Causes & Effects of Prescription Painkiller Addiction

Understanding Prescription Painkiller Addiction

Learn About Prescription Painkiller Addiction and Abuse

Prescription painkillers allow many individuals with pain to experience significantly increased quality of life. However, if they are abused, prescription painkillers can cause extreme damage in an individual’s life.

Most prescription painkillers belong to the opioid family of medications. These drugs are synthesized from, or are chemically similar to, substances found in the opium poppy plant. Common prescription opioids include drugs such as morphine, Vicodin, OxyContin, hydrocodone, and fentanyl. However, not all opioids are legal. Other members of the opioid family include illicit substances such as heroin and opium.

When prescription painkillers are used as prescribed, they can be quite safe. However, when these medications are abused for recreational purposes, they can induce powerful feelings of pleasure and euphoria. These pleasurable feelings can cause individuals to return to abusing these drugs over and over again, potentially resulting in the development of a prescription opioid use disorder. It is important to remember that prescription opioids are still opioids, and as such they must be treated with caution. Though they can be immensely helpful when used as directed, they can also be immensely harmful if they are abused. Despite the dangers of prescription opioid abuse, however, treatment is available that can help individuals overcome an addiction to these powerful medications.


Prescription Painkiller Addiction Statistics

According to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), about 0.4 percent of adults ages 18 and older meet criteria for opioid use disorder in a given year. The disorder is more common in men, with a ratio of about 1.5 men for every woman who abuses prescription opioids.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and Risk Factors for Prescription Painkiller Addiction

Researchers argue that genetics are a foundational component of an individual’s risk of prescription opioid abuse.

Genetic: Researchers have long known that vulnerability to prescription opioid addiction runs in one’s family and is passed down from parents to children. However, genetics can also affect an individual’s temperament, which in turn influences the types of relationships he or she chooses and the environments that he or she selects.

Risk Factors:

  • Having a pre-existing pain condition
  • History of mental health or substance abuse problems
  • Limited coping skills
  • Easy availability of prescription painkillers
  • Family history of mental illness or substance abuse
  • Experiencing a severe injury
  • Exposure to chronic stressors, such as poverty, unemployment, or abuse

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and Symptoms of Prescription Painkiller Addiction

The following is a list of common indicators that an individual may be struggling with prescription opioid abuse:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Taking opioid medications in larger amounts or over a greater period of time than intended
  • Spending a great deal of time in efforts to obtain, use, or recover from use of opioid medications
  • Failing to fulfill obligations at work, school, or home due to prescription opioid abuse
  • History of failed attempts to reduce prescription opioid use
  • Apathy
  • Continuing to abuse prescription opioids despite persistent negative physical or interpersonal consequences of use
  • Abusing prescription opioids despite use being physically hazardous
  • “Doctor shopping” or visiting multiple physicians in an attempt to secure multiple prescriptions for opioid drugs

Physical symptoms:

  • Drowsiness
  • Withdrawal when ceasing use of prescription opioids
  • Tolerance, or needing increasing amounts of opioids to achieve a high
  • Constricted pupils
  • Slurred speech

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Poor memory
  • Impaired judgment
  • Inattention to the environment
  • Poor attention
  • Cravings for prescription opioids

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Depressed mood
  • Changes in relationships
  • Euphoria


Effects of Prescription Painkiller Addiction

Although they are relatively safe if used as directed, prescription opioids can cause a range of negative effects if they are abused, including:

  • Birth defects
  • Injury due to drug trafficking violence
  • Dry mouth and nose
  • Loss of visual acuity
  • Poor performance at work
  • Onset or worsening of mental health symptoms
  • Strain on personal relationships
  • Loss of job
  • Contracting HIV, hepatitis C, or other blood-borne illnesses from sharing used needles or risky sexual practices
  • Social isolation
  • Constipation
  • Separation, divorce, or loss of child custody
  • Polysubstance use, addiction, or chemical dependency
  • Death, either from overdose or suicide

Dual Diagnosis

Prescription Painkiller Addiction and Dual Diagnosis

People who struggle with prescription painkiller addiction often meet the criteria for other mental illnesses. In clinical terms, dealing with prescription painkiller addiction and another mental health disorder at the same time is referred to as dual diagnosis. If you’ve become dependent upon prescription painkillers, you may have an elevated risk for the following disorders:

  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Depressive disorders
  • Other substance use disorders, especially involving tobacco, alcohol, stimulants, cannabis, benzodiazepines, heroin, and other opioids
  • Antisocial personality disorder

It’s important to understand the role that dual diagnosis services can play in your recovery journey. If you’re dealing with multiple disorders, you need to get professional help from a provider that can identify and address all of the obstacles that have been preventing you from living a healthier life. Effective dual diagnosis programming can be a vital step on your path toward successful long-term recovery from prescription painkiller addiction.

