Lowering the Risk of Addiction After Surgery or Injury

Taking steps now to reduce your risk of addiction after surgery can save you a lot of suffering later on.

Opioids are prescription painkillers that are commonly prescribed after surgery. The current opioid crisis is fueled in part by pain–including surgery pain–that leads to opiate use, and then abuse, and then addiction and dependence. Preventing addiction after surgery–or after a serious injury–is a matter of understanding the risk factors for addiction and taking steps to ensure you and your doctor make pain-control decisions that are in your best interest.

The Cost of a Lack of Prescribing Guidelines

Due to a lack of clear guidelines for prescribing opioids, different doctors will prescribe different amounts. A study by the University of Michigan found that after laparoscopic gallbladder surgery, some surgeons prescribed 15 pills, while others prescribed 120. But as it turned out, patients only used six pills a day, on average. The study also found that nearly seven percent of patients were still filling these opioid prescriptions after three months of use–more than enough time to heal for most surgeries. Experts say that better prescribing practices alone will help to reduce the number of people who become addicted to opioids.

Opioid Dependence and Addiction After Surgery: What’s the Difference?

When it comes to opioid use disorders in particular, it’s important to understand the difference between addiction and dependence. Although these terms are often used interchangeably, they aren’t the same thing.


Painkiller addiction is characterized by compulsive narcotic painkiller use despite the negative consequences of the abuse, such as relationship, health, financial, and legal problems. Addiction is the result of changes in the memory, learning, and reward centers of the brain that can occur with heavy opioid abuse. Once an addiction develops, choice is no longer a factor in the drug use, and willpower isn’t enough to end the addiction. This is because of its complexity: Addiction causes compulsive behaviors, and it has important underlying issues that need to be resolved in order to end these and other dysfunctional behaviors.


Dependence on opioids is characterized by withdrawal symptoms that occur when you stop using cold-turkey. These include cravings, nausea and vomiting, abdominal cramps and diarrhea, and muscle aches. Dependence, like addiction, develops as the brain changes the way it functions chemically in order to compensate for the presence of the drugs. This leads to tolerance, which means you need larger doses to get the desired effects. As you continue to use more, the brain continues to change the way it functions. At some point, brain function may shift so that it’s now more comfortable when the drugs are present. Then, when you stop using, normal brain function returns, and this causes physical symptoms.

Although addiction and dependence commonly occur together, they can occur separately. Opioids produce a high level of tolerance very quickly. Someone who takes opioids exactly as prescribed for chronic, long-term pain will still gradually need higher doses as they develop tolerance. Dependence may occur at some point, but an addiction–characterized by compulsive use despite negative consequences–may not occur at all.

Risk Factors for Addiction After Surgery

Some people are at a higher risk of developing an opioid addiction after surgery than others. In order to develop an addiction after surgery, you would need to abuse your medications, which means taking more than prescribed, or continuing to take it after you no longer need it for pain control.

People who abuse opioids tend to have underlying risk factors for drug abuse and addiction, including:

  • Chronic stress.
  • A history of trauma.
  • Mental illnesses like anxiety or depression.
  • A lack of coping skills for handling negative thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

Whether an opioid addiction after surgery develops depends on a number of these and other factors. If you suspect you may have a higher risk of developing an addiction, it’s a good idea to opt for alternative pain medication after surgery. These include ibuprofen and acetaminophen as well as more powerful non-narcotic painkillers like Ketamine.

The Number One Way to Prevent Opioid Addiction After Surgery

The very best way to avoid addiction after surgery is to opt for alternative pain medication, but if you must take opioids, the number-one best way to avoid addiction is to take your medication exactly as prescribed, and stop taking it when you no longer need it for pain.

Not everyone who uses opioids after surgery becomes addicted or dependent, but it does happen. If you or someone you love has developed an addiction or dependence as the result of taking opioids for pain, WhiteSands Treatment can help you end it once and for all while improving your quality of life on many fronts.




If you or a loved one needs help with abuse and/or treatment, please call the WhiteSands Treatment at (877) 855-3470. Our addiction specialists can assess your recovery needs and help you get the addiction treatment that provides the best chance for your long-term recovery.

About the Author

is a proud alumni member of WhiteSands Treatment. After living a life of chaos, destruction and constant let downs, Mark was able to make a complete turnaround that sparked a new way of life. He is serious about his recovery along with helping others. At WhiteSands Treatment, we offer support to you in your homes or when you are out living in your daily lives.