OxyContin is a strong prescription opioid used to manage long-lasting and severe pain that is unresponsive to other non-opioid medications. However, misuse of OxyContin and other opioids can lead to a substance use disorder.
It’s estimated that, on average, 136 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose. Therefore, it is important to understand how to use OxyContin safely and recognize its misuse.
OxyContin is the brand name for a long-acting or extended-release form of an opioid pain medicine called oxycodone, and the names are sometimes used interchangeably. Oxycodone is a synthetic form of morphine, which is isolated from the opium poppy plant.
OxyContin works because it acts in the brain to create a feeling of relaxation and exerts pain-relieving effects through the body’s natural endogenous opioid system.
Although people sometimes use their names interchangeably, there is a significant difference between OxyContin and oxycodone. OxyContin specifically refers to the extended-release version of oxycodone. OxyContin is generally prescribed to treat long-lasting or chronic pain.
Oxycodone, the active ingredient in OxyContin, is available by itself as an immediate-release (IR) formulation or in combination with other pain medications. For example, oxycodone IR is frequently combined with aspirin under the brand name Percodan.
OxyContin is also known by several other names. Sometimes people call it by its generic name, oxycodone. When OxyContin is sold on the street without a prescription, it may also be called:
Sometimes, OxyContin is prescribed to patients that no longer respond to other opioids. People who use opioids for long-term pain management can develop a tolerance to one or more different types of opioid drugs before turning to OxyContin for pain relief.
However, OxyContin has a high abuse potential, and misuse of the drug may lead to a substance use disorder. Opioids such as OxyContin can also make people feel relaxed or “high”, which is why they are sometimes used for non-medical reasons. This can be dangerous because opioids suppress the respiratory system, leading to overdose and death.
OxyContin pills are small, round, and have numbers on them that indicate the strength of the pill. They come in different colors:
Pictures of OxyContin can be found here. These descriptions only apply to the brand OxyContin. Generic manufacturers of oxycodone may use different shapes and sizes.
There are several guidelines that physicians typically follow when prescribing OxyContin. Generally, the lowest effective dose for the shortest duration possible is advised, consistent with every individual patient’s treatment goals.
The starting OxyContin dosage for patients who are not opioid-tolerant is 10 mg orally every 12 hours. Typically, no matter what the dosage, prescription OxyContin is taken every 12 hours to maintain around-the-clock pain care.
OxyContin patients are instructed to swallow OxyContin pills intact and not to cut, break, chew, crush or dissolve pills. Doing so can have serious consequences, as the tablets are intended to release steadily over 12 hours. Breaking them apart in any way quickens drug release and increases the risk of overdose and death. Recreationally, OxyContin pills are also sometimes smoked or injected, further increasing their danger and risk.
Since crushing and snorting break the extended-release technology, a person receives a much higher dose than is safe. For example, someone taking 80 mg tabs twice daily is supposed to be receiving about 6.5 mg of oxycodone per hour. Snorting the tablet will deliver 12 times the dosage all at once, which can be fatal.
In the short term, OxyContin can relieve pain and make people feel relaxed. However, taking OxyContin can also have other effects. The most common physical side effects of taking OxyContin are:
Long-term use of OxyContin can also have psychological or psychiatric side effects:
Drug overdose can be fatal. If you suspect someone is experiencing an overdose, call 911 immediately. Do NOT be afraid to seek help. If you do not have access to a phone, contact Web Poison Control Services for online assistance.
If you live in a state where naloxone is available, administer naloxone to the person. Naloxone is an opioid agonist that can reverse opioid overdose. However, its effects are usually temporary, and the person overdosing should be taken to the hospital even if they have been given naloxone.
Opioids, including OxyContin, are addictive because of the way they work in the brain. OxyContin acts on the brain’s natural or endogenous opioid system, causing pain relief, relaxation and an OxyContin “high.” It can also release large amounts of dopamine throughout the body. This release can strongly reinforce the act of taking the drug, making a person want to repeat the experience.
Certain areas of the brain also create a long-lasting memory that connects the good feelings associated with taking OxyContin with the circumstances and environment in which they occur. These memories often lead to cravings for the drug when the individual re-encounters those people, places or things.
The dangers of prescription opioid misuse, substance use disorder, and overdose have been a growing problem throughout the United States. The number of opioid prescriptions, overdoses and deaths began to grow rapidly in the 1990s. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while the amount of opioids prescribed and sold for pain has increased over the years, the amount of pain reported by Americans has not similarly changed.
The overall opioid prescribing rate in the United States peaked and then leveled off from 2010–2012 and has been declining since 2012. However, almost 218,000 people died in the United States from overdoses related to prescription opioids from 1999 to 2017. Overdose deaths involving prescription opioids were five times higher in 2017 than in 1999, and OxyContin is among the top three opioids related to these overdoses.
The state of Ohio has been struck hard by the opioid epidemic. In 2020, Ohio saw an increase of opioid-related deaths in two-thirds of Ohio counties. In a three-month period in 2020, more Ohioans died of an opioid overdose than at any time since the opioid epidemic began.
The rate of neonatal abstinence syndrome, which occurs when a pregnant woman uses drugs such as opioids during pregnancy, was high in Ohio, and up to 50% of neonates with NAS in Ohio were not receiving optimal care.
These numbers, and the growing Ohio opioid crisis, are likely a driving force behind new opioid prescribing guidelines. These guidelines aim to prevent misuse by regulating the prescribing of opioids for acute and chronic pain.
Just because a person uses or even misuses OxyContin doesn’t necessarily mean they will develop a substance use disorder. However, OxyContin misuse increases the risk of OxyContin addiction because of the way that opioids alter brain chemistry.
Some signs of OxyContin addiction include changes to behavior or lifestyle, taking the drug in ways other than prescribed, and seeming tired or detached. Trying to get OxyContin illegally may also be indicative of an OxyContin use disorder, but addiction is complex and may come with many signs and symptoms depending on the person.
For those addicted to OxyContin, there are several options for treatment, including medical detox, inpatient treatment and outpatient treatment.
Medical detox occurs in a hospital or inpatient treatment facility. During this process, OxyContin is leaving the body, and the most significant withdrawal symptoms typically happen at this time. People experiencing OxyContin withdrawal symptoms in a medical setting receive 24-hour care to make the process as safe and comfortable as possible.
After medical detox, a person will enter the treatment stage, which varies based on the severity of the addiction, among other factors. Inpatient treatment involves around-the-clock care while staying onsite at the facility, including therapy, medical support, recreational therapy and case management. For those with less severe addictions or who have already completed inpatient care, outpatient treatment is an option. In outpatient programs, patients live at home and receive treatment at the facility for several hours per week, so that they can transition to regular life or fulfill their responsibilities at work or home.
If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction to OxyContin or other opioids, The Recovery Village Columbus is here to help. To learn more about treatment programs, call The Recovery Village Columbus to speak with one of our representatives.
The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.