How Painkiller Abuse Happens And What To Do About It


Taking painkillers and other medications is necessary to manage discomfort. Excruciating and debilitating pain can be triggered by many factors, including injuries and chronic diseases.

When a patient is prescribed painkillers, it’s done in good faith. Although physicians are wary about potential substance abuse, patients don’t start the treatment thinking that addiction is lurking around the corner.

So what drives an individual to get addicted to painkillers? While there’s no definitive answer, this article delves into the subject of painkiller overuse: how it happens, the red flags, and what to do about it.

How Prevalent Is Painkiller Misuse?

To know how serious the issue is, let’s start with the figures culled from the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Approximately 11.4 million people may be misusing opioids, a figure that represents over 4% of the American population aged over 12 years, during the period of the survey.

Similarly, the American Society of Addiction Medicine released its own alarming discoveries in 2016, further supporting claims that the abuse of painkillers is widespread:

  • In women, prescription painkiller overdose increased to more than 400% in a decade, from 1999 to 2010.
  • During the same period, fatalities due to painkiller abuse rose to 237% in men.
  • Four out of five persons who engaged in prescription painkiller abuse eventually started taking heroin.
  • In 2012, some 259 million opioid painkiller prescriptions were recommended. This figure is enough for each American adult to have a bottle of these pain-numbing medications.

Looking at those figures, it’s not surprising to know that a lot of people seek fentanyl addiction treatment.

What Are Painkillers?

Prescription painkillers cover opioid drugs and several variations such as hydrocodone, morphine, codeine, and oxycodone. Opioids interact with receptors in your nervous system and generate a ‘feel-good’ effect in addition to easing pain and discomfort.

When used properly and as directed by your health care provider, opioids can treat a wide range of extreme pain attributed to diseases, chronic and acute injuries, and post-surgery issues. They may also influence the brain stem, which is responsible for critical bodily functions like breathing. However, these types of painkillers are regulated because of the high probability that they’re going to be misused.

How Taking Painkillers May Lead To Addiction

Because of the way opioids interact with your nerve cells and the chemicals in your body that manage emotions and behavior, they can be addictive. Once a person regularly takes these types of medications, their body will acquire a strong urge to get them as often as possible. Opioids alter the sections of the brain that regulate self-control.

Persons taking painkillers may likely overdose or misuse these medications because of the following factors:

  • Painkillers Are Highly Effective And Deliver Fast Results

Because opioids are highly reliable and work swiftly in the treatment of all kinds of pain, most people turn to them in a heartbeat. Ideally, your first line of defense is to seek alternative pain management methods such as yoga, meditation, and breathing exercises. Unfortunately, the impact of these natural techniques takes time and may not be as effective as prescription medications.

Instead of buying nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), a person suffering from chronic pain will likely reach for a bottle of strong painkillers.

Painkillers May Impact Your Mood

Chronic pain may affect a person’s disposition and the way they see things. That’s why it’s uncommon to hear about individuals in persistent pain or with debilitating injuries who suffer from mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. With opioids, you’ll have medication that can get rid of pain and remove negative emotions, too.

Painkillers Can Make You Feel Good

Because they create a feel-good sensation and help regulate your mood, it’s highly tempting to turn to prescription painkillers to make you feel better.

Pain is often accompanied by discomfort as tension forms in your muscles, whether it’s in areas around or near the affected area of your body. The discomfort that tension and spasms bring can be addressed by the numbing effect of strong painkillers.

Unfortunately, not too many people know that alternative pain management methods such as meditation, yoga, and acupuncture are capable of relaxing tense muscles, too.

  • Taking Painkillers May Lead To Tolerance

As mentioned, most people start taking painkillers without the intention of developing an addiction. However, because of the medication’s nature, it’s easy to develop tolerance to this pain-numbing drug. This means that once you get started, you’ll only need to take more or in higher dosages in order for it to become effective. Simply put, taking painkillers almost always comes with the danger of developing tolerance, one of the signs of an impending drug addiction.

  • Pain Can Easily Intensify

Taking strong pain-fighting medications can lead to conditions that further worsen pain and discomfort, forcing a sufferer to take more painkillers instead of addressing the root of the issue.

For instance, because of the numbing effects of painkillers, a patient may overexert or overuse the injured part of the body, leading to delayed recovery and more intense pain. As they take more opioids, the numbing effect takes over the body, resulting in a catch-22.

A Drug-Driven Society Encourages The Use Of Painkillers

These days when people want everything to be efficient, people turn to medicines to treat all kinds of pain and affliction. Despite the existence of alternative medicines such as acupuncture, tai-chi, herbal medicines, and chiropractic care, most people still take oral medications as the initial—and often only—approach to pain management.

As can be gleaned from the figures mentioned earlier, the use of prescription painkillers has increased exponentially over the past years. Along with this are the rising incidents of overuse and fatalities related to substance abuse.

  • Painkillers Are Highly Accessible And Easy To Use

Society continues to tolerate the use of strong painkillers for reasons stated above as well as the legal mandates that make it easier to get them. Unknowingly, patients suffering from chronic pain may be exposed to medications with a chemical composition that’s almost similar to illegal substances, including heroin. In fact, a 2013 study revealed that those who take opioid painkillers were 19 times more likely to take heroin within the year prior to the said study.

