Painkiller Abuse Effects & Warning Signs

Prescription painkillers have improved the quality of life for individuals who were once struggling with acute or chronic pain. However, these medications do not come without danger. Regardless of if they are consumed under the care of certified healthcare professionals, illicitly abused in attempts at self-medication, or abused for recreational purposes, prescription painkillers present the risk of addiction. Many of the most frequently prescribed painkillers, such as OxyContin, Vicodin, Demerol, and Percocet, all contain opioids, which are a highly addictive category of substances that also include heroin and morphine.

This does not mean that consuming prescription painkillers provided through a professional is the same as consuming heroin. These medications can be highly beneficial, and the risks are minimal when they are consumed as prescribed. However, the risk of developing an opioid use disorder is real, and the risk is greater when these drugs are consumed without effective medical supervision.

Oxycodone, the active ingredient in OxyContin and Percocet, hydrocodone (Vicodin), and meperidine (Demerol) are semisynthetic or synthetic opioids, meaning they are manufactured within a lab but share similar structures with naturally occurring extracts from the poppy plant. They are have similar properties, such as reducing pain, triggering a sense of euphoria, and presenting the risk that individuals will develop opioid use disorder. As time passes, however, those who consume prescription painkillers that contain opioids might grow tolerant of them. Tolerance is a sign of dependence, as is the presence of painful withdrawal symptoms when an individual attempts to stop using the drug or dramatically decreases the amount that he or she is consuming.

The desire to achieve the pleasing effects of an opioid-based painkiller while avoiding the pain of withdrawal can keep one stuck inside what might feel like a never-ending cycle of opioid use disorder. It can be extremely challenging for an individual to stop his or her dependence upon opioids without professional care. When comprehensive treatment for prescription painkiller abuse is provided, though, an individual can clear his or her body of opioids in a secure and comfortable manner and can then finish the therapeutic programming that will help him or her prevent relapse and live a happier, healthier life that is free from prescription painkiller abuse.

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The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that more than 52 million Americans have used prescription drugs for non-medical reasons at least once in their lives. Six million have done so within the past thirty days. The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that opioid-based prescription medications make up approximately 44 overdose deaths a day in the U.S., breaking down to 18 women and 26 men. In 2013, more than 16,000 people died from prescription opioid overdose, and in 2011, prescription painkillers led to more than 420,000 emergency room visits.

Causes and Risk Factors for Prescription Painkiller Abuse

The abuse of prescription painkillers and the development of opioid use disorder might be affected by a series of factors, including the following:

Genetic: Extensive research supports the presence of a genetic impact on the development of chemical dependency. For instance, someone with a genetic disposition to novelty seeking and impulsivity might be at increased risk for abusing these medications and other substances. Also, studies that included adopted children and twins show that having a biological parent with a substance use disorder increases the chances that an individual will share in similar issues.

Environmental: Someone who has suffered child abuse or other forms of childhood adversity will be at increased risk for participating in substance abuse, as will someone who suffers high levels of stress that surpass his or her coping abilities. Specific to prescription drug abuse, suffering from an injury or an accident that requires treatment such as prescription painkillers can serve as an environmental risk factor for opioid use disorder:

Risk Factors:

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

Signs and Symptoms of Prescription Painkiller Abuse

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

Behavioral symptoms:

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

Physical symptoms:

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

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Confusion
  • Disorientation
  • Poor decision-making skills

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Drastic changes in mood
If you feel that you are in crisis, or are having thoughts about hurting yourself or others, please call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest emergency room immediately.

Effects of Prescription Painkiller Abuse

Opioid use disorder including prescription painkillers can have a significant and dramatic effect on one’s psychological, physical, and social wellbeing, and can lead to the following negative outcomes:

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

Co-Occurring Disorders

Someone who has become dependent on prescription painkillers might also be facing a co-occurring mental health condition. The disorders below are typically diagnosed in those who have also developed opioid use disorder:

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

Effects of Withdrawal and Overdose

Effects of prescription painkiller withdrawal: Ending or dramatically decreasing one’s use of prescription painkillers after establishing a dependency on them can lead to a series of upsetting symptoms of withdrawal, such as:

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

Effects of prescription painkiller overdose: Opioids impact areas of the brain that also affect involuntary processes such as heart rate and respiration. Therefore, overdosing can put an individual in extreme danger. Someone who displays the following symptoms and signs after consuming a prescription painkiller might require immediate medical care:

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