OxyContin is a prescription-only opioid used in the management of moderate to severe pain. It is a special formulation of the drug oxycodone designed to slowly release the drug over an extended period of time, providing around-the-clock pain relief. Compared to other opioids which may last 6-8 hours, OxyContin provides sustained delivery of oxycodone for up to 12 hours to treat chronic pain.
Because it slowly releases the drug, the dose of oxycodone contained in OxyContin is significantly higher than other oxycodone product such as Percocet. OxyContin also contains pure oxycodone, whereas Percocet contains a combination of oxycodone and acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol).
Due to its high content of “pure” oxycodone, OxyContin carries a significantly higher abuse potential than other oxycodone products. Many users will attempt to crush the pill, bypassing the controlled-release mechanism in order to get the entire amount of oxycodone into their system faster.
Street names for OxyContin include oxys, OC’s, oxycotton, hillbilly heroin, and berries.
OxyContin – Fueling the Fire of the Opioid Epidemic
OxyContin was introduced to the US market in 1996 by Purdue Pharma. The manufacturer’s aggressive marketing campaign systematically downplayed the drug’s addiction potential, even training its sales representatives to tout the addiction potential as “less than one percent.”
Evidence based research has since shown OxyContin to be extremely addicting. Many states, most recently California, have brought lawsuits against the drug-maker for its deceptive sales practices.
OxyContin Medical Uses
OxyContin contains a large dose of oxycodone that is released over 12 hours to provide long term pain relief. This makes the drug incredibly useful for those suffering from chronic, severe pain. Medical professionals may issue an OxyContin prescription for the following:
- Cancer pain
- Pain uncontrolled by weaker opioids such as hydrocodone or codeine
- Severe pain due to arthritis
- Pain following surgery
How OxyContin Works in the Brain
OxyContin is an opioid agonist that binds to opioid receptors in the central nervous system. By binding to opioid receptors, OxyContin blocks pain signals, which is why it is used as a painkiller. While effective at treating pain, it also makes the user feel a strong sense of euphoria, making it incredibly addicting even for those without a history of substance abuse.
OxyContin is associated with a significant amount of side effects, which can include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Respiratory depression
Respiratory depression is defined as slow and shallow breathing; it is the most dangerous side effect of OxyContin. If OxyContin is taken in too large of a dose, as is common in those who abuse the drug by crushing it, respiratory depression can be fatal.
In cases of OxyContin overdose, the drug Narcan can be used to reverse respiratory depression. Narcan contains the opioid antagonist naloxone in the form of a nasal spray. When used correctly, it can save the life of someone who has overdosed. In most states, including California, it is available without a prescription.
Because OxyContin makes users feel incredibly euphoric, its use is associated with a significant potential for abuse and addiction. Even those who begin taking OxyContin for a legitimate medical reason are not immune to the addictive potential of OxyContin. Those who seek out the drug solely to abuse it will often crush the pill, breaking the time-release mechanism and releasing the entirety of its contents. Users will often attempt to snort or even inject the contents to feel the high immediately.
Injection of OxyContin is particularly dangerous, as it immediately introduces the drug into the bloodstream. The high experienced from injection is similar to heroin, which is why OxyContin is sometimes referred to as “hillybilly heroin.”
Users who inject OxyContin not only expose themselves to the dangers of an overdose, but sharing needles is associated with a significant risk of blood-borne diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C.
Tolerance and Dependence
When OxyContin is repeatedly used, the body builds resistance to its effects, known as tolerance. Tolerance develops quickly to the euphoric feelings of OxyContin, causing users to take more of the drug to feel the same effects.
When used over a long period time, the body can become dependent on the drug, requiring it to function normally. Users can become both psychologically and physically dependent on Oxycontin. Psychological dependence is characterized by needing the drug to feel normal. Physical dependence is when the user suffers physical withdrawal symptoms if they do not take it.
Symptoms of withdrawal can be both psychological and physical. Some withdrawal symptoms are listed below.
- Muscle aches/pain
- Drug craving
When a user experiences withdrawal from OxyContin, they will often engage in extreme drug seeking behavior such as drug craving and lying or stealing from friends and family members to obtain more of the drug.
OxyContin addiction is a difficult challenge to overcome; the goals of treatment focus on both the physical and mental health of the individual.
Those admitted to an inpatient treatment facility will often be switched to a different opioid such as methadone or Suboxone to control withdrawal symptoms; this is known as “opioid replacement therapy” or “opioid substitution therapy.”
Methadone is a commonly used opioid for opioid replacement therapy, as it has a long half-life that provides sustained control of withdrawal symptoms. Some addiction specialists may recommend the use of newer therapies such as Suboxone or Subutex.
The dose of the replacement opioid is slowly decreased (tapered) over time, allowing the body to adjust to dose reductions until it can be safely discontinued.
Some users may attempt to suddenly discontinue OxyContin, known as “going cold turkey.” This is potentially dangerous, as seizures have been observed in those who suddenly discontinue high-dose opioids such as OxyContin.
It is highly recommended that anyone suffering from OxyContin addiction seek the help of a qualified addiction specialist who can help them with their substance use disorder and choose a therapy that fits their unique needs.