Withdrawal and Overdose

Effects of Prescription Painkiller Withdrawal and Overdose

Effects of prescription opioid withdrawal: If a person’s abuse of prescription opioids continues unchecked, his or her body will eventually come to depend on the presence of the drug in order to function effectively. If that person should then discontinue the drug, here she will experience a number of unpleasant symptoms as his or her body readjusts to functioning without the drug. This readjustment process is known as withdrawal, and can include a number of unpleasant  symptoms, such as:

  • Dilated pupils
  • Vomiting
  • Aches
  • Goosebumps
  • Yawning
  • Nausea
  • Runny nose or watery eyes
  • High fever
  • Diarrhea
  • Insomnia
  • Depressed mood
  • Excessive sweating

Effects of prescription opioid overdose: If a person ingests more of an opioid drug than his or her body can safely metabolize or excrete, he or she will experience and overdose. Prescription opioid overdoses are very dangerous, even life-threatening, and so individuals experiencing an overdose should receive medical attention as soon as possible. The effects of an overdose can include:

  • Cold or clammy skin
  • Lightheadedness
  • Confusion
  • Severely constricted pupils
  • Trouble breathing
  • Weakness
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Fatigue
  • Twitching or spasms
  • Coma

Additional Facts

How are Prescription Painkillers Made?

The most commonly abused prescription drugs include: opiates (painkillers), depressants (sleeping pills, anxiolytics) and stimulants. These drugs may be based on natural substances, such as the opium poppy plant, but all prescription drugs are made in a professional laboratory by experienced chemists.

How Do People Get High on Prescription Painkillers?

People get high from prescription drugs by taking them in a way that is different from the prescribed instructions. This includes:

  • taking more than the prescribed amount
  • mixing medications together
  • taking the medication through a route different than prescribed (such as crushing the tablets and then snorting or injecting the powder)

For example, many medications are abused by crushing the pills, mixing them with water, and injecting them to obtain a quick “high”. This speeds up the entry of the drug into the bloodstream and intensifies its effects.

What Should I Not Mix With Prescription Drugs?

The labeling on the medication or your physician will usually tell you what to avoid. Generally, you do not want to mix two medications that have the same mechanism of action, (the combined effect can result in dangerous overdose), or two medications that have opposite effects (they can cancel each other out). For example, you should avoid mixing

  • Opioid painkillers (Vicodin, Oxycontin, Percocet) with other Opioids
  • Opioids with Depressants (Xanax, Valium)
  • Opioids with Stimulants (Ritalin, Cocaine, Meth, Ecstasy)
  • Depressants with Stimulants

Many medications, including opiates, depressants, stimulants, should not be taken with alcohol, which the labeling should specify. The rule of thumb is: when in doubt, ask your doctor.

What are the Short & Long Term Effects of Prescription Painkillers?

These effects depend on the drug in question because each drug class comes with their own set of effects. Below are the effects of the most commonly abused prescription drugs:

Opioids (Vicodin, Percocet, Morphine, Oxycontin, Methadone):

  • Euporia
  • Sedation and relaxation
  • Dizziness and nausea
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Slowed or stopped breathing
  • Kidney damage if taken in large amounts
  • Physical dependence and tolerance
  • Addiction

Depressants (Xanax, Valium, Ativan, Ambien and other sleep medications):

  • Sedation and drowsiness
  • Feelings of well-being
  • Lowered inhibitions
  • Impaired coordination and memory
  • Poor concentration
  • Slowed pulse and breathing
  • Depression
  • Impaired sexual function
  • Chronic sleep problems
  • Physical dependence and tolerance
  • Addiction

Stimulants (Ritalin, Adderall):

  • Elevated mood and feelings of well-being and closeness
  • Increased energy and alertness
  • Decreased appetite
  • Anxiety and Irritability
  • Increased heart rate and breathing
  • Blurred vision
  • Muslce spasms
  • Increased risk of heart dysrhythmia
  • Paranoia and hallucinations
  • Physical dependence and tolerance
  • Addiction

How Long Does Prescription Painkillers Stay in My System?

Some drugs can stay in your system for a few hours, and others can last months. Again, it depends on the drug in question, the dosage, and frequency of use.

How Long do the Effects of Prescription Painkillers Last?

Depending on the drug and dose, their effects can last anywhere from less than an hour to all day. For example, an extended release form of Oxycontin can provide pain relief for up to 12 hours, but a normal dose of Ritalin (a stimulant) lasts around three to four hours.

How Much Prescription Drugs Can I Take Before Risking Overdose?

Anything more than the prescribed amount can be dangerous.This depends on the drug in question, your own metabolism, dosage, and your tolerance.

For example, an extra gram of Vicodin will affect a 110 pound girl much differently than an 180 pound man. Similarly, a person whose body is used to taking a certain amount of a drug is at a lower risk for overdosing than somebody who is taking the drug for the first time.

How Do I Know if I’m Addicted to Prescription Drugs?

If you answer yes to more than 2 of the following questions, there is a good chance you are addicted.

  1. Are you still using your prescription drugs even after the medical condition they were meant to relieve have improved?
  2. How far do you go to obtain prescription drugs? Do you find yourself spending large amounts of time driving great distances and visiting multiple doctors to obtain the drugs?
  3. Are you hiding your prescription pills or deceiving others about how you use those pills?
  4. Have other people ever approached you about your use of prescription drugs?
  5. Do you become annoyed or defensive when other people ask you about use of prescription drugs?
  6. Do you find yourself spending less time with family and friends than you used to?
  7. Do you ever feel guilty about taking prescription drugs?

Can Prescription Drugs Kill You?

Not if you take the prescribed amount, but taking more than you need can kill you. Though they are not illegal, prescription drugs can be just as dangerous as heroin or crack when they are misused.


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