An Overview: Vicodin Addiction & Treatment

Last updated on November 4th, 2019

Vicodin is an addictive prescription painkiller capable of eliciting effects similar to heroin when misused. Many people abuse Vicodin without knowing just how dangerous it can be. Those who abuse it are at risk of several negative consequences, both short-term and long-term. Addiction to Vicodin can develop among both recreational users and those who start taking it as prescription users—having been prescribed the drug does not protect you from its dangers if you begin taking more of it or taking it more often than directed.

No matter how serious an addiction to Vicodin may be, there is help available through detox, therapy, medication-assisted treatment, and follow-up care.


Vicodin: An Addictive Painkiller

close up of hands holding vicodin pillsVicodin, also known by the generic name hydrocodone, is a widely prescribed opioid painkiller. Vicodin is the brand name for a hydrocodone-acetaminophen combination, and it is taken orally, in tablet form.1 While opioid painkillers like Vicodin do have valid medical uses, they are widely abused and are notoriously addictive. As many as 36 million people in the world abuse opioids, and approximately 2 million people in the United States have an opioid use disorder.1

Doctors prescribe Vicodin for the treatment of pain. While the drug won’t address the underlying cause of pain, it reduces the sensation of pain by activating opioid receptors in the brain. This process not only alleviates pain but can also cause pronounced sedation and euphoria, especially at high doses. The pleasurable sensations associated with opioids like Vicodin can be so rewarding that people will strive to experience them again and again, which can easily lead to abuse and eventually addiction (an inability to stop using the drug despite experiencing negative consequences).1.2

Similarly to heroin, Vicodin activates specific opioid receptors in the brain. In doing so, and in a dose-dependent manner, Vicodin use can result in the tell-tale opioid high. So while Vicodin continues to be legally prescribed and does have valid medical applications, it is an addictive drug—having a prescription for it doesn’t preclude a person from developing a substance use disorder and needing professional treatment. 

Similarly to heroin, Vicodin activates specific opioid receptors in the brain.

How Is Vicodin Abused?

Vicodin abuse can occur in a number of ways and it might even happen without the individual realizing they are abusing the drug. It might involve taking just a little bit more than prescribed by your doctor, and then a little more, and a little more until you gradually need much higher doses to get the effects you’re seeking. It might also take other forms such as:

  • Taking the drug in ways other than directed, such as crushing and snorting it or injecting it to try and get a faster, more intense high.
  • Taking it more frequently than prescribed.
  • Taking it without a prescription/taking someone else’s prescription. 

As indicated above, some people take Vicodin in a way that they hope will produce a stronger high with a quicker onset. They may mix it with water and inject it or crush the pills into a powder that they snort. Both of these methods are extremely risky, potentially deadly, and indicative of a problem with Vicodin abuse. 

People who abuse opioids may abuse other drugs as well, which can be extremely risky. Benzodiazepines, or benzos, are another class of drug which people commonly abuse, and the combination of opioids like Vicodin and benzodiazepines is quite prevalent. Researchers believe the combination of benzos and opioids is popular because the sedating effects of the benzodiazepines amplify the effects of opioids.4 In addition, alcohol abuse is seen frequently in individuals who abuse Vicodin and other forms of opioid drugs. Alcohol use was involved in about 22% of emergency room visits for opioid-related overdoses and about 18% of opioid-related deaths, according to a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control in 2010 (CDC).2-5

Combining opioids such as Vicodin with CNS depressant drugs, including benzos and alcohol, markedly raises the risk of overdose. These substances, to varying degrees, are capable of depressing vital physiological functions, such as breathing and heart rate; the combined effect can become deadly in a short time span.

What Are the Short-Term Effects?

Vicodin will provide short-term pain relief. Many people feel sleepy and report a sense of relaxation or a euphoric rush after taking Vicodin. Furthermore, some people who take too much Vicodin can have trouble with memory or become confused.2

While the high from Vicodin may be appealing to some, Vicodin side effects can be unpleasant in the short-term and include: 6,7

  • Constipation.
  • Nausea.
  • Vomiting.
  • Agitation.
  • Headache.
  • Dizziness.

How Can Abusing Vicodin Affect You Long-Term? 

Over time, Vicodin side effects can be quite serious. Populations that abuse opioids have higher rates of both suicide attempts and completed suicides.3

close up of person injecting vicodin into arm in dark room

Those persons who inject Vicodin and other drugs also have a serious risk of contracting infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis and experiencing problems like tetanus and heart infections from using infected needles. In addition, other problems with veins and circulation can develop. A person’s veins may become sclerosed—meaning that their walls harden, to an extent that a person can no longer easily inject a substance into their veins. As this progresses, injection users may begin to shoot directly into their muscle tissue, or under the skin (called skin-popping), which can increase their risk of developing cellulitis and abscesses.3

Even when people do not inject opioids, they are at higher risk of complications such as:3,11

  • Visual impairment, due to constriction of the pupils.
  • Insufficient mucous membrane secretions, resulting in dry nose and mouth.
  • Severe constipation.
  • Erectile dysfunction.
  • Irregular periods and other problems with the reproductive system such as infertility.

