We note with sadness the death of Prince (Rogers Nelson), an iconic and talented musician. Early news stories point to the probability (now confirmed) that Prince was taking Percocet, a powerful painkiller, for pain related to hip surgery performed in 2010.
Percocet contains oxycodone, a very strong narcotic analgesic. It is dangerously easy to overdose on oxycodone – most oxycodone deaths happen when a person stops breathing, which can also occur when combining alcohol with a surprisingly small dose of this prescription narcotic.
Hijacking the Brain’s Reward System
Oxycodone and other narcotics increase the amount of dopamine in a part of the brain called the limbic reward system. Dopamine can cause intense feelings of pleasure (including relief from pain), which drives users to seek out the drug again and again:
Narcotic painkillers can hijack the brain’s reward system, creating a very quick dependence on the drug that is being consumed.
It is useful to think of addiction as a maladaptive type of learning: the brain learns the high reward value of a certain drug, and quickly becomes “attached” to it.
An Unfolding Opioid Epidemic
More people in the United States died from drug overdoses in 2014 than in any other year on record. The majority of drug overdose deaths (more than six out of ten) involved an opioid overdose.
Unfortunately, it has become routine in many states for some physicians to offer prescription narcotic drugs as the first option for management of chronic conditions such as arthritis. Patients can then become quickly dependent on an opioid drug for common conditions that can be managed without powerful narcotics.
As an example, in Oklahoma, opioid prescriptions are dispensed at 140% of the national average – in 2013 an astounding 1.6 million opioid prescriptions were written in a state with a total population of only 3.85 million: (source: CMS.gov)
As US prescribing guidelines for narcotic drugs are gradually being tightened, there has been a corresponding increase in deaths from fentanyl and heroin use: (source: CDC Wonder)
The trend in heroin overdoses looks set to continue, since many US heroin users were previously dependent on prescription opioids.
Emerging Alternatives to Prescription Painkillers
Some interesting research is being done to find effective, non-drug approaches to pain relief. Chronic pain can cause a negative feedback loop with the brain, where the brain “learns” to expect repetition of pain signals, whether or not the pain source is still present.
Transcranial Brain Stimulation Devices – TMS, TDCS, TRNS are a class of devices that are being tested in clinical trials for a variety of pain management therapy approaches.
Curious to learn more about your brain? Try the Healthy Brain Test.
How Oxycodone Affects the Body
See also: Meditation Changes Your Brain