When Chronic Pain Leads to Dependency

By Hugh C. McBride

On May 14, 1996, the man who was then the NFL’s premiere player called a press conference to announce that he was entering a rehabilitation facility to help overcome an addiction to painkillers. Like thousands of other individuals from all walks of life, one of the NFL’s legendary “iron men” had had his life nearly destroyed by chronic pain.


Playing one of the most precarious positions in one of the world’s most violent sports, and having endured five surgeries in a six-year period, Favre had developed a dependence on Vicodin, a narcotic analgesic that contains hydrocodone and acetaminophen. At his lowest points, Favre told Sports Illustrated writer Peter King, he “scavenged pills from teammates,” and once took 13 Vicodin tablets in a single day.

Though few people are capable of matching Favre’s athletic prowess or equaling his fame and fortune, millions share his struggle to manage chronic pain and thousands have endured similar battles to overcome drug dependence:

  • According to the American Pain Foundation (APF), it is estimated that more than 76 million American adults have experienced pain that lasted for more than 24 hours.
  • 42 percent (almost 32 million) of those 76 million adults report having had pain that endured for a year or longer.
  • A National Institute of Health Statistics (NIHS) survey indicated that lower back pain is the most common type of chronic pain, followed by severe/migraine headaches and neck pain.
  • The APF identifies back pain as the leading cause of disability among American adults under the age of 45.
  • The APF has also reported that adults who suffer from lower back pain are more than four times as likely to experience “serious psychological distress” as are individuals who do not suffer from this type of chronic pain.

While the object of Favre’s dependency was Vicodin, other pain-killing drugs to which many individuals have become addicted include OxyContin, Percocet, Darvocet, and Fentanyl.


In a society in which unregulated Internet pharmacies have made acquiring prescription drugs as easy as ordering from an online catalog, it may come as little surprise that thousands of suffering Americans are attempting to self-medicate their pain away. However, as many have discovered, taking highly addictive medications without the advice or supervision of a health care provider can cause many more problems than it solves.

A Jan. 4, 2008 article on the ABC News website referred to painkiller abuse as “America’s stealth addiction.” Citing statistics provided by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), writer Russell Goldman noted that in 2005 the estimated number of people who used prescription painkillers for nonmedical reasons (5.2 million) was more than double the estimated 2.4 million individuals who used cocaine.

Though not all of these off-label or recreational uses of prescription painkillers can be attributed to struggles with chronic pain, evidence indicates that many individuals develop dependency after using the drugs for legitimate purposes.

In her article on the website of the National Pain Foundation, Dr. Jennifer P. Schneider writes that chronic pain is “notoriously under-treated,” and that the most common reasons patients gave for changing doctors included “too much pain,” and “the belief that the doctor didn’t take their pain seriously enough.”

Various experts cite the following as signs that the proper use of pain-killing medication has morphed into dependency or addiction:

  • Needing increasingly larger doses to achieve the same level of comfort
  • Undergoing changes in personality and withdrawing from family, friends, and social situations one previously enjoyed
  • Expressing a need for continued medication long after the injury for which the drugs were initially prescribed has healed
  • “Doctor shopping,” going online, or taking other steps to get more pain medication than was originally prescribed
  • Experiencing blackouts, memory loss, or forgetfulness


By all reports, Brett Favre has remained addiction-free since his rehab stint more than a decade ago. Now with the New York Jets, he enters the 2008 season having started a record 253 consecutive games – a stunning physical achievement that supports the tenet that drug dependency and rehabilitation do not equate to “weakness.”

Some people who abuse prescription painkillers are able to overcome their addictions through counseling, participation in 12-step support groups, or outpatient therapy – but more severe cases may merit hospitalization or a stay in a residential treatment facility.

In addition to traditional rehabilitation efforts, which address a wide range of substance abuse disorders, some programs are designed specifically for individuals who are suffering from chronic pain and related dependencies.

One such chronic pain treatment program can be found at the Twelve Oaks Alcohol & Drug Treatment Center. Located in Navarre, Florida, Twelve Oaks is dedicated to assisting individuals in their efforts to live drug-free and pain-free lives.

Licensed by the Florida Department of Children and Families and accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities, Twelve Oaks’ 101-bed residential facility is a place where both adults and adolescents can, as the center’s website notes, “learn a new way to live, free from the bonds of addiction and/or chronic pain.”

Learn more about chronic pain management.