Vicodin abuse may also lead to legal consequences. For example, people who abuse and/or are dependent on Vicodin may find themselves breaking the law to keep a steady supply of Vicodin, for example stealing drugs or money or forging prescriptions.

Abuse of Vicodin can also cause problems with family and work, as the Vicodin user may become so consumed with using to the point of ignoring their professional and family obligations. Increased family conflict is a typical outcome of Vicodin abuse, as family members often bear the burden of the consequences of their loved one’s drug use.

Dependence and Addiction

Of course, a major risk of continued misuse of Vicodin is becoming physically dependent on and, eventually, addicted to Vicodin. Should you develop enough physical dependence you’ll begin to need a steady supply of Vicodin simply to feel normal. When you don’t take it, you’ll go into withdrawal, which can be very uncomfortable. Acute Vicodin withdrawal is frequently described as feeling like a terrible flu.

Addiction often involves physical dependence but is more involved. It refers to a chronic condition in which you keep taking a drug in light of all the harm (physical, mental, social, legal, professional) that it is causing or is likely to cause. Formally diagnosed as an opioid use disorder, signs of an addiction can include: 3

  • Taking more than the intended amount of Vicodin.
  • Taking Vicodin despite facing social or legal consequences for doing so.
  • Taking Vicodin even though it worsens a physical or psychological condition.
  • Craving Vicodin.
  • Trying to reduce or cease your Vicodin use but not succeeding.
  • Failing to perform in major life roles, such as in work, school, or home.
  • Giving up activities or interests that were once important to you in order to use Vicodin.
  • Using Vicodin when it is unsafe to do so, such as when driving.
  • Spending a great deal of time obtaining Vicodin, using Vicodin, or recovering from using Vicodin.

When addiction takes hold, the physical, psychological, and behavioral consequences of abusing Vicodin are much more likely and could worsen over time, should the individual will keep using.

Vicodin Withdrawal and Detox

Withdrawal from Vicodin is rarely physically dangerous, though it can feel agonizing at the time. The flu-like symptoms of withdrawal may include:8

  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Body aches.
  • Excessive tearing of the eyes.
  • Heavy sweating.
  • Constant runny nose.
  • Yawning repeatedly.
  • Goosebumps.
  • Fever.
  • Insomnia.
  • Diarrhea.

woman sitting up in bed portraying insomnia due to vicodin addictionWithdrawing from opioids like Vicodin seldom presents immediate health risks; however, some people who have extreme nausea and vomiting may develop additional complications from dehydration or aspiration.

Another danger is the psychological aspect of withdrawal. Withdrawal may be associated with dysphoria, or unease. In some people, this can be particularly severe and they may become depressed and even have suicidal thoughts.3

The physical and psychological distress that comes along with the withdrawal process often leads to relapse. While you can attempt to quit ‘cold turkey’ and assume that doing so won’t be particularly dangerous or life-threatening, getting help to ease your symptoms in a safe, supportive, and sober environment can help you make it through the process and get started on the real work of recovery.

The process of removing harmful toxins from your body is referred to as “detox”. There are two approaches to detox: the social model and the medical model. For the first approach, a person will enter a program focused on providing emotional support to get them through the first stages of withdrawal from Vicodin. Emotional support may not be enough for some people trying to detox from opioids, however. Per the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), the withdrawal from opioids can be sufficiently uncomfortable that the individual terminates the detox process, relapsing back onto their drug of choice. A medical approach may reduce this risk. In fact, ASAM states, “Using medications for opioid withdrawal management is recommended over abrupt cessation of opioids.” Suddenly ending opioid use can lead to powerful cravings that lead a user to relapse.10

Detox is only the first step in recovery from drug dependence or drug addiction.

Medically assisted detox involves the use of medication to mitigate the symptoms of withdrawal. Certain drugs may be used, such as Suboxone or methadone, that provide some opioid effects without causing the same addictive level of euphoria or sedation.8 

It is important to realize that, regardless of the type of Vicodin treatment a person receives, detox is only the first step in recovery from drug dependence or drug addiction. A person needs to be involved in ongoing treatment to help ensure that recovery continues. When a person only goes through detox, they miss out on the benefits of longer-term treatment, including behavioral therapy, coping skills, relapse prevention measures, and the planning of a strong aftercare regimen—making lasting recovery far more challenging.

