The Link Between Chronic Pain & Addiction

Chronic pain is a common, often misunderstood, condition that affects millions of people each year. According to a 2019 survey, 20.4% of American adults reported experiencing chronic pain, while 7.4% reported pain so severe that it frequently limited their ability to function in the past 3 months.1

Co-occurrence of chronic pain and addiction is known as a comorbidity. Comorbidity is when two or more disorders or illnesses occur simultaneously, often worsening the symptoms and outcomes of each condition.2

This page will discuss what chronic pain is, the relationship between chronic pain and substance use, and how comprehensive treatment can help those suffering from co-occurring chronic pain and addiction.

What Is Chronic Pain and What Causes It?

man with chronic pain in wheel chair looking out windowChronic pain is pain that lasts longer than several months, or a period of time that would be expected for “normal healing.”3

Prolonged pain that does not respond to traditional treatment protocols can be detrimental to a person’s overall health—both physically and psychologicallyand can affect nearly every aspect of a person’s life.3,4

Chronic pain may be caused by various medical conditions, such as:5

  • Cancer.
  • Autoimmune disorders.
  • Past injuries (e.g., a sprained back).
  • Infections.
  • Arthritis.

Some people may suffer chronic pain without any evident cause.5

Chronic Pain and Addiction

Often, people with chronic pain use or misuse substances to find relief from their condition. This may lead someone to develop an addiction, or substance use disorder (SUD).6,7,8

For example, it’s very common for those with pain to receive opioid prescriptions, such as oxycontin or hydrocodone. Opioids are typically meant for the short-term management of acute pain rather than as a treatment for chronic pain.9 Repeated use of prescription opioids pain can quickly turn to misuse (e.g., taking more than prescribed or using someone else’s prescription) and opioid use disorder (OUD).6,7 Additionally, long-term use of opioids has been shown to actually increase pain.9

People with chronic pain may also misuse other substances, such as alcohol or illicit drugs, in an attempt to manage their symptoms.7,8 Polysubstance use (such as drinking and taking opioids) can cause many serious health problems, including an increased risk of overdose.10

How Chronic Pain Has Contributed to the Opioid Crisis in Nevada

Nearly 20% of patients who see a doctor for (non-cancer) chronic pain receive a prescription for opioids, despite the fact that long-term use of opioid medications has not been shown to improve a patient’s quality of life.4

In Nevada:12,13,14

  • 52 opioid prescriptions per 100 residents were written in 2018, which is a significant decrease from 85 prescriptions per 100 residents in 2016.
  • Between 2017-2019, approximately 127,000 people (5% of residents) aged 12 and older reported past-year prescription pain reliever misuse, which is more than both the regional and national averages.
  • Heroin was involved in 32% of emergency room encounters in 2020.
  • Approximately 536 people died of an opioid overdose in 2020.

People that develop an addiction to prescription painkillers and can no longer access prescription medications may turn to illicit drugs like heroin or illegally-produced pills, which can be less expensive and easier to obtain.7 Unfortunately, illicit opioids are often adulterated with the extremely potent synthetic opioid, fentanyl.15 Synthetic opioids have been the major driver in rising overdose rates in the U.S. over the last several years.16

Fortunately, there are excellent options for effective, evidence-based addiction treatment centers in Nevada that can help people struggling with OUD and chronic pain achieve and maintain recovery.

How Can I Overcome My Dependence on Pain Medication to Manage My Chronic Pain?

Woman with head in hands struggling with chronic pain and addiction to prescription opioidsCeasing or reducing the use of prescription medication should be done under the supervision of a medical professional, as people who take opioids regularly—with or without developing an opioid use disorder—will likely experience withdrawal when they reduce or cease use of these drugs.17

While seldom life threatening, symptoms of opioid withdrawal can be severe, leading many to relapse. Common opioid withdrawal symptoms include:17

  • Chills.
  • Severe cravings.
  • Insomnia.
  • Spasms.
  • Muscle/bone pain.
  • Diarrhea and vomiting.

Medical detox enables staff to monitor a patient through acute withdrawal, responding to potential emergencies and administering treatment when needed. Medical detox is a safer, more comfortable way to stop using opioids than an attempt to go cold-turkey on one’s own.17

Detox is often the initial step in addiction treatment; additional treatment can help you maintain long-term recovery and find more effective ways to manage your pain.18

Effective addiction treatment is multifaceted and typically includes behavioral therapies, individual and group counseling and, in some cases, treatment medications.17,18,19

When to Seek Addiction Treatment

While getting help early can improve your changes of successful outcomes, it is never too late to get help.17

When you are managing your pain with opioids from your doctor or other drugs like marijuana, it can be difficult to know when your use has developed into a problem. You may believe you need drugs or alcohol to live with the pain.

