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

Written By

Amanda Stevens

Amanda Stevens, B.S.

On November 13, 2023

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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

Unfortunately, prescription painkillers are usually opioid medications that have highly addictive properties. Long-term use can lead to addiction and other concerning health complications.

What Are Painkillers?

Painkillers are prescription narcotics like Percocet and Oxycontin (oxycodone), Vicodin (hydrocodone), codeine, and fentanyl. Most 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 on a daily basis. 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 pin-point 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

With long-term painkiller use comes brain damage as your brain becomes less capable of managing 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 its 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. As Schedule II controlled substances, they’re considered highly dangerous with a significant potential for misuse and addiction.

How Addictive Are Painkillers?

Opioid prescriptions are powerfully addictive. The euphoric effects of narcotics increase the likelihood of higher doses and off-prescription use, furthering the 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

Holistic therapies offer the most comprehensive strategy to address the whole person, not simply the substance use disorder. From yoga, meditation, and Motivational Interviewing (MI) to Reiki, acupressure, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and Experiential Therapy, these interventions are designed to support lasting recovery.

Drugs Used in Painkiller Addiction Treatment or Withdrawal Management

When struggling with opioid use disorder, you may be eligible to receive medication-assisted treatment (MAT) to alleviate cravings and withdrawal symptoms. In most cases, the preferred medication protocols are methadone or buprenorphine/ naloxone (Suboxone).[10]

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.[11]

Frequently Asked Questions

What painkiller is the most addictive?

All opioid painkillers carry a high potential for addiction and abuse, but the ones that are the most commonly prescribed are oxycodone, hydrocodone, and morphine.

What is the best way to deal with pain naturally?

The best way to naturally manage pain is to take care of your body, your mind, and your soul. In addition to developing in-the-moment coping skills like counting, breathing, and grounding, interventions like acupressure, meditation, exercise, yoga, mindfulness, gratitude, and Reiki can also alleviate your experience of pain. 

How do doctors treat painkiller addiction?

Most physicians will refer patients to a substance abuse treatment center for detox and treatment. Here, they will receive an individualized treatment plan that addresses their needs on every level. 

Step Towards Healing: Overcome Painkiller Addiction Now

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Sources

[1]U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2018, June 5). How opioid drugs activate receptors. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved from https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/how-opioid-drugs-activate-receptors on May 22, 2023

[2]U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Street & commercial names. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved from https://www.nihlibrary.nih.gov/resources/subject-guides/opioids/street-commercial-names 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 https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugfacts/prescription-opioids on May 22, 2023

[4]Opioid addiction – statpearls – NCBI bookshelf. (n.d.-b). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK448203/ 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 https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/prescription-opioids-heroin/prescription-opioid-use-risk-factor-heroin-use on May 22, 2023

[6]Opioid overdose – statpearls – NCBI bookshelf. (n.d.-d). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK470415/ 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 https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugfacts/prescription-opioids on May 22, 2023

[8]Opioid use disorder. Psychiatry.org – Opioid Use Disorder. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/opioid-use-disorder on May 22, 2023

[9]Opioid addiction – statpearls – NCBI bookshelf. (n.d.-b). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK448203/ on May 22, 2023

[10][11]The effectiveness of medication-based treatment for opioid use disorder. (n.d.-e). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK541393/ on May 22, 2023