How to Treat Vicodin Addiction

If you believe that you or your loved one has a problem with Vicodin, there are both inpatient and outpatient programs to help with the recovery process. The intensity of services received will vary based on the severity of the addiction and addiction-related issues, as well as other individual recovery needs. A Vicodin addiction treatment program can take place in:

  • An inpatient unit, which can provide 24/7 supervision along with medical and social support to help a person maintain their recovery after the initial detox period.
  • An outpatient setting, which can be a good option for people whose addictions are relatively less severe and have good support systems in place. A person may attend an outpatient program for a day or two each week, for a few hours at a time. Intensive outpatient (IOP) is a form of outpatient treatment which meets more frequently (usually 2-3 days per week for 3-4 hours a day). Partial hospitalization, or PHP, may also be an option for treating Vicodin abuse. PHP programs usually meet from 4-6 hours per day, up to 7 days per week. For some people, outpatient treatment serves as their first line of treatment. In other instances, people will attend IOP or PHP as a step down from a more intensive line of treatment, such as that offered in inpatient or residential settings.
  • A doctor’s office. It may be possible for some people to receive substance abuse treatment through weekly doctor visits, and this type of treatment often involves a medication such as Suboxone to help a person avoid relapse due to cravings for Vicodin. It’s important to remember though that medication-assisted treatment is the combination of medication with ongoing behavioral therapy, which may take place in another clinical setting.

Many programs will help participants create plans for aftercare, which could range from options such as sober living arrangements to regularly scheduled outpatient therapy, depending on individual needs. Aftercare helps a person to continue to receive reinforcement for the skills learned in treatment. Recovery support groups, such as Narcotics Anonymous, can help provide ongoing support and are an integral part of sustained recovery from addiction to Vicodin and other drugs.

Medications May Help

There are several treatment drugs approved for use as part of medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for opioid dependence. Methadone is an effective treatment for helping people detox from opioids, but only a federally licensed program or medical hospital can dispense it. Methadone is a long-acting drug that activates the brain’s opioid receptors that helps to curb opioid cravings and minimize relapse risks.

Suboxone is an increasingly utilized treatment drug that recovering patients are able to get from specially qualified doctors. Suboxone contains buprenorphine, which is a partial opioid receptor agonist. Like methadone, it also activates opioid receptors to reduce cravings. However, this formulation also contains naloxone, which will block euphoric effects and initiate symptoms of withdrawal if the user tries to inject the Suboxone to get high.8

doctor prescribing medication to patient with vicodin addiction

Newer drugs, such as Probuphine, can help people who worry about their ability to remain compliant with their medication. Probuphine is an implantable drug, which provides a 6-month dose of buprenorphine, eliminating the need for daily doses.

Vivitrol is an extended-release form of a medication called naltrexone. This injectable suspension is administered once a month, during which time it blocks the effects of Vicodin (and other opioids) on the brain. Vivitrol helps decrease the likelihood of future Vicodin or other opioid use as long as it is active.9 Naltrexone is also available in a generic, oral tablet formulation that requires daily dosing.

If you or your loved one needs help for Vicodin abuse or dependence, call us today. A trained rehab placement specialist can speak with you about the best options for your specific situation. There are many inpatient and outpatient options available, and our rehab placement specialists can help you find the best program for you. 


References

  1. U.S. National Library of Medicine (2017). Hydrocodone combination products.
  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse (2014). America’s addiction to opioids. Heroin and prescription drug abuse.
  3. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5®). American Psychiatric Pub.
  4. Jones, J. D., Mogali, S., & Comer, S. D. (2012). Polydrug abuse: A review of opioid and benzodiazepine combination use. Drug and Alcohol Dependence125(1-2), 8–18.
  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2014). Alcohol involvement in opioid pain reliever and benzodiazepine related emergency department visits and drug related deaths-United States 2010.
  6. Administrative Office of the Courts (2017). Prescription drug and polydrug abuse. Short and long-term effects.
  7. U.S. National Library of Medicine (2017). Liver tox: Hydrocodone.
  8. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2006). Physical Detoxification Services for Withdrawal from Specific Substances.
  9. Ling, W., Mooney, L., Zhao, M., Nielsen, S., Torrington, M., & Miotto, K. (2011). Selective review and commentary on emerging pharmacotherapies for opioid addiction. Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation2, 181–188.
  10. American Society of Addiction Medicine. (2015). The National Practice Guideline for the Use of Medications in the Treatment of Addiction Involving Opioid Use.
  11. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2016). FDA Drug Safety Communication: FDA warns about several safety issues with opioid pain medicines; requires label changes.
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