Opioid Painkiller Withdrawal Is Unpleasant

Opioid withdrawal happens when the effects of the drugs wear off. For a person who’s become dependent on painkillers, this is an excruciating experience. It can trigger sensations worse than what the patient felt before taking the medications. This feeling of discomfort further pushes a person to take opioids in order to get rid of the symptoms. This vicious cycle continues until the patient becomes dependent on the medications without realizing it.

Painkiller Dependence and Illicit Use

Once your physician spots a potential painkiller misuse on your part, they’ll try to prevent addiction by controlling your access to it. But an addicted person will find ways to feed their habit no matter the costs.

If they fail to get a prescription, persons who become dependent on painkillers to make them feel better will try to obtain the medications in unlawful ways. These individuals may engage in lying, stealing, and other questionable activities just to get what they want. This can sometimes be difficult to control, and people who suffer from addiction may not be fully aware of the extent of damage they’re putting themselves and their loved ones into.

5 Signs You May Need To Seek Treatment For Opioid Misuse And Addiction

While opioid addiction is a serious issue, it doesn’t mean that all patients who’re prescribed with such drugs are bound to become excessively dependent on them. If you or a loved one has been prescribed or given access to painkillers, check for these signs that may indicate misuse:


People who take painkillers to treat migraines and severe headaches are also prone to developing a painkiller headache. This is one of the effects of opioid withdrawal. If the person doesn’t take codeine or other types of painkillers, the pain may worsen and a vicious cycle of pain and dependency may start.

Unregulated Consumption Of Painkillers

This is when a patient may no longer be following doctor’s orders and is instead taking the medications as often as they want and not as often as needed. Medical experts suggest that opioids should only be taken in extreme and specific situations. Apart from following the doctor’s prescribed dosage, a patient should also be able to stop taking the medications for three days to prevent possible dependency.

If you’ve noticed a loved one taking painkillers on a daily basis for weeks on end, this is a red flag and should be addressed right away.

Engaging In Illegal Drug Use

Once the doctor suspects addiction in someone with chronic pain, access to medications will be greatly reduced or stopped altogether. But if the patient wants to get their regular opioid fix, they might resort to all the means possible in order to do so. This further pushes the person to look for other sources of these drugs, likely on the black market.

Illicit use of painkillers is a growing problem, and illegal drugs are widely traded in the streets. Unrestricted access of these drugs doesn’t bode well, especially for recovering drug dependents.

Erratic And Risky Behavior

As the addiction worsens, the individual affected may manifest erratic behavior and severe mood swings. They may be jittery at one point and then become calm after taking painkillers.

Financial issues may start to crop up, with unexplained debts and missing money being the most prominent signs. This may happen if the person starts hoarding drugs.

As the thought of getting the next ‘high’ consumes the person, problems with relationships at home, in school, or at the workplace begin to manifest, mainly from the person’s failure to fulfill personal and professional responsibilities and obligations.

And, as the effect of excessive painkiller use, the person will also lose their sense of judgement, forcing them to do things that are out of character. For instance, the patient may rob stores, hurt someone, or sell whatever valuables they have in order to score a hit.

Severe Withdrawal Symptoms

As the person’s body seeks the feeling of getting high all the time, they have to continuously take painkillers. Failing to do so causes severe withdrawal symptoms such as headaches, vomiting, stomachaches, and nausea. Because of the queasy feeling and the resumption of pain, the individual typically associates foregoing drugs with feeling bad.

In some instances, the changes are so subtle that it’s hard to notice the impact of painkillers on a person’s moods, behavior, and way of thinking.

What To Do About Painkiller Abuse

Most drug dependents are in denial, making it extremely difficult to take the first step in seeking intervention or treatment. It takes a strong support system and a lot of patience, as well as understanding, to help someone suffering from substance abuse.

The CRAFT Approach

The Community Reinforcement and Family Training (CRAFT) technique was developed by University of Mexico Drs. Robert Meyers and Jane Ellen Smith. This method is used to influence a family member or a loved one through different approaches and without resulting in detachment and confrontation.

This strategy involves working with a professional to effectively communicate with a drug dependent, whether they’ve been undergoing treatment or not.

Here are some of the things you can do to help:

  • Encourage the patient to seek professional assistance. The first step in addiction treatment is to determine whether a problem exists.
  • If the doctor confirms an addiction problem, consider asking the person to undergo mental health counseling in addition to other forms of treatment.
  • Understand their concerns and fears about their situation and the treatment.
  • Seek their opinion before choosing a treatment program and facility.
  • Make them understand that treatments work differently on people. This means that the chosen program may not work immediately but there are always other available options that may be more effective.
  • Show them that you understand them and you’re always available to support them.


Painkiller addiction is a growing problem, and it’s one that’s quite complicated to address. Drug abuse can affect a person’s life and the lives of people around them in various ways.

If you suspect that you or your loved one may have a growing addiction, help yourself or that person take the biggest step in drug addiction recovery: acknowledging that the problem exists.