While only a treatment professional can diagnose a substance use disorder, understanding the criteria they use to do so can help you understand if you need help for addiction. These 11 criteria, which encompass physical, social, and psychological considerations,20 are listed in our guide to addiction signs and treatment.

The main characteristic of a substance use disorder is the compulsive desire to seek out and use substances despite the harmful consequences that result from doing so. If you are no longer able to control your drug use, you may have a substance use disorder. We are here to help you understand your options for treatment when you call .

How Addiction Treatment Can Help Patients with Chronic Pain

Effective addiction treatment should be comprehensive and tailored to the individual, addressing their multiple unique needs.21

Any comorbid conditions such as physical illnesses or psychological disorders, such as depression or anxiety, should be addressed during addiction treatment so that both can be managed simultaneously.21

For patients with addiction that must continue with opioid treatment, clinicians may establish treatment agreements between staff and the patient.  Treatment agreements are mutually agreed-upon courses of action that can help to create patient autonomy while establishing necessary guidelines for treatment. Staff may then closely monitor the patient by carefully managing and monitoring their prescriptions and conducting frequent drug screenings to ensure adherence to the agreement.21

When possible, clinicians may divert a patient to non-narcotic medications that can be effective in treating chronic pain.21

Desert Hope Treatment Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, provides individualized care within multiple types of addiction treatment, including inpatient addiction treatment, partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient addiction treatment, standard outpatient rehab, and sober living (transitional housing).

The facility also offers specialized addiction treatment tracks for demographics that commonly struggle with pain such as our veterans and first responders rehab program and survivors of trauma.

Do I Qualify for Addiction Treatment Coverage?

Federal mandates require insurance companies to cover addiction treatment just as they would medical and surgical procedures.22

However, the extent of this coverage varies according to the details of specific policies. Verify your insurance benefits at Desert Hope Treatment Center by submitting the confidential .

Methods of Treating Chronic Pain Without Medication

man with chronic pain getting help from doctor on computerIt’s important to consult with a doctor before ceasing any medication or starting a new treatment approach for chronic pain.

Some patients have found the following forms of non-narcotic treatment effective in treating chronic pain:23,24,25

  • Acupuncture, which is a technique used in traditional Chinese medicine where practitioners stimulate various parts of the body by inserting very small, thin needles through the skin at specific points. Multiple studies suggest acupuncture is effective at managing chronic pain.
  • Transcutaneous Nerve Stimulation (TENS): TENS is the therapeutic application of electrical nerve stimulation through the skin. Typically, adhesive electrodes are applied to the skin’s surface at or near nerves where the pain is located. Various frequencies of pulsed electrical stimulation are applied to specific areas, producing strong, non-painful pulses that can potentially raise endorphins (the body’s natural pain-killing chemical) or block the sensation of pain.
  • Biofeedback: Biofeedback is a technique where the physical sensations in a certain parameter of the body are translated into visual and auditory signals, helping patients gain some control over bodily functions and feelings associated with certain ailments or discomfort. It is considered extremely safe and an adjunct treatment to traditional forms of physical and behavioral therapy.

Finding Long-Term Recovery as a Chronic Pain Patient

Comprehensive treatment for substance use and mental health disorders is vital to achieving positive long-term outcomes. Addiction is a complex condition, but it is treatable, and many people recover with the right help.

Desert Hope Treatment Center has compassionate admissions navigators available 24/7 to help guide you through the rehab admissions process. Don’t hesitate to reach out at today.

Was this page helpful?
Thank you for your feedback.

American Addiction Centers (AAC) is committed to delivering original, truthful, accurate, unbiased, and medically current information. We strive to create content that is clear, concise, and easy to understand.

Read our full editorial policy

While we are unable to respond to your feedback directly, we'll use this information to improve our online help.

You aren't alone. You deserve to get help.
Desert Hope is located in Las Vegas, Nevada, which is easily accessible from Henderson.
Take your next step toward recovery:
✔ learn more about our addiction treatment programs.
✔ see how popular insurance providers such as Humana or Carelon offer coverage for rehab.
view photos of our facility.