Updated on January 28, 2019. Medical content reviewed by Dr. Richard Koffler, MD, Board Certified Physiatrist
The opioid crisis sweeping the United States involves so much more than illegal drugs like heroin. In fact, part of the problem could be in your medicine cabinet. Painkillers like Norco, which are normally prescribed for surgeries and injuries, contain opioids just like morphine or heroin. Addiction can start with good intentions, but end with lethal consequences.
Norco is a combination drug that contains acetaminophen and hydrocodone. You can find acetaminophen on its own over the counter, while hydrocodone is an opioid medication that requires a prescription. Manufacturers put these medications together for more effective pain relief, but Norco also comes with a wide range of side effects.
Acetaminophen can cause:
Hydrocodone has side effects like:
Since Norco includes both drugs, it can cause any of their side effects. Hydrocodone has the most worrisome adverse effects since overdose can lead to lung collapse and death. Patients who take hydrocodone should monitor their symptoms carefully and keep rescue medication on hand.
Acetaminophen doesn’t cause addiction, but as an opioid, hydrocodone is incredibly addictive. When someone becomes addicted to Norco, they have built a dependence on the hydrocodone in it. Hydrocodone impacts the part of your brain related to pain and pleasure to reduce feelings of pain. But, the brain can start to rely on the medication for chemicals related to feeling good. Eventually, the addict will need to take hydrocodone just to feel normal.
A patient can form an addiction to Norco even when they take the medicine as directed. Misuse of Norco, such as taking more frequent usage than recommended, raises the risk of addiction. In some cases, addiction can result from a simple mistake. Since opioids like Norco are so potent, they can make someone build a tolerance or dependence very quickly.
The combination of acetaminophen and hydrocodone creates even more risks. Acetaminophen doesn’t have as many side effects as hydrocodone, especially when taken in moderation. However, abuse and addiction involve taking large amounts of the medication, so addicts who use combination drugs also use a lot of acetaminophen. This excess of acetaminophen greatly increases someone’s risk of liver failure.
Despite these dangers, doctors continue to prescribe hydrocodone-based drugs. The United States uses 99 percent of the world’s hydrocodone, and combination drugs like Norco caused 100,000 ER visits in 2009.
Medicinal marijuana could help us reduce the rates of opioid addiction and abuse in the United States. We can use it to replace opioid painkillers, or add them to an opioid treatment to reduce the dosage. Cannabis medicine also has the potential to help hydrocodone addicts recover more comfortably and safely.
Several studies show we can use medicinal marijuana in many ways to reduce our reliance on opioids. Cannabinoids, the compounds in marijuana, target the same part of the brain as opioids.
A scientific review that synthesizes research on the two types of compounds found good evidence supporting the idea of using cannabis to reduce opioid withdrawal symptoms. Meanwhile, one study that surveyed almost 3000 patients found that those who used opioids recently could supplement or replace medication like hydrocodone with cannabis medicine.
Science has proved that medical marijuana can relieve pain, opioid addiction and many other symptoms. To learn more, read our guide to medicinal cannabis and opioid dependence.
Check out our resources on specific opiates and medical marijuana: