Pain Killers Addiction and Abuse

Painkillers include a wide variety of drugs, but opioids and opiates are the most abused types. They range from fentanyl (and other drugs used in the management of chronic pain) to codeine cough syrup. Used appropriately, painkillers can provide soothing relief from the uncomfortable symptoms of bone breaks, cancers and numerous other injuries. However, painkiller abuse and addiction is a growing problem.

Painkiller abuse affects people from all walks of life and socioeconomic backgrounds. No matter your reason for taking drugs, you can easily develop tolerance and dependency. This happens quickly, before you even realise that dependence or addiction are taking hold. When tolerance leads to addiction, it can be difficult to quit the pattern of abuse.

Many painkillers have opioids as a major component, which is very effective when used appropriately and also very dangerous when abused. Depending on the type of painkiller being used, you could experience common effects such as an elevated mood, relaxation, analgesia and euphoria. You might begin to use painkillers under the close supervision of a doctor, and then begin to use or abuse it for recreational purposes.

Overcoming painkiller abuse and addiction often requires professional help. Painkiller abuse causes symptoms and effects that wreak havoc on the mind and body and can eventually prove fatal. When realising that you or someone you love has a problem with painkiller abuse, it is essential to seek help as soon as possible.

What are Painkillers?

Painkillers are also known as analgesics, pain relievers or pain medicines, and are drugs designed to treat pain. There are a wide variety of painkillers available and they can be found under different brand names. Painkillers can be ingested via different methods: by mouth as a capsule, tablet or in liquid form; by injection; and through the back as a suppository. Other painkillers are available as creams or ointments.

Like other drugs, painkillers should only be used for a short period of time and at the lowest dose that can manage your pain. This method of administration can help you avoid any side-effects. If you’re experiencing toothache, you may only have to take painkillers for a matter of days or a few short weeks if you’ve pulled a muscle. Conditions such as chronic back pain or osteoarthritis could require you to take painkillers on a long-term basis.

Pain medicines are drugs that relieve or reduce headaches, arthritis, sore muscles and other aches and pains. These drugs come in different forms, with each one having its advantages and disadvantages. Certain types of pain respond better to specific types of analgesics. Your response to pain relievers will also be different from the way someone else will respond to the same drug.

The most potent pain relievers are opioids. While they are extremely effective, they can also induce serious side effects. As a result of addiction and other risks associated with the use of painkillers, it is essential to only use these drugs under your doctor’s supervision. Pain can be alleviated in a number of ways, with painkillers being just one aspect of a comprehensive treatment plan.

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Different Types and Forms of Painkillers

Even though there a large number of painkillers available, they can generally be classified into three main categories. Each works in a different way. They are:

  • Paracetamol – Paracetamol is widely preferred as a pain medication and has very few side effects. However, it cannot be taken carelessly, because the side effects it can produce might be devastating. One of the main side effects is liver failure, especially when you use the drug on a long-term basis and in high quantities. Combining paracetamol with acute or chronic alcohol abuse can also result in liver problems. Some well-known brand names of this drug are Panadol and Tylenol.
  • Aspirin and NSAIDs (Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs) – This group of drugs is used for the treatment of mild to moderate pain, and as a remedy for inflammation and fever. They are therefore applied in cases of trauma, arthritis, dental pain, bone pain and dysmenorrhoea (painful menstruation). These drugs do not belong to the cortisone family and are effective against inflammation. Your doctor can choose the NSAID that will work best to suit your needs.
  • Opioids – These drugs work on specific opioid receptors, located in the spinal cord and brain. Usually, oral opioids are prescribed to treat chronic pain. Some treatment methods involve combining opioids with other painkillers like NSAIDs and opioids to attack pain on different receptors. Used in this way, you can experience improved pain relief and reduce the risk of side effects, as your opioid requirements are typically decreased. Examples of popular opioids are morphine, codeine and pethidine.

