In terms of sheer potency, tramadol falls well below its highly addictive opioid cousins, fentanyl and oxycodone. While fentanyl is 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine, tramadol possesses one-tenth of morphine’s potency.
The synthetic opioid is commonly prescribed for humans and dogs to treat pain. When it was introduced under the brand name Ultram in 1995, it was hailed as a safer alternative to narcotic medications for pain relief.
Doctors prescribed it thinking it would not pose the same addiction potential as those other medications. Time, however, proved that to be untrue. Tramadol can get you high and make you addicted.
In fact, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reported that 1.6 million people over the age of 12 misused tramadol products in 2016. What’s more, tramadol has been responsible for significant increases in emergency department visits. Plus, the drug is being prescribed more and more. At one point, tramadol outranked oxycodone to become the second most commonly prescribed opioid in the U.S.
If there is one story that proves that tramadol is addictive, it’s the case of a Kentucky woman who resorted to cutting her dog with razor blades just so she could get the animal’s tramadol medication from the vet.
The woman was eventually charged with three counts of animal torture and obtaining a controlled substance by fraud.
What’s more, when you use tramadol to get high, you open yourself up to a range of dangerous effects and symptoms, including serotonin syndrome, which can be fatal.
What is Tramadol?
Tramadol was developed in Germany in the 1970s, but it wasn’t introduced in the U.S. until 1995 when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved it to treat acute and chronic pain. The synthetic opioid is available in immediate and extended-release formulations. Tramadol is also sold as a combination drug with acetaminophen.
When ingested, tramadol produces opioid effects. It accomplishes this by stimulating opioid receptors in the brain and blocking the body’s ability to feel pain. Tramadol also has antidepressant and anti-anxiety properties. Yet, in high enough doses, users report feeling a sensation akin to mellow euphoria.
While there has been some debate over whether it is a narcotic, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) classifies tramadol as a Schedule IV controlled substance, the category of drugs considered to have a “low potential for abuse and low risk of dependence.”
Still, tramadol can be habit-forming, particularly in individuals with a history of substance abuse. Prolonged use can cause someone to develop tolerance and dependence on the drug. Addiction is also in the realm of possibility.
Though the drug is well-tolerated when used for pain, it can produce a multitude of dangerous side effects.
The Dangers of Tramadol
Tramadol is a prescription medication that can cause serious side effects, especially if the drug is misused or abused. Opioids like tramadol are associated with a significant dependence and addiction liability. Taking them for too long or in high doses can cause you to develop an opioid use disorder, a chronic disease that may take years to overcome. Dependence can also be extremely difficult to get over, causing uncomfortable flu-like withdrawal symptoms and powerful drug cravings. Very high doses of an opioid can also cause an overdose, which can be fatal.
Like other opioids, tramadol is capable of producing a number of common and serious side effects.
Common Side Effects Include:
- Dry mouth
- Muscle tightness
- Uncontrollable shaking of a part of the body
- Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
- Changes in mood
- Heartburn or indigestion
The Following are Considered Serious Side Effects:
- Hallucinations, fever, sweating, confusion, fast heartbeat, shivering, severe muscle stiffness or twitching, loss of coordination, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
- Loss of consciousness
- Changes in heartbeat
- Swelling of the eyes, face, throat, tongue, lips, hands, feet, ankles, or lower legs
- Difficulty swallowing or breathing
- Loss of appetite
- Decreased sexual desire
- Inability to get or keep an erection
- Irregular menstruation
And if that is not enough, slowed or stopped breathing can occur at any time while taking tramadol. That risk, notes Drugs.com, is greatest when treatment is started within the first 24 to 72 hours or when there is a change in the dose amount.
Like other opioid medications, tramadol can be dangerous in withdrawal. How? Because the symptoms are uncomfortable enough to drive someone to reuse the medication after they have stopped. This could put users at risk of an overdose (more on this soon).
Tramadol is unique because it can produce two types of withdrawal symptoms. The first type includes flu-like symptoms, cravings, and restlessness. The second set of symptoms include:
- Panic attacks
- Extreme anxiety
- Tingling in the extremities
Even though tramadol is a mild opioid that’s relatively safe and well-tolerated, it can still be dangerous in high doses. Tramadol overdose may be even more dangerous when the drug is mixed with other substances, including alcohol and benzodiazepines. Tramadol is capable of producing a host of dangerous overdose symptoms. Chief among those dangers is the risk of seizures and respiratory depression.
What’s More, Tramadol Overdoses Can Be Fatal. Symptoms Include:
- Slowed heartbeat
- Difficulty breathing
- Cold, clammy skin
- Extreme drowsiness
- Muscle weakness
- Constricted pupils
There is an associated danger that comes from taking too much tramadol. That threat is called serotonin syndrome, which occurs when high levels of serotonin accumulate in your body, leading to a range of harmful symptoms.
