Oxycontin and Addiction

Chris Woolston

Chris Woolston

Updated on December 25, 2022


Some people first heard of Oxycontin addiction by reading about the late Rush Limbaugh's addiction to the prescription drug in a cover story in The New York Times Magazine. But by now, just about everyone know about it. Oxycontin has played a major part is the overdose epidemic in the United States, which has claimed one millions lives since 1999.

OxyContin is one of many opioids that are used for severe pain. When taken properly, these opioids are effective and very safe, but all are also potentially dangerous and addictive.

What is OxyContin?

Introduced in the United States in 1995, OxyContin (generic name: oxycodone) is a narcotic prescription medication designed to provide relief for chronic pain. A semi-synthetic opioid, It belongs to the group of painkillers that are derived from the opium poppy. Other examples are morphine, codeine, and heroin. Oxycontin contains oxycodone which, like all opiods, blocks pain receptors in the brain.

Oxycontin was created by Purdue Pharma, which was successfully sued in a class-action lawsuit by many states for concealing how addictive the drug was and for deceptive marketing. The Sackler family, which owned Purdue Pharma, has also had to pay out billions of dollars as a result of lawsuits. Under pressure, the company changed the formulation of the drugs so users could not get an euphoric high by crushing the pill and swallowing it -- something the company mentioned in its marketing.

What was Oxycontin prescribed for?

Doctors originally prescribed OxyContin to treat moderate to severe chronic pain, especially when other treatments were not effective. The pain can have a variety of causes, such as cancer and injury. Southern California addiction psychiatrist Joe Sepulveda says the current thinking is that Oxycontin and other synthetic opioid drugs should not be used for chronic pain or any kind of pain longer than five days due to the extremely high risk of addiction.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, doctors should also avoid giving the drug (or long-acting opioids in general) to people who have mild pain, temporary pain (such as pain from a surgery), or pain that comes and goes.

How addictive is OxyContin?

When taken as directed for five days or less, OxyContin is not especially addictive. But taking it longer than that carries a very high risk of addiction and overdose.

People who take OxyContin longer than that, experts say, may become physically dependent on the drug, and may suffer withdrawal symptoms if they suddenly stop taking their pills. Withdrawal symptoms include restlessness, muscle and bone pain, insomnia, diarrhea, vomiting, cold flashes, and involuntary leg movements.

How dangerous is OxyContin addiction?

It is dangerous because the risk of a fatal overdose is high. However, people with Oxycontin addiction or substance use disorder can be treated very successfully by providers offering Medication for Addiction Treatment (MAT). MAT involves therapy, peer support and cognitive behavioral strategies, and drug treatment with buprenophrine, a safe drug that cuts the craving for Oxycontin. MAT is also very effective for heroin addiction.


Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. OxyContin: Questions and answers.

Food and Drug Administration. FDA strengthens warnings for OxyContin. Purdue Pharma, History and Timeline

Food and Drug Administration. OxyContin Questions and Answers

National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institutes of Health. "InfoFacts: Prescription Drugs and Pain Medications"

Department of Health and Human Services. Drug Abuse Warning Network, Detailed Emergency Department Tables From the Drug Abuse Warning Network

United States General Accounting Office. Prescription Drugs, OxyContin Abuse and Diversion and Efforts to Address the Problem

Drug Enforcement Agency. Drug Intelligence Brief: OxyContin: Pharmaceutical Diversion,

DEA Congressional Testimony, Statement Of John B. Brown, III, Acting Administrator Drug Enforcement Administration Before the United States House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee for the Departments of Commerce, Justice, State, the Judiciary and Related Agencies,

National Drug Intelligence Center, Department of Justice, "OxyContin Fast Facts"

Drug Enforcement Administration. Oxycontin.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Drug Abuse Warning Network.

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