Risk of Painkiller Abuse

Unfortunately, painkillers (including opioid prescription drugs) aren’t usually considered to be dangerous substances, as they are medically prescribed. Prescription drugs tend to create fewer stigmas when compared to illicit substances, as they are considered necessary for the treatment or management of pain. However, prescription opioids and an illegal drug like heroin affect the brain in the same way.

This similarity presents a risk of painkiller abuse and addiction, especially if used for recreational purposes. Also, as a result of consuming painkillers, you could turn to heroin as an alternative drug of choice. In many cases, opioid painkillers become gateway drugs to heroin use, dependence and addiction.

Painkiller abuse carries a wide range of potential side effects, depending on the type of drug being used. If you’re abusing stimulants such as amphetamines or cocaine, you could experience depression, lethargy and fatigue, as you come down from your ‘high’. Abusing opiate drugs such as prescription painkillers can lead to muscle aches, intestinal issues and nervousness.

One of the most serious risks of painkiller abuse is the potential for overdose, which can lead to death in some cases. If you suspect that you or someone you know has overdosed, call for emergency medical help as soon as possible. Prompt professional assistance can often limit the danger and may even save a life. The best way to prevent the risk of painkiller abuse is to seek help for drug abuse and addiction.

The Legal use of Painkillers

Previously, prescription painkillers were prescribed mainly for cancer patients, because of concerns about addictions developing. Now however, they are regarded as an essential treatment tool for cases of chronic pain. Opioids can also be of immense help if you’re suffering terrible injuries, recovering from surgery or experiencing debilitating pain.

However, the line between legal and illegal use is unclear when it comes to prescription painkillers. You can be prescribed drugs and take them home to use as directed. Prolonged use or abuse causes you to become addicted and you’ll likely return to the doctor to get more pills. Your family members could even find your stash and help themselves to it to get ‘high’. After they become hooked and can no longer access medical supplies, they could turn to buying pain pills on the street.

You may not realise, but it’s breaking the law to take a narcotic painkiller from someone or give one to your friend or family member. This seemingly innocent gesture is actually a crime. The exact laws vary from state to state but if you’re caught with medications that aren’t prescribed for you (illegal prescription drugs); you can be fined or imprisoned.

In certain states, doctors are criminally liable and may have their licences revoked for writing painkiller prescriptions that lead to overdose or end up on the street. Some require pharmacies to limit their supplies and restrict how painkillers are dispensed. Finally, some states have created controlled-substance prescriptions and computerised patient registries.

How Addiction Develops: Who is most at risk of Abuse?

A vast number of people engage in substance abuse and anyone can develop a problem with alcohol and drugs. The problem may even progress further and lead to a severe addiction. Drug use affects almost everyone, regardless of gender, age, economic status or ethnicity. However, a significant amount of people who use drugs, do not develop addiction – even with heavy or regular use. There are certain risk factors associated with addition that can put you at risk of abuse. They include:

  • Genetic predisposition – this includes certain characteristics in the brain that can make you more or less vulnerable to addictive substances, such as prescription painkillers.
  • Psychological factors – these include stress and personality traits, such as sensation seeking or high impulsivity, anxiety, depression, eating disorders and personality disorders.
  • Environmental influences – these include starting drug use at an early age; exposure to substance usage or addiction in the family (or amongst peers); physical, sexual or emotional trauma; access to drugs; and exposure to fads and popular cultures encouraging drug use.

Having one or more of these risk factors means that there’s a greater chance you’ll develop a habit of drug abuse and addiction. However, vulnerability differs from one person to the next, and the presence of a single factor cannot determine whether you will become addicted to drugs. Typically, the more risks you face, the higher your chance of abusing drugs when you have access to them.

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Painkiller Abuse

One of the first painkillers to be abused was morphine. During the American civil war, it was widely used to help wounded soldiers cope with their injuries, which lead to a full-blown addiction crisis. In 1898, heroin was developed as a more effective alternative for morphine, but it only worsened the addiction problem. A little later, Oxycodone and Hydrocodone were developed, which were highly effective drugs, but also addictive as well.