Too much serotonin can produce mild effects such as shivering and diarrhea and severe, life-threatening ones like unconsciousness and seizures. According to the Mayo Clinic, serotonin syndrome can be fatal if left untreated.
Serotonin Syndrome Can Include Symptoms Such As:
- Rapid heart rate and high blood pressure
- Loss of muscle coordination or twitching muscles
- Heavy sweating
- Muscle rigidity
- Agitation or restlessness
- Dilated pupils
The Full Range of Severe, Life-Threatening Symptoms from Serotonin Syndrome Include:
- Irregular heartbeat
- High fever
Can Tramadol Cause Seizures?
Even though tramadol is an opioid with some depressant-like qualities, it is capable of causing tonic-clonic seizures. Tonic-clonic seizures are a type of seizure that causes two major phases. The tonic phase involves a loss of consciousness and a fall if you’re in a standing position. As muscle contractions force air out of your lungs, you may let out a cry or moan. It can also restrict breathing, which can cause your lips or fingertips to turn blue. The clonic phase involves convulsions and rapid contractions that cause your limbs to thrash around. This can cause injuries, especially if you’re not in a safe place when the seizure occurs. After a seizure ends, you may be unconscious for several minutes.
Tramadol doesn’t cause these seizures commonly. But they can occur after taking either high or low doses. If you use the drug without a prescription, use it chronically, or use it in high doses, seizures may be more likely.
Is Tramadol Habit-Forming?
As an opioid, tramadol is capable of causing both chemical dependence and addiction. Tramadol is a weaker opioid than other options like oxycodone or illicit drugs like heroin. But it does have some abuse and addiction liability. According to the Food and Drug Administration, drugs like Ultram that contain tramadol are often sought by people with addiction disorders. Tramadol may be capable of producing a euphoric high similar to other opioids, though the drug is weaker and may have weaker effects.
Drug addiction is typically caused by drugs that cause euphoric effects. Opioids like tramadol mimic your natural pain-relieving chemicals called endorphins, which are among your brain’s feel-good chemicals. Opioids can also increase dopamine levels, which is another neurotransmitter that’s tied to reward and pleasure. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that’s also associated with addiction.
Regular use of tramadol that lasts for too long can cause chemical dependence. Dependence is caused by your brian’s adaptation to the presence of the drug. Opioid dependence causes your brain to rely on the drug to maintain balanced brain chemistry. When you stop taking it, it can cause uncomfortable symptoms and drug cravings. These cravings can make it difficult to stop using the drug. When it’s combined with a substance use disorder, tramadol can be extremely difficult to quit on your own.
Do You Have a Tramadol Problem?
A tramadol problem means you have developed tolerance and dependence on the medication. Tolerance occurs when you need a higher amount of tramadol to experience an effect a smaller, previous dose yielded. Dependence flourishes when you need the drug in your body to feel normal. That sense of normalcy leaves as the tramadol exits your system, leading to painful and uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. Addiction to tramadol starts when you begin exhibiting compulsive behaviors around obtaining and using it, despite adverse consequences.
There are Signs that Indicate a Growing Tramadol Abuse Problem. Those Observable Signs Can Include:
- Shopping for doctors
- Sacrificing relationships
- Hiding usage
- Feeling like they can’t function without it
- Being unable to stop using it, despite numerous attempts
- Continuing use despite severe consequences
- Mixing tramadol with other drugs and alcohol
- Running out of it before the prescription expires
- Displaying anxiety, depression, and/or irritability
- Using it in ways that differ from its intended purpose
- Using it to avoid uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms
How Professional Treatment Can Help You
Tramadol addiction treatment starts with medical detoxification, where medical staff administers approved medications to wean you off the drug safely. Also, staff members will medically treat the symptoms of withdrawal that arise and provide around-the-clock care and supervision to ensure a safe and comfortable process. Typically, detox lasts between three to seven days.
When your detox protocol is completed, you can receive ongoing care and therapy in a residential treatment program. A residential or inpatient program allows you to live at the treatment facility where you will also receive psychological, behavioral, and emotional therapy to treat your tramadol abuse.
Opioid addictions profoundly impact the brain. tramadol is no different. Thus, the treatment offered in a residential program gets to the root of the psychological and emotional causes behind the abuse.
What’s more, you will have access to a range of services and treatment approaches that have been proven effective in addressing opioid use problems. Those services include:
- Medications to treat PAWS or other mental illness
- Cognitive behavioral therapy
- Individual therapy
- Family therapy
- Group therapy
- Medication maintenance programs
- Addiction education
- In-depth treatment plans
- Relapse prevention groups
Typically, people with opioid addictions need more recovery time before they re-enter society and resume normal social roles. This is where an outpatient program can prove helpful. In an outpatient program, clients receive ongoing therapy and care that helps them get acclimated to the real world as newly-sober individuals. In outpatient, you will be equipped with tools and coping mechanisms to help you successfully live without drugs.