What is ‘Pseudo-addiction?’ - Drug Addiction

This is a condition that many people are not familiar with but pseudo-addiction can cause misery for both patients and their families.

So what is ‘pseudo-addiction?’

Pseudo-addiction is a condition where a patient is experiencing severe pain, as a result of a chronic illness but the signs and symptoms of this are misunderstood. Carers and other healthcare professionals may interpret the patient’s request for painkillers as a form of addiction.

Pain management involves the prescription of painkillers and other related medication as a means of controlling it but there is a risk of the patient becoming addicted to the pain relief medication.

What are the signs and symptoms of pseudo-addiction?

These can include some or all of the following:

  • An in-depth knowledge of painkillers and their benefits and side effects.
  • An over exaggeration of pain by moaning, groaning or other verbal expressions of presumed pain.
  • Making a note of the exact times when they are able to take painkillers. This can also include waiting anxiously in between the times when they are able to have their medication.
  • Constantly asking for painkillers.

Someone displaying these symptoms is actually in pain but is refused painkillers because carers or the medical staff assume that the patient is an addict.

Another factor is if medical staff notice other patients with the same medical condition but who are able to manage their pain. There is also the possibility of someone exhibiting symptoms which don’t match their medical condition.

Unfortunately it is often the case that the patient is in severe pain and their frustration at being unable to ease this pain causes them to behave in this way. This is further exacerbated by appearing to not be believed or taken seriously by the medical staff.

Treatment for pseudo-addiction

This has now been recognised as a legitimate and distressing condition which means that action can be taken to deal with it.

However it is difficult for medical staff to determine if someone is genuinely in pain and requires extra medication or is exaggerating their symptoms to acquire extra painkillers. This means looking into the patient’s background to see if there is a history of addiction and if so, to decide upon a suitable course of action.

This is a thin dividing line between the two so care and due diligence must be taken to ensure that the patient isn’t inadequately treated and left in pain rather than risk feeding their addiction.

A specialised treatment plan will be devised which contains the patient’s medical history, psychological evaluation (if necessary), their medical condition and pain relief details.

Risks of treatment?

If the patient requires a higher dosage as a result of their condition and not because of an addiction then there is a risk of that patient actually becoming an addict. A high dosage of a powerful painkiller can lead to dependency so it is a good idea to carefully monitor the dosages and adjust them if necessary.


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