Painkiller abuse is when prescription drugs are used differently from the recommendation of the prescribing doctor. Painkiller abuse includes everything from using your friend’s prescription painkiller to self-medicate your backache to injecting or snorting crushed pills to get ‘high’. In spite of the negative consequences, drug abuse is usually ongoing and compulsive.

Painkiller abuse is an increasing problem that affects all age groups, but it’s more rampant in young people. The most commonly abused prescription painkillers include stimulants, and opioid painkillers. Sedatives and anti-anxiety medications are also regularly abused, including Xanax (alprazolam), Valium (diazepam) and Ambien (zolpidem).

The early identification of painkiller abuse and treatment can prevent your problem from turning into a full-blown addiction. Talk to a doctor if you’re struggling with drug abuse. It can be challenging to talk about your addiction, but professionals are trained to help you without being judgmental. It’s easier to address the issue as soon as possible, before it leads to more severe problems that bring negative consequences.

Painkiller abuse and Different Age groups

Painkiller abuse is more common amongst ‘millennials’ than any other generation. It is present in less than 8% of ‘boomers’ and ‘generation x’ age groups, while over 12% of millennials between the ages of 19 and 20 abused painkillers in the past year alone. Regardless of age, no singular factor contributes to addiction.

However, people of different age groups are more likely to engage in painkiller abuse if they use the drugs for a prolonged period of time. Repeated use of painkillers and other addictive substances can consequently result in addiction. Body tolerance becomes increased and you may begin to feel fewer effects from the drug.

Therefore, higher amounts of the substance will be required in order to achieve the desired effects. This eventually leads to an inability to quit without experiencing withdrawal symptoms. Individuals of different age groups diagnosed with depression, ADHD and other mental disorders could try to cope with these problems by turning to drug use. However, when you become dependent, you might be unable to calm yourself in stressful situations, without taking drugs.

In addition to genetic influences which can escalate drug abuse (regardless of age), your environment also plays a part in painkiller abuse. This includes factors that affect various age groups, including peer pressure and family issues.

How Painkillers are Abused

You could begin to abuse painkillers in adulthood, without any risk factors present. In many cases, painkiller abuse begins with a simple prescription from a doctor for the treatment of a legitimate condition. However, certain drugs (especially prescription pain medication) have a higher tendency to cause tolerance. This then leads to a steady increase in your dosage to achieve the same effects, which can in turn result in abuse, dependence and addiction.

Using painkillers at a higher dose or more frequently than prescribed by your doctor is a form of drug abuse. In addition, illegally obtaining and using painkillers without a prescription or any medical need for such drugs is also considered abuse. There are several ways in which painkillers are abused, with long-term abuse leading to different issues with regards the control of usage.

These issues include:

  • Drug-related distress or dysfunction
  • Spending significant amounts of time trying to obtain and use painkillers (or recovering from such use)
  • Giving up activities that were once a priority, as a result of your use of painkillers
  • Continuing to use painkillers in spite of the obvious negative effects
  • Wanting to quit or reduce the intake of painkillers, but being unable to do so
  • Continuing to use painkillers in spite of drug-related problems that affect your career or personal relationships

Signs and Symptoms of Painkiller Abuse

After determining the cause of your painkiller abuse, it’s essential to be able to identify the signs and symptoms. If abusing prescription drugs (or using them recreationally), you might notice that you’re going through your prescription at a faster rate than expected. This is also a sign of tolerance, as it means your body has become accustomed to the drug and needs more to feel any effects.

Becoming tolerant and continuing to take higher or more frequent doses can result in addiction. Furthermore, you could notice sudden and unexplained mood changes. Sometimes, you may feel ‘out of it’ for no reason at all. Erratic behaviour and jitteriness may also follow the changes in mood, accompanied by moments of sudden calm.

Financial problems could become more apparent, where large debts surface or money begins to disappear. Generally, the symptoms of painkiller abuse can be very subtle, but when something isn’t quite right, you’ll probably be able to notice it.

If you’re struggling with painkiller abuse or notice that your loved one constantly appears sedated, seek help immediately. Call a confidential helpline to speak to an addiction treatment expert and get the necessary assistance for you or your loved one today.

