OxyContin is a trade name for the drug oxycodone hydrochloride. Manufactured by Purdue Pharma L.P., OxyContin is a controlled-release form of oxycodone prescribed to treat chronic pain. When used properly, OxyContin can provide pain relief for up to 12 hours.
Recently, there has been a lot of media focus on this prescription drug due to increasing reports of its abuse. According to an Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) fact sheet, an estimated 1.6 million Americans used prescription-type pain relievers for non-medical reasons for the first time in 1998. Furthermore, ONDCP reports that the number of oxycodone emergency cases increased nearly 36 percent in a single year, from 3,369 in January to June 1999 to 5,261 in January to June 2000.
Oxycodone is an agonist opioid. Opioid agonists are some of the most effective pain relievers available. Unlike other analgesics, opioid agonists have an increasing analgesic effect with increased doses. Meaning that the more you take, the better you feel. Other analgesics, like aspirin or acetaminophen, have a threshold to their effectiveness. You can see why, particularly for people who suffer chronic pain, a medication like OxyContin can be so beneficial: It can potentially provide up to four times the relief of a non-opioid analgesic, so even the most severe degree of pain can be managed.
Once oxycodone enters the body, it works by stimulating certain opioid receptors that are located throughout the central nervous system, in the brain and along the spinal cord. When the oxycodone binds to the opioid receptors, a variety of physiologic responses can occur, ranging from pain relief to slowed breathing to euphoria.
When abused, OxyContin, like other opiates and opioids, can be dangerously addictive. Rather than ingesting the pill as indicated, people who abuse OxyContin use other methods of administering the drug. To avoid the controlled-release mechanism, they either chew, snort or inject the medication to get an instant and intense “high.” Frequent and repeated use of the drug can cause the user to develop a tolerance to its effects, so larger doses are required to elicit the desired sensation and the abuser gets increasingly addicted to the drug.
Oxycodone-based products have been used illicitly for the past 30 years. Like other opioids, oxycodone can behighly addictive when used in non-medical circumstances. In the U.S., the drug carries an FDA “Black Box Warning”—the most severe warning to medical personnel and consumers that the drug has an “abuse liability similar to morphine.” Labelling of the product in Canada lists similar contraindications and safety precautions.
Abuse of OxyContin was first reported in mid-2001 when some patients in rural areas of Virginia discovered that they could sell the drug, like other prescription opioids, for profit. Incidents of theft, robbery and prescription fraud made it hard for legitimate patients to obtain OxyContin since many pharmacies refused to carry it. Recent studies have demonstrated that trafficking in prescription drugs is one of the only cases where the product actually gains in value when sold illegally (as compared with stolen goods such as TVs and camcorders).