Prescription Painkiller Addiction Signs & Symptoms

Understanding Prescription Painkiller Addiction & Abuse

Learn about prescription painkiller addiction & abuse

Prescription painkillers have improved the lives of countless individuals who were previously struggling with acute or chronic pain. However, the use of these medications does not occur without risk. Regardless of whether they are ingested under the watch of certified healthcare providers, illicitly abused in an attempt at self-medication, or recreationally abused, prescription painkillers pose many dangers, including the development of addiction. Many of the most commonly prescribed painkillers such as Vicodin, Demerol, Percocet, and OxyContin all contain opioids, which are a highly addictive category of substances that also includes heroin and morphine.

This does not mean that consuming a painkiller that a professional has prescribed is on the same level as consuming heroin. These medications can be greatly beneficial, and the risks are much less when they are consumed as prescribed. However, the danger of developing an opioid use disorder is very real, and the risk is increased significantly when these substances are consumed without the appropriate medical supervision.

Oxycodone (the active ingredient in both OxyContin and Percocet), hydrocodone (Vicodin), and meperidine (Demerol) are semisynthetic or synthetic opioids, meaning that they are developed within a laboratory, however, they share similar structures with the naturally occurring extracts from the opium poppy plant. They also have similar properties, such as relieving pain, triggering the onset of mild euphoria, and posing the risk that individuals will establish an opioid use disorder.

As time goes on, those who consume prescription painkillers that contain opioids can develop a tolerance. Tolerance is a sign of dependence, as is the presence of painful withdrawal symptoms when an individual attempts to stop his or her use of the drug, or dramatically decrease the amount he or she is consuming.

The desire to achieve the pleasant effects of an opioid-based painkiller, while avoiding the pain of withdrawal, can keep individuals stuck within what might appear to be a never-ending bout with opioid use. It can be very difficult for someone in this position to end his or her dependence upon opioids without effective care. When comprehensive care is offered, an individual can clear his or her body of opioids in a more secure and comfortable manner, and can then finish the therapeutic programming that will encourage him or her to prevent relapse and live a joyful, healthy life that is free of the compulsion to abuse prescription painkillers.


Statistics on prescription painkiller addiction & abuse

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that more than 52 million Americans have used prescription drugs for non-medical purposes at least once in their lifetimes, and six million have done so over the past 30 days. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state that opioid-based prescription medications account for nearly 44 overdose deaths every day in America, breaking down to a daily average totaling 18 women and 26 men. In 2013, more than 16,000 individuals died from an overdose on prescription opioids. Before that in 2011, prescription painkillers led to more than 420,000 visits to emergency rooms.

Causes and Risk Factors for Prescription Painkiller Abuse

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

Genetic: Extensive research shows that there is a genetic impact on the development of chemical dependency. For instance, a genetic disposition to novelty seeking and impulsivity might place an individual at a higher risk for abusing these medications and other substances. Also, studies including both twins and adopted children show that having a biological parent who struggles with a substance use disorder heightens the chances that the individual will experience similar issues.

Environmental: Someone who experienced child abuse or other types of childhood adversity will be at an increased risk for participating in substance abuse, as will someone who struggles with increased levels of stress that are more powerful than the coping abilities he or she possesses. Specific to prescription drug abuse, experiencing an accident or injury that requires treatment including prescription painkillers can be an environmental risk factor for developing an opioid use disorder.

Risk Factors:

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

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of prescription painkiller addiction & abuse

Below are some of the most common signs and symptoms that might show that a person has been abusing opioid-based painkillers:

Behavioral symptoms:

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

Physical symptoms:

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

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Poor decision-making skills
  • Confusion
  • Disorientation

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Depression
  • Drastic changes in mood
  • Irritability


Effects of prescription painkiller addiction & abuse

Opioid use disorder that includes prescription painkillers can have a drastic effect on a person’s social, psychological, and physical well-being, and can cause the following negative repercussions:

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

Withdrawal and Overdose

Effects of prescription painkiller withdrawal and overdose

Effects of prescription painkiller withdrawal: Stopping or drastically reducing one’s use of prescription painkillers after developing a dependency on them can cause many distressing symptoms of withdrawal such as:

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

Effects of prescription painkiller overdose: Opioids interact with parts of the brain that also impact involuntary processes such as respiration and heart rate. Therefore, an overdose can put an individual in extreme danger. Anyone who displays the following signs after ingesting a prescription painkiller might require immediate medical attention:

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