Physical and Psychological Effects of Painkiller Abuse

The psychological effects of painkiller abuse stem from your reasons for taking these drugs, as well as the changes that occur in your brain in the process. Initially, painkiller abuse may have started as a way to cope with pain or stress. However, the main psychological effect of abusing painkillers is the creation of a cycle whereby you feel the need to use drugs anytime you face stress or pain.

Other psychological effects of drug addiction include:

  • Hallucinations
  • Confusion
  • Desire to engage in risky behaviour
  • Complication of mental illness
  • Paranoia, violence, wild mood swings, anxiety and depression
  • Psychological tolerance to the drug’s effects, creating a desire to consume increasing amounts

Painkiller abuse also results in some physical effects which vary, but can be seen in different areas of the body. Usually, the primary physical effects of drug abuse occur in the brain. Substance abuse changes the way your brain functions and affects the way your body receives pleasurable feelings. These effects occur because of the increase in dopamine and serotonin in the brain. Consequently, your brain begins to expect and rely on these medications to produce a ‘high’ effect.

Other physical effects of drug addiction include:

  • Vomiting, constipation, abdominal pain, diarrhoea
  • Heart rate irregularities, heart attack
  • Brain damage, seizures, stroke
  • Changes in body temperature, appetite and sleeping patterns
  • Kidney and liver damage
  • Respiratory problems, such as emphysema and lung cancer
  • Contraction of Hepatitis, HIV and other illnesses
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Long-term Effects of Painkiller Abuse

Long-term painkiller abuse can have severe consequences for your physical and mental health. As your body adapts to the presence of drugs, it requires larger or more frequent doses to feel the same effects; this is known as tolerance. Dependence may develop as a result, which can lead to uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking the drug. This can be deadly in some cases.

The long-term effects that you may experience depend on how you’ve been taking the drug. Snorting, crushing and injecting the drug into your bloodstream can lead to long-term heart damage and other cardiovascular problems, in addition to the high likelihood of a heart attack. Injecting painkillers or other types of drugs with shared needles (or under non-sterile conditions) increases your risk of contracting complicated blood borne diseases.

Furthermore, virtually all opiate painkillers – no matter the route of administration used during consumption – carry the risk of long-term addiction. Other unpleasant side effects can occur from painkiller abuse, including diarrhoea, vomiting and nausea. These they are caused by interactions between the drugs and the opioid receptors present in the digestive tract.

Short-Term Effects of Painkiller Abuse

If abusing painkillers, any short-term effects will depend on the quantity of drugs you’ve consumed, as well as their purity or potency and whether combined with other addictive substances. Drugs can affect your energy level, mood, thinking and perception. They can reduce inhibition, impair motor functioning, interfere with decision making and problem solving and cause a wide range of other physical health problems.

The effects are similar: an intense ‘high’ that differs, based on the route of administration. For example, swallowed as a whole or crushed tablet; injected as a powder or liquid; or snorted. This intense ‘high’ is followed by a period of partial sedation and slowed reaction time. Other short-term side effects include nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea or constipation. You could also begin to experience more pain, muscle aches, headaches and other side effects.

Painkiller abuse can also lead to depression and anxiety, in addition to feelings of anger, hostility, confusion, paranoia, disorientation and a distorted perception of reality. Addiction is also a serious consequence of painkiller abuse, and can occur in less than three days due to the potent effect of opiates on the brain.

