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Taking Prescription Painkillers During Drug and Alcohol Rehab: Relapse or Not?

a man hugs a woman after she comes home from rehab

It’s a big debate among those in recovery: is medical use of prescribed medication a relapse if that medication is physically addictive?

Because so many end up in drug rehab due to developing an addiction to their medical prescription for drugs like OxyContin, Vicodin, codeine, Xanax and more, it’s a concern in the recovery community that using these drugs at all, even for medical purposes, is a relapse.

The Scenario: Prescription Drugs in Recovery

Say you get into a car accident or undergo surgery. As you recover from the physical injury, your doctor prescribes you oxycodone, Percocet, or hydrocodone to help mitigate your pain as you recovery. Or maybe, after your car accident, you develop anxiety about driving in cars or being on the road, a problem which your doctor responds to by prescribing you Xanax or another anti-anxiety benzodiazepine. Is the simple act of taking these drugs exactly as prescribed a relapse if you have been or are currently undergoing drug and alcohol rehab?

Prescription Painkillers as Relapse: The Argument For

Many in recovery, often those in 12-step meetings who believe in 100 percent abstinence at all costs, will tell you that, yes, even in the examples described above, use of these drugs is a relapse. They will say that because you do not have a tolerance for them, you will likely experience some sort of euphoria or “high” when you take them and for that reason alone, it’s not okay. They will point out that alcohol is legally available as well and that, by following the same logic, you might determine that one or two drinks with dinner or at a holiday celebration shouldn’t be termed a relapse, either, even if alcohol wasn’t your drug of choice. To people who believe that any use of prescription drugs when it isn’t medically necessary to keep you alive is a relapse and it isn’t just that it could lead to you actively using again but that it is a relapse in itself and that you are no longer clean and sober.

Prescription Painkillers as Relapse: The Argument Against

Others don’t believe that the medical use of a prescription drug of any kind, despite its addictive potential, is a relapse unless you abuse it. According to this view, if you take your medication exactly as prescribed and do not increase your dosage or your dosing schedule in any way and then stop taking the drug completely when you are no longer in pain or feeling anxious, then it is not a relapse. If you aren’t enhancing the drug’s effect by mixing it with alcohol or other drugs, doctor shopping for someone who will give you more than you need, or embellishing on the pain associated with an injury in order to receive more powerful medications, then you don’t have to worry about returning to drug and alcohol rehab as a result.

What Do You Think?

Have you ever been prescribed painkillers while you were enrolled in inpatient or outpatient drug rehab? Have you had a sponsor drop you because you were taking potentially addictive medication? Do you feel like taking prescription drugs is a relapse if you are in recovery? If you don’t believe that it’s okay to take prescription painkillers during drug addiction recovery, how do you recommend those with

Leave a comment and tell us what you think.