Painkiller Abuse & Addiction Symptoms, Signs, Causes & Effects

Prescription painkiller addiction can rob you of your health, your dignity, and your hope for a better tomorrow. At Blue Ridge Mountain Recovery Center, you will reconnect with your best self, and begin to build the foundation for a more promising future.

What is Prescription Painkiller Abuse?

Learn More About Prescription Painkiller Abuse

Prescription painkillers have been highly effective in improving the quality of lives of those who were once troubled with acute or chronic physical pain. However, these medications can be dangerous. Regardless of whether they are consumed under the care of a professional or abused for recreational purposes, prescription painkillers can lead to addiction. Many of the most commonly prescribed painkillers, such as OxyContin, Demerol, Percocet, and Vicodin, all contain opioids, which is a very addictive category of substances that also includes heroin and morphine.

This does not mean that consuming a prescription painkiller that a physician has provided is the same as consuming an illicit substance like heroin. These medications can be highly beneficial, and the risks are decreased when they are taken as prescribed. However, the risk of developing an opioid use disorder is very real, and the risk increases significantly when these drugs are consumed without the proper medical supervision.

Oxycodone, meperidine, and hydrocodone (the active ingredients in OxyContin, Demerol, and Vicodin, respectively), are synthetic or semisynthetic opioids, meaning they are manufactured in a laboratory, but share similar structures with naturally occurring extracts from the poppy plant. As time passes on, those who consume opioid-based prescription painkillers can develop a tolerance. Tolerance is a sign of dependency, as is the presence of painful withdrawal symptoms that arise when someone attempts to end his or her use of the drug or dramatically decrease the amount that he or she has been consuming.

The desire to achieve the pleasing effects of an opioid-based painkiller while avoiding the pain of withdrawal can keep an individual stuck within what might feel like a non-stop cycle of an opioid use disorder. It can be extremely hard for someone who is addicted to a prescription painkiller to end his or her dependence without professional treatment. When comprehensive care is provided, however, an individual can rid his or her body of opioids safely and in a more comfortable manner, as well as move forward and complete the therapeutic programming that will help him or her prevent relapse and live a happier, healthier life outside of the chains of prescription painkiller addiction.


Statistics on Prescription Painkiller Abuse

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) states that more than 52 million Americans have used prescription drugs non-medicinally at least once within their lives, and six million of those Americans have done so within the past 30 days. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that opioid-based prescription medications make up nearly 44 overdose deaths each day in the United States, which is a daily average that includes approximately 18 women and 26 men. In 2013, more than 16,000 people died from prescription opioid overdose. Before that in 2011, prescription painkillers led to 420,000 emergency room visits.

Causes & Risk Factors

Causes & Risk Factors of Prescription Painkiller Abuse

The abuse of prescription painkillers and the development of opioid use disorder can be impacted by many different factors, including the following:

Genetic: Extensive research shows the presence of a genetic impact on the development of chemical dependency. For instance, a genetic disposition to both novelty seeking and impulsivity might put an individual at increased risk for abusing these medications and other substances. Additionally, studies that included adopted children and twins prove that having a biological parent who has a substance use disorder increases the chances that an individual will endure similar experiences.

Environmental: Someone who suffered child abuse or other forms of childhood adversity will be at heightened risk for participating in substance abuse, as well someone who struggles will high levels of stress that overpower his or her abilities to cope. Specific to prescription drug abuse, suffering from an injury or an accident that requires treatment with the use of prescription painkillers can serve as an environmental risk factor for developing opioid use disorder.

Risk Factors:

  • Experiencing severe acute or chronic pain
  • Prior substance abuse
  • Poor coping skills
  • Trauma
  • Family history of substance use disorders
  • Stress
  • Ease of access to prescription pain medications

Co-Occurring Disorders

Co-Occurring Disorders and the Complexity of Prescription Painkiller Abuse

Someone who has become dependent on prescription painkillers might also be grappling with a co-occurring mental health condition. Below are some of the most commonly diagnosed disorders in those who have also developed opioid use disorder:

  • Major depressive disorder
  • Persistent depressive disorder
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Other substance use disorders

Signs & Symptoms

Signs and Symptoms of Prescription Painkiller Abuse

Below are some of the most typical signs and symptoms that might indicate that an individual has been abusing opioid-based painkillers:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Diminished participation in significant activities
  • Deception regarding whereabouts and/or activities
  • Slurring speech
  • Visiting multiple doctors to get prescriptions for painkillers
  • Borrowing or stealing medication that has been prescribed to someone else
  • Social withdrawal and isolation

Physical symptoms:

  • Impaired coordination
  • Heavy perspiration
  • Itchiness
  • Pupil dilation
  • Disrupted sleep patterns
  • Decreased blood pressure
  • Constipation

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Poor decision-making skills
  • Confusion
  • Disorientation

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Irritability
  • Drastic changes in mood
  • Depression


Withdrawal Symptoms of Prescription Painkiller Abuse

Effects of prescription painkiller withdrawal: Stopping or significantly limiting one’s use of prescription painkillers after establishing a dependency on them can lead to many upsetting withdrawal symptoms, including the following:

  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
  • Inability to sleep
  • Dysphoria
  • Watery eyes and runny nose
  • Pain in bones and muscles
  • Powerful cravings for opioids
  • Irritability and agitation
  • Heavy perspiration
  • Tremors and twitches

Effects of prescription painkiller overdose: Opioids work within areas of the brain that also impact involuntary processes such as heart rate and respiration. Therefore, overdosing can put an individual in exceptional peril. Anyone who shows the following signs and symptoms after consuming prescription painkillers will likely require immediate medical attention:

  • Extreme disorientation
  • Breathing problems
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Slow or otherwise irregular pulse
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Seizure
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