Painkiller Addiction: Top 18 Facts

  • Prescription painkillers cause more deaths than traffic accidents.
  • Prescription substances are the leading drug of choice in overdose related deaths.
  • According to The Substance Abuse of Mental Health Services Administration, 70% of people source their prescription drugs from a friend or relative.
  • The second most commonly abused drug by teens is prescription pills.
  • Admission to addiction treatment for prescription drug abuse has increased an astounding 400% between 1998 and 2008.
  • As prescription drugs have become something of an epidemic, the number of people seeking treatment for their use has increased drastically.
  • The non-benzodiazepines are used as a short-term remedy for sleeping problems. These drugs, which include zolpidem (Ambien), eszopiclone (Lunesta), and zaleplon (Sonata), can also foster chronic use due to rebound insomnia.
  • Prescription drugs are abused most in rural areas.
  • Prescription painkillers have increased the number of unintentional deaths across the United States. Between 1999 and 2007, there have been 28,000 deaths as a result of unintentional prescription drug poisoning.
  • Over 100,000 people are hospitalised each year for overdosing on prescription drugs such as lorazepam (Ativan), alprazolam (Xanax), diazepam (Valium), or triazolam (Halcion).
  • Statistics from the National Institute of Drug Abuse show that one out of every 15 people who take prescription painkillers for recreational use will try heroin within 10 years.
  • People who are prescribed pain medication in high doses are at a greater risk of death.
  • 60% of young adults who abuse prescription drugs tried them before the age of 18.
  • Cough suppressants that containing dextromethorphan (DXM) can be addictive; ingesting large quantities can cause altered time perception, distorted awareness and hallucinations.
  • Barbiturates are an older (but highly abused) class of prescription drugs. An overdose can be fatal, especially when mixed with alcohol or opiates.
  • Three out of every ten teenagers do not think prescription drugs are addictive.
  • Prescription drugs are just as (or more) addictive then any illegal street drug or even alcohol.
  • It’s easy to overdose from prescription painkillers alone. Often, people combine prescription drugs with alcohol, which increases the chance of an overdose.

Teen Statistics

Prescription painkillers are the substances most abused by teens after alcohol, marijuana and tobacco. ADHD medication (Ritalin, Adderall, Concerta), tranquilisers and sedatives (Klonopin, Xanax, Valium), as well as opioid painkillers (Percocet, OxyContin, Percodan, Vicodin,) are also prescription medications frequently abused by teens.

According to the US National Institute of Health (NIH), abuse of Vicodin and all prescription opioids dropped dramatically in the last five years, from 7.5% to 2.9% amongst 12th graders. After marijuana and hash (36%), amphetamines (6.7%) like Ritalin or Adderall account for the bulk of drugs abused by 12th graders in the past year.

Roughly 15% of high school seniors admitted to prescription painkiller abuse during the previous year.

Generally, teenagers feel that abusing prescription medication is less dangerous than taking street drugs. This isn’t actually true, as painkiller abuse can prove to be extremely dangerous and sometimes result in deadly consequences.

Five of the 12 drugs that were surveyed amongst high school seniors were prescription drugs. The main prescription drugs abused by teens included stimulants like Adderall, tranquilisers, opioids like Vicodin, sedatives and cough medicines.

10 Myths and Lies told about Painkillers

There are a number of myths and lies surrounding the use of painkillers. The most common include:

  • Only hard drugs are dangerous: Certain drugs (such as heroin and cocaine) are known for their powerful and highly addictive nature. However, they are not the only dangerous substances. Even medications with a low risk of addiction can cause mental and physical health problems, depending on how they are used.
  • You cannot be addicted to a prescribed medication: It’s quite common to believe that all drugs prescribed by your doctor are completely safe and impossible to result in addiction. This is wrong, as many prescribed medications are extremely potent and have a high potential for addiction.
  • There are no long-term consequences.
  • Pain medication can cure your pain: Physical or mental pain cannot be ‘cured’ by pain medications. These drugs simply mask your symptoms and make them easier to cope with.
  • Painkillers should be avoided altogether: Painkillers provide an effective method to treat pain resulting from injuries. They should therefore be used cautiously, instead of being avoided completely.
  • Addicts can quit using painkillers whenever they wish.
  • Everyone who uses painkillers becomes addicted: Developing an addiction to any drug depends on your personal risk of addiction. It’s therefore incorrect to believe that just because you take a prescription painkiller, you’ll become addicted.
  • The more you take, the better they work: when it comes to taking painkillers, more does not always mean better. Tolerance can develop after prolonged use and worsen the pain.
  • You can’t become addicted if you have a medical reason for taking painkillers.
  • There is nothing friends or family can do to help: While you can’t force an addicted person to quit, there are many methods you can use to improve the situation.


