Prescription Painkiller Addiction: Signs, Symptoms, & When To Get Help

Are you unsure whether you or your loved one is struggling with painkiller addiction? Read below to learn how to spot the warning signs.

Understanding Painkiller Addiction

Learn about painkiller addiction

Prescription painkillers have improved the lives of numerous individuals who were suffering with acute or chronic pain. However, these medications do not come without danger. Regardless of whether they are consumed under the supervision of a certified healthcare provider, used illicitly for self-medication purposes, or abused for recreational reasons, prescription painkillers possess the potential for causing addiction. Many of the most commonly prescribed painkillers including OxyContin, Percocet, Demerol, Roxicodone, and Vicodin, all contain opioid substances, a highly addictive category of substances that also includes heroin.

This fact does not mean that consuming a painkiller that has been professionally prescribed is the same as consuming heroin. These medications can be very helpful, and the risks are much less when they are consumed as directed. However, the danger of developing an opioid use disorder is very real, and the risk is increased dramatically when these drugs are consumed without the appropriate medical supervision.

Oxycodone (the main ingredient in OxyContin and Percocet), meperidine (Demerol), Roxicodone, and hydrocodone (Vicodin), are all synthetic or semi-synthetic opioids, meaning they are manufactured in a lab. However, they share similar structures with naturally occurring extracts for the opium poppy plant. They also possess similar properties, such as reducing pain, developing a sense of mild euphoria, and posing the risk that users will develop opioid use disorder. As time passes, those who take prescription painkillers containing opioids might become tolerant, meaning that they need to consume more of these drugs in order to achieve the same desired effects. Tolerance is a sign of dependence, as is the presence of upsetting withdrawal symptoms when an individual attempts to the use of the drug or dramatically reduces the amount that he or she has been consuming.

The desire to experience the pleasant effects of a painkiller that is opioid-based while avoiding the pain of withdrawal can cause an individual to begin to feel stuck within his or her opioid use disorder. It can be very challenging for an individual who is in this situation to put a stop to his or her dependence without effective professional treatment. With comprehensive care, though, an individual can clear his or her body of opioids within a safe and much less painful manner, and can then complete the therapeutic programming that will keep him or her on the road to resisting relapse and living a life that is happier, healthier, and free from the compulsive desire to abuse prescription painkillers.


Painkiller addiction statistics

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), over 52 million Americans have used prescription drugs for non-medical reasons at least one time in their lives, and six million have done so within the past 30 days. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that opioid-based prescription medications are responsible for nearly 44 overdose deaths each day within the United States; a daily average that includes 26 men and 18 women. In 2013, over 16,000 people died after overdosing on prescription opioids. In 2011, prescription painkillers were responsible for over 420,000 visits to hospital emergency rooms.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for painkiller addiction

The abuse of prescription painkillers and the development of opioid use disorder might be influenced by numerous factors, including the following:

Genetic: Exceptional research strongly supports the presence of a genetic impact on the development of a chemical dependency problem. For instance, someone with a genetic predisposition towards being novelty seeking and impulsive might put an individual at risk for abusing prescription painkillers and other drugs. Also, studies including twins and adopted children show that having a biological parent with a substance use disorder significantly increased the chances that an individual will struggle with the same problem.

Environmental: An individual who was abused as a child or who suffered other forms of childhood adversity will find him or herself at a greater risk for partaking in substance abuse, as will someone who experiences levels of stress that are greater than he or she can appropriately cope with. Specific to prescription drug abuse, experiencing an accident or injury where prescription painkillers were prescribed for treatment can be an environmental factor in developing an opioid use disorder.

Risk Factors:

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

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of painkiller addiction

The following signs and symptoms might show that an individual has been abusing opioid-based prescription painkillers:

Behavioral symptoms:

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

Physical symptoms:

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

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Confusion
  • Poor decision-making skills
  • Disorientation

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Drastic changes in mood


Effects of painkiller addiction

Untreated opioid use disorder including prescription painkillers can have a detrimental impact on one’s physical, psychological, and social wellbeing, and can lead to many negative outcomes, including:

  • Homelessness
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Suicide attempt or attempts
  • Job loss and chronic unemployment
  • Financial distress
  • Legal problems, including arrest and incarceration
  • Impaired or destroyed interpersonal relationships
  • Family discord, including separation and divorce
  • Isolation and ostracization
  • Development of physical health problems
  • Death


Signs, symptoms, and effects of painkiller withdrawal

Stopping or significantly decreasing one’s use of prescription painkillers after becoming dependent on them can lead to many upsetting withdrawal symptoms, including the following:

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


Signs, symptoms, and effects of painkiller overdose

Opioids interact within parts of the brain that also impact involuntary processes including heart rate and respiration. Therefore, overdosing can place an individual in exceptional peril. Anyone who exhibits the following signs after consuming a prescription painkiller might be in need of immediate medical attention:

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

Co-Occurring Disorders

Painkiller addiction and co-occurring disorders

An individual who has become dependent on prescription painkillers might also be grappling with a co-occurring mental illness. The following disorders are typically diagnosed in people who also face opioid use disorder:

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