated doses and prolonged use. Additionally, the longer and more often a person takes or abuses the drug, the more they are at risk of developing addiction. However, it is important to note the following:1

  • Abuse and addiction are separate and distinct from physical dependence and tolerance.
  • Addiction may not be accompanied by concurrent tolerance and symptoms of physical dependence.
  • Abuse of opioids can occur in the absence of true addiction.

What Changes Does OxyContin Cause in the Brain?

With increasing dosage and regular use, physical dependence can occur as the chemical changes that the drug makes to the brain become more pronounced:7

  • Opioid drugs like oxycodone interfere with the brain’s natural chemical messengers or neurotransmitters. OxyContin changes the rate that some of these neurotransmitters are produced, how they are moved around the brain and central nervous system, and then how they are reabsorbed.
  • Levels of these brain chemicals are then impacted by the presence of oxycodone. Neurotransmitters like dopamine, which plays a big role in the brain’s reward processing, learning and memory, and movement centers, are disrupted. The drug elevates levels of dopamine in the brain, causing the high, and when it wears off, these levels can dip drastically, impacting moods and some physical attributes.
  • Withdrawal symptoms can start to occur in between doses or when the drug wears off after this physical dependence has formed.
  • Physical dependence is often a sign of addiction, but not everyone who is dependent on this drug will suffer from addiction. Addiction is not only a physical brain disease, but also a behavioral disorder.



What Are OxyContin Addiction Treatment Options?

When someone battles addiction, they will not be able to control how much of the drug they take, and they will often take more of it at a time or take it for longer than they intended to.5 A person may make many attempts to stop taking the drug but they may be unsuccessful.

A person may continue to take OxyContin in potentially hazardous situations and regardless of any potential physical, emotional, financial, or social harm that will come from doing so. Other activities and regular obligations are set aside and left unattended to as the majority of a person’s time may now be spent on drug-seeking activities: obtaining, using, and recovering from the drug.1

This is why the only way for individuals struggling with addiction to escape all the hazards of OxyContin abuse and addiction is to start medication-assisted and carefully structured treatment. This way, they can be tapered off the drug in a medically supervised setting.1 After OxyContin is gradually processed out of the body in detox and physical stability is reached, the other facets of addiction can be managed. Addiction treatment for this drug ideally takes place within a complete program which includes:8

  • Behavioral therapies.
  • Counseling.
  • Educational programs.
  • Support group meetings.
  • Relapse prevention tools.
  • Aftercare programs.
  • Adjunctive therapies and options.

Individuals struggling with addiction to OxyContin have the option to participate in treatment programs that may be either inpatient or outpatient.8

Inpatient programs are generally considered to be more comprehensive as the person can be attended to around the clock.9 Schedules are structured, and mealtimes, meetings, sessions, life skills training, and workshops are all built in. This type of program can allow time for the brain to heal and for healthy habits to be formed and practiced in a safe environment.

Behavioral therapies serve to help individuals:10

  • Identify negative and potentially destructive thoughts and habits as well as possible triggers for drug abuse and relapse.
  • Learn how to properly manage stress and reduce cravings during group and individual sessions.
  • Improve communication with family members through family therapy sessions.


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