How Do Painkillers Affect the Brain and Body?

Abusing painkillers can result in harmful effects on the brain and body. While some damage may occur after short-term use, the most significant changes to your brain and body generally occur when you’ve abused painkillers for a long time. Prolonged use can lead to the brain and body adjusting over time, affecting the normal bodily functions that are essential for ensuring overall health.

How dangerous is Painkiller Abuse?

Painkiller abuse leads to addiction and many other dangers which are often ignored. This is because these drugs are legal and often prescribed by a doctor. However, using prescription painkillers against your doctor’s orders poses some serious risks to your health, including dangerous side effects. Dependence on painkillers can also occur; in some cases, the dangers don’t surface until it’s too late.

Can Painkillers be used legally?

Painkillers are legal drugs, which means they can be prescribed to you by a doctor, sold at stores and other people can also purchase them. However, it is illegal and unsafe to use these drugs any way you want – or to buy them from people selling them illegally.

Can I mix Painkillers with other substances?

Mixing painkillers with other substances is a very common and dangerous practice. The painkiller in question could interact with other drugs in different and unpredictable ways, which might even prove fatal in some cases. Abusing painkillers alone causes several negative effects; for instance, adding a substance like alcohol can only serve to worsen them. If you’re struggling with a co-occurring addiction to painkillers and alcohol, you should seek treatment immediately.

Are athletes most at risk of abuse?

Athletes are as vulnerable to drug abuse and addiction as anyone else. The intense pressure to perform may even heighten their potential for drug abuse. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), athletes may experience insomnia, fatigue, mood swings and cravings – symptoms that may constantly put them at risk of abuse.

What Are the Most Addictive Types of Painkillers?

Synthetic or semi-synthetic opiates are the most addictive types of painkillers around. They function by attaching to your receptors and changing the messages in your brain. Usually, these drugs are prescribed for chronic pain. When used, they produce an addictive, short-lived euphoria. With long-term usage, your body adapts to the presence of the drugs and withdrawal symptoms may occur when you try to quit.

How Are People Getting Prescription Drugs for Recreational Use?

Physicians prescribe anti-anxiety pills, sleep aids, mood enhancers, painkillers, antidepressants and other prescription drugs to adults. Teenagers can source these drugs for recreational use by going through their parents’ medicine cabinets and drawers. Underage children can easily gain access to prescription medications because so many adults use them. Adolescents access their prescription drugs on the street, where they are usually sold by people with prescriptions for such drugs.

Can I become addicted to painkillers?

Drug addiction can be built up over time – even if you take the medication as recommended. When you develop a physical addiction to painkillers, you’ll believe you can’t function properly without the drugs, and your body begins to expect them in order to work normally. You can become addicted to opioid-based painkillers such as Morphine, OxyContin or Vicodin over time.

What are the side effects of painkillers?

There are a number of unpleasant side effects associated with painkiller abuse. If you’re struggling with painkiller abuse, you could begin to experience more pain and side effects, such as constipation or diarrhoea, muscle spasms, headaches, nausea and vomiting.

Is Rehab always the best option?

Inpatient or outpatient rehab is often the best way to begin your addiction recovery. Rehab can help you recover safely and effectively help you quit substance abuse. If you or a loved one has been struggling with painkiller abuse and addiction, inpatient rehab is one of the various types of treatment options available.

Can Prescription Drugs Lead to Weight Gain?

Certain drugs can make you feel hungrier, while others cause you to retain extra fluids or slowly reduce your body’s ability to burn calories. Different people experience different effects with prescription drugs. For instance, prescription drugs used for treating seizures, migraines, mood disorders, diabetes – or even high blood pressure – can lead to almost 10 pounds monthly increase in weight. If you suspect your prescription drugs are leading to weight gain, consult your doctor before you attempt to quit.

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