Painkiller Addiction: The Hidden Truth

In the United States, painkiller addiction is a serious problem. In 2019 alone, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reported close to 50,000 deaths from opioid-related overdoses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported an opioid misuse economic burden of $1.02 trillion in 2017 due to the cost of healthcare, addiction recovery treatment, lost productivity, and the strain on the criminal justice system. Painkiller addiction doesn’t just happen to celebrities like Prince, Heath Ledger, and Tom Petty. It can happen to anyone – even those who receive legitimate prescriptions for short-term use after surgery – or those who use it to treat chronic pain.

Can You Die from Painkiller Abuse?

Yes! Taking too many opioid painkillers can kill you. An overdose causes severe central nervous system (CNS) depression. Your CNS is what controls your involuntary functions like your breathing and your heartbeat. Beyond slowed and shallow breathing, opioid overdose can cause:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Confusion and dizziness
  • Weakness
  • Seizures

Many of the symptoms are also associated with being drunk. And when someone combines alcohol with these pain medicines, the risk of death increases. Why? Because alcohol also depresses the CNS. If you notice someone exhibiting these symptoms and you know they’ve taken opioids, or struggle with prescription drug abuse, seek medical help right away. Do not let the person “sleep it off” because they may never wake up.

How Painkiller Addiction Happens

When used correctly, prescription painkillers can be an effective way to treat severe pain. For many, taking the opioid medication even as prescribed and only as needed, can lead to addiction. Opioids work by triggering the release of endorphins, or “feel-good” chemicals. The endorphins interact with the opioid receptors in your brain to dampen your body’s perception of pain. The result? You don’t hurt as much (or at all) even though your body is still injured. And, you feel great, too. Once the dose wears off, you may find that you want to get those feelings again as soon as possible – and that’s the first sign you may be headed toward prescription painkiller addiction.

The longer you take opioids, the more slowly your body will produce endorphins. Over time, the dose you started with won’t produce the same euphoric effects because your body has built up a tolerance. This leads to you taking more than the prescribed dose to achieve the same effect. Today’s medical professionals are aware of opioid risks, so it’s difficult to get your doctor to increase your dose – either in the form of a higher strength or more pills. Some may not even renew the prescription. It’s at this point that some users will resort to illegally obtained prescription painkillers, heroin, or fentanyl. Fentanyl is often stronger and laced with other chemicals, which further fuels the addiction and increases the risk of harm or death.

Opioid Addiction Vs Painkiller Addiction

You may hear the phrase “opioid addiction” and think it’s different from painkiller addiction. Ultimately, when you’re addicted to painkillers, it’s the opiate you’re addicted to. It doesn’t matter whether it comes from heroin or one of the many opiate medications prescribed. That said, there are other less addictive “painkillers” on the market today, like gabapentin, that aren’t opiate-based. Gabapentin is an anticonvulsant medication that’s often used to treat nerve pain. Though it has lesser addiction potential, users can still become physically dependent on the medication.

Most Commonly Abused Painkillers

The most commonly abused painkillers include:

  • Oxycodone with or without acetaminophen (Tylenol) added (available under many brand names like Oxycotin, Roxycodone, and Percocet)
  • Hydrocodone with or without acetaminophen added (available under many brand names like Vicodin, Lortab, and Norco)
  • Meperidine (Demerol)
  • Morphine
  • Codeine

If you’re taking prescribed opioids for a few days to treat acute pain, you’re not likely to become addicted. It takes about two weeks to become physically dependent on the medication. Physical dependence means that you’ll have symptoms of tolerance (needing a higher dose to achieve the same effect) and withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking the medication. Being physically dependent doesn’t always mean you’re addicted, but it could mean that addiction is coming. Addiction leads to behavioral changes as a result of chemical changes in the brain. Substance use becomes a priority, no matter what it may mean for users or their loved ones.

The Progression Of Painkiller Addiction

Prescription painkillers are depressants or “downers,” which means they are different from other prescription stimulant pharmaceuticals like Adderall. Prescription amphetamine abuse and misuse can progress to cocaine or meth while prescription painkillers many times progress to heroin addiction.

Long Term Effects Of Painkiller Addiction

The longer someone engages in substance abuse, the more the body will adapt and become reliant on opioids. They may experience withdrawal symptoms if they attempt to reduce the dose or stop cold turkey. The withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Abdominal pain, cramping, nausea, and vomiting
  • Anxiety and restlessness
  • Insomnia
  • Muscle pain
  • Increased heart rate

Taking more opioids relieves the withdrawal symptoms, thus allowing the user to function, and the cycle continues.

Recovery and Treatment for Painkiller Addiction

The good news is that recovery is possible. Depending on the extent of addiction, several treatment options are available. More serious addiction may require inpatient treatment. This type of rehab is intensive, focused on helping patients get on the road to long-term sobriety without the distractions of everyday life. Outpatient programs allow the patient to participate in a treatment program as part of their daily lives. At Profound LA, we’re here to help. We offer a number of addiction treatment options, personalized for the individual. If you or someone you love in the Los Angeles area is suffering from a prescription painkiller addiction, get in touch with us today. You’re not alone.


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