Painkiller Addiction: Signs, Symptoms, Risks, and Treatment Resources

Medically Reviewed By

Dr. Po-Chang Hsu

Dr. Po-Chang Hsu

On April 15, 2024

Written By

Amanda Stevens

Amanda Stevens, B.S.

On November 13, 2023

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Painkillers are prescribed to alleviate discomfort and help the body heal from injury or after a procedure. In most cases, they are not meant to be a long-term solution but rather temporary relief from the most difficult pain symptoms.

Unfortunately, many prescription painkillers, particularly opioids, have the potential for addiction and may lead to health complications if used long-term.

What Are Painkillers?

Painkillers are prescription narcotics like Percocet and Oxycontin (oxycodone), Vicodin (hydrocodone), codeine, and fentanyl. Many narcotic painkillers are classified as Schedule II controlled substances due to the high potential for abuse.

Unlike anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen, opioids are usually prescribed for moderate to severe pain related to injuries and postoperative recovery. As central nervous system (CNS) depressants, opioid painkillers reduce the feeling of pain by blocking nerve receptors and activating dopamine production.[1]

In an illegal context, painkillers are also referred to as Captain Cody, Lean, Schoolboy, Sizzurp, Vikes, Watson-387, Doors & Fours, Loads, Pancakes and Syrup, Demmies, M, Fizzies, Oxy, Hillbilly heroin, percs, biscuits, octagons, and stop signs, among others.[2]

Side Effects of Painkillers

Apart from the CNS depressant effects that slow the nervous system response, most prescription painkillers are also associated with a euphoric high that induces feelings of pleasure. Other side effects may include:[3]

  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion
  • Nausea
  • Constipation
  • Slowed Breathing

How is Painkiller Taken?

Most opioid painkillers are tablets or capsules to be taken orally as prescribed. When being misused, they may be taken in higher doses, more frequently than is safe, taken only for the euphoric effects with no need to relieve pain, crushed up and injected, or snorted.

Learn About Other Prescription Substances

  • Stimulants
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Sleeping Pills
  • Barbiturates

Statistics on Painkiller Addiction and Misuse

Over 3 million people in the US suffer from opioid use disorder (OUD).[4] These numbers have led our nation’s medical professionals and leadership to claim a national crisis related to the fallout of opioid addiction.

In addition, more than a prescription pill addiction, painkillers can lead to more serious drugs and health concerns. It’s been reported that 80% of heroin users shared that prescription painkiller misuse is what led to the beginning stages of substance use disorder.[5]

Effects of Painkiller Abuse

Developing a dependence or addiction to painkillers can have severe consequences on your health, your finances, your lifestyle, and even your ability to function daily. Other effects of painkiller abuse include increased risk of infection, impaired judgment, brain damage, increased risk of overdose, coma, and even death.

Can You Overdose on Painkillers?

Yes. You can overdose on painkillers when not taken as prescribed. If you take too large of a dose or if opioids are cut with other substances, this can increase the risk of injury and overdose.

Signs and Symptoms of Painkiller Overdose

An opioid overdose is associated with pinpoint pupils and life-threatening symptoms like slowed breathing and a decreased level of consciousness.[6] As less oxygen makes its way to the brain, the patient could slip into a coma and may need life-saving measures.

What to do if you suspect someone is overdosing on Painkiller:

Immediately call for emergency medical help or get to the nearest ER. If the person is unconscious and not breathing effectively, begin CPR until help arrives. A 911 operator will be able to help you do this.

Dangers of Long-Term Painkiller Use

Long-term use of painkillers, particularly opioids, may alter brain function, potentially affecting the brain’s ability to manage pain and pleasure sensations naturally. Opioids change brain chemistry, and over time, you may experience reduced cognitive function and adverse psychological symptoms.[7]

Mixing Painkillers with Other Drugs

Prescription narcotics are CNS depressant substances. As your body and brain absorb the substance, your critical central functions like breathing and heart function slow down. When two CNS painkillers or other depressants (like benzos or alcohol) are mixed, these dangerous effects are intensified and can lead to overdose.

