Most doctors treat burn patients who have severe injuries by administering and prescribing pain medications during both the acute and rehabilitative phases of burn care. Some patients struggle with addiction after a burn injury, but it does not always stem from reliance on prescribed pain medicine. In some cases, patients might self-medicate using legal or illegal substances as they struggle with the physical and emotional effects of their injuries. Under medication might also contribute to addiction for some patients.

Emotional Effects of Burn Injuries Can Lead to Addiction

Burn survivors might struggle with the physical pain created by their burn injuries; the limitations created by their injuries (e.g., limited mobility created by contractures); or the shame or embarrassment they feel about their scars and other disfigurement.

As a result, burn survivors may experience a host of emotional disorders:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Fear
  • Anger
  • Insomnia and other sleeping problems
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

And unfortunately, this leads some survivors to self-medicate using illicit drugs or by misusing prescription drugs. A 2010 study published in the Depression and Anxiety journal found that around 20 percent of people with PTSD self-medicated with substances to alleviate their symptoms.

And PTSD is quite prevalent among survivors of traumatic burns. Various studies compiled in a 2003 article published in the American Journal of Clinical Dermatology found that at the one-year mark, the prevalence of burn patients with PTSD was between 31 and 45.2 percent.

And a 2011 Iranian study published in Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment found that the prevalence of PTSD after a burn injury increased with time. The researchers found that 20 percent of victims had positive PTSD scores two weeks after admission to a burn center and it increased to 31 percent after three months. It increased even further after three months.

How Under Medication Might Contribute to Addiction

Despite the concern that burn patients may struggle to wean themselves off of their pain medication, researchers at the UW Burn Center found that this is rarely a problem. In fact, under medication may actually present the bigger risk to the patient.

If a doctor fails to prescribe appropriate medication to alleviate pain, some patients may turn to illicit drugs or misuse prescription drugs to self-medicate and treat their symptoms. Patients who do so do it without a doctor’s supervision, increasing their risk of complications.

What Burn Victors Can Do to Fight Addiction Risks

If you are concerned about the potential for drug addiction, consider these prevention tips:

  • Look for other ways to manage pain if you are at high risk for addiction (prior addiction, family history of addiction, history of mental illness [e.g., anxiety, depression] etc.).
  • Only use medications prescribed by your doctor and take them as directed.
  • If you fear your doctor did not prescribe enough medication or if the medication stops working, do not increase your dosage; speak to your doctor right away.
  • If you are struggling with embarrassment or shame about the appearance of your scars, seek professional help. Counseling or support groups for burn victims can be helpful.
  • If you feel like you are becoming dependent on drugs or are losing control, consult a doctor for help.

Whom should I talk to about my pain and addiction?

A doctor who specializes in pain medication is an excellent resource for helping with both pain management and addiction issues. Talk to your doctor if you have any questions.

In addition, you can always call the National Substance Abuse Crisis Hotline (1-866-684-6303) or join a group like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous for help.

And call us at 844-549-8774 to speak with a lawyer referral specialist if you need help finding a lawyer who can help you pursue compensation for your burn injury if somebody else caused it.


Sadeghi-Bazargani, H., Maghsoudi, H., Soudmand-Niri, M., Ranjbar, F., & Mashadi-Abdollahi, H. (2011). Stress disorder and PTSD after burn injuries: a prospective study of predictors of PTSD at Sina Burn Center, Iran. Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment, 7, 425. 

Van Loey, N. E., & Van Son, M. J. (2003). Psychopathology and psychological problems in patients with burn scars. American journal of clinical dermatology, 4(4), 245-272) Chicago.