Painkiller Addiction and Abuse

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5), opioid addiction is clinically referred to as opioid use disorder.[8] They outline specific parameters for diagnosis that include how it is used, how often, the presence of cravings, substance tolerance, and other lifestyle implications. OUD includes natural opioids like morphine and heroin as well as synthetic opioids like fentanyl and tramadol.

Are Painkillers Addictive?

Yes. Many opioids, classified as Schedule II controlled substances, have a significant potential for misuse and addiction due to their pharmacological effects.

How Addictive Are Painkillers?

Opioids have a high potential for addiction, primarily due to their euphoric effects, which can prompt some individuals to consume higher doses or use the medication in ways not prescribed, potentially perpetuating a cycle of addiction.

Signs of Addiction to Painkillers

Aside from the physical symptoms, lifestyle and behavioral indications of painkiller addiction could include:

  • Frequently running out of prescription painkillers too early
  • Getting medication from several different doctors
  • A preoccupation with getting or taking pain pills
  • Stealing pills from others
  • Obtaining painkillers from illegal sources
  • Stealing money to buy pills illegally

Painkiller Withdrawal

When you stop taking painkillers after physical dependence has developed, you may experience withdrawal symptoms. Painkiller withdrawal symptoms may include:[9]

  • Hot/cold flashes or sweats
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Increased muscle pain
  • Irregular heart rate
  • Dehydration

Painkiller Withdrawal Management and Addiction Treatment

Treatment for painkiller addiction often begins with detox to allow your body a chance to eliminate harmful substances while receiving medication relief from withdrawal symptoms. Inpatient programs give you the space to focus on recovery while attending treatment and before going back home.

After higher levels of care have been completed, outpatient programs offer flexibility in your schedule to attend to daily responsibilities while still continuing therapy and treatment. Aftercare and holistic recovery interventions help you develop and maintain coping skills for relapse prevention and healthy living.

Therapies Used in Painkiller Addiction Treatment

A variety of therapies, including holistic approaches, are utilized to address both the substance use disorder and the overall well-being of the individual. These interventions intend to support lasting recovery from yoga, meditation, and Motivational Interviewing (MI) to Reiki, acupressure, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and Experiential Therapy.

Suboxone for Painkiller Addiction Treatment or Withdrawal Management

This approach is highly successful in both symptom relief and long-term sobriety. In official studies compared with a placebo, MAT patients showed more significantly reduced opioid use and opioid cravings.[10]

Frequently Asked Questions

What painkiller is the most addictive?

While all opioid painkillers have a potential for addiction, the risk varies among different opioids. Commonly prescribed opioids with high addiction risks include oxycodone, hydrocodone, and morphine.

What is the best way to deal with pain naturally?

Effective natural pain management strategies include physical activity, mindfulness practices, and relaxation techniques. Methods like acupressure, meditation, yoga, and exercise can help alleviate pain alongside mental coping skills such as deep breathing, counting, and grounding.

How do doctors treat painkiller addiction?

Physicians typically refer patients with opioid use disorder to specialized substance abuse treatment centers. At these centers, patients can receive detoxification services and an individualized treatment plan tailored to their needs.

Step Towards Healing: Overcome Painkiller Addiction Now

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[1]U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2018, June 5). How opioid drugs activate receptors. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved from on May 22, 2023

[2]U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Street & commercial names. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved from on May 22, 2023

[3]U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2023a, May 25). Prescription opioids Drugfacts. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved from on May 22, 2023

[4]Opioid addiction – statpearls – NCBI bookshelf. (n.d.-b). Retrieved from on May 22, 2023

[5]U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2022, February 25). Prescription opioid use is a risk factor for heroin use. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved from on May 22, 2023

[6]Opioid overdose – statpearls – NCBI bookshelf. (n.d.-d). Retrieved from on May 22, 2023

[7]U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2023a, May 25). Prescription opioids Drugfacts. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved from on May 22, 2023

[8]Opioid use disorder. – Opioid Use Disorder. (n.d.). Retrieved from on May 22, 2023

[9]Opioid addiction – statpearls – NCBI bookshelf. (n.d.-b). Retrieved from on May 22, 2023

[10]The effectiveness of medication-based treatment for opioid use disorder. (n.d.-e). Retrieved from on May 22, 2023