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Opioid Painkiller Abuse

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Their effectiveness is what makes them potentially addictive; they all act on the opioid receptors in the brain, creating a high as well as numbing pain.

The category of prescription painkillers covers a wide variety of opioid drugs, including morphine, codeine, oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet), and hydrocodone (Vicodin, Norco)—as controlled substances, each of these drugs have inherent abuse potential. Painkiller abuse can range from codeine cough syrup misuse to the diversion and abuse of potent prescription drugs used in the management of extreme pain, such as fentanyl. When used as intended, these drugs provide welcome relief from the pain associated with cancers, surgeries, bone breaks, and other injuries, but opioid painkiller abuse is a growing problem.

Opioids are chemically related and interact with opioid receptors on nerve cells in the brain and nervous system to produce pleasurable effects and relieve pain.1

Painkiller addiction doesn’t have to rule your life.
Treatment provides hope for recovery.

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Signs of Misuse

If a loved one has been prescribed opioid painkillers or otherwise has access to them, the following signs could point to the misuse of those drugs:2

  • If your loved one is going through painkillers at a faster-than-expected rate, it’s entirely possible that they might be misusing the drug. It’s also a sign of possible tolerance, which means the body has gotten used to the drug and requires increasing amounts to feel the same effects.3 Developing tolerance paired with ever-increasing doses may contribute to the development of addiction. Addiction is a chronic disease that involves drug seeking and use that is compulsive, or difficult to control, despite harmful consequences.4
  • You may notice your loved one seems consistently “out of it” or has changing moods with no reason.
  • Behavior-wise, your loved one may be acting erratically and seem jittery at times and then suddenly become very calm.
  • Financial problems may become apparent—debts may surface and/or money may go missing.
  • If non-medical use includes injection routes of administration, you might notice discarded syringes and other injection-related paraphernalia (syringe caps, tourniquet materials, spoons, lighters, etc.).

In some cases, the symptoms of opioid painkiller abuse can be very subtle, but you might notice something’s not quite right, even if it’s just some increased sedation or changes in demeanor. If you are concerned about opioid painkiller abuse, talk to your loved one.

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Effects of Misuse


The impact of painkiller abuse often extends far beyond the common physical effects of these drugs. Someone addicted to painkillers may experience:4

  • Strained relationships and family issues.
  • Legal problems associated with buying and using the drug illegally or due to actions taken while using, such as driving while impaired.
  • Employment problems. Painkiller addiction can lead to missed workdays, neglected responsibilities, and injuries on the job.
  • Infection from injection drug use. Infections can include endocarditis (infection of the heart muscle), as well as Hepatitis-C, or HIV. Other effects of injection may include sepsis and gangrene.
  • Depression.

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Misuse Statistics

Results from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health indicate an estimated 11.4 million people misusing opioids in 2017. This represents 4.2% of the population aged 12 or older.6

According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine’s 2016 Facts & Figures:1

  • Overdose from prescription painkillers among women rose by over 400% between 1999 and 2010. Deaths from painkiller overdose increased by 237% among men.
  • Of those who begin using heroin, 4 of 5 have misused prescription painkillers.
  • An estimated 259 million prescriptions were written for opioid painkillers in 2012 alone, which is enough for every single American adult to have their own bottle of painkillers.

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Teen Opioid Painkiller Abuse

Teens are among the most vulnerable for opioid misuse. Teens often won’t know the facts about painkiller abuse. Many teens will experiment with drugs at some point during their lives, and prescription opioids are often used because they’re seen as being safer alternatives to illicit drugs.

In 2015, an estimated 276,000 adolescents aged 12 to 17 were currently engaging in nonmedical painkiller use. This figure represents 1.1% of adolescents.1

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s 2018 Monitoring the Future Study:7

  • 4.2% of 12th graders reported using any prescription drug in the past month.
  • 1.1% of 12th graders reported using narcotics other than heroin in the past month.
  • 1.7% of 12th graders, 1.1% of 10th graders, and 0.6% of 8th graders reported using Vicodin in the past year.
  • 2.3% of 12th graders, 2.2% of 10th graders, and 0.8% of 8th graders reported using OxyContin in the past year.

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While opioid painkiller abuse can wreak havoc on a user’s life, recovery is possible with the proper addiction treatment.

Opioid addiction treatment typically starts with medical detox and stabilization, which involves a supervised, medication-managed withdrawal from the drug.In addition, there needs to be an assessment to see why the opioid was taken in the first place—be it for prescription use or nonmedical misuse. If the user suffers from a painful physical condition, alternative methods of pain management may be needed to best support recovery.

A treatment plan is developed to help people achieve abstinence and sustain recovery. Counseling and therapy serve as the basis of professional treatment. Talk therapy is very effective, and it can help people work out what they need to do to get off painkillers and to cope with life without drugs. Additional therapeutic interventions will help people to make healthy changes to their thoughts and behaviors regarding their drug us.

Aftercare planning and relapse prevention skills will prove helpful to long-term recovery when a formal rehabilitation period comes to an end. Many people in recovery continue on with support group participation to help reinforce the lessons learned during the counseling process and build on successes achieved while in treatment. They’ll also get support from other members of the group on similar recovery journeys. The wisdom and support of peers and other ongoing systems of support can bolster the recovery process dramatically, and they help to give recovering addicts the best chance of remaining clean and sober in the long term.

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Dr. Thomas received his medical degree from the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine. During his medical studies, Dr. Thomas saw firsthand the multitude of lives impacted by struggles with substance abuse and addiction, motivating him to seek a clinical psychiatry preceptorship at the San Diego VA Hospital’s Inpatient Alcohol and Drug Treatment Program. In his post-graduate clinical work, Dr. Thomas later applied the tenets he learned to help guide his therapeutic approach with many patients in need of substance treatment. In his current capacity as Senior Medical Editor for American Addiction Centers, Dr. Thomas, works to provide accurate, authoritative information to those seeking help for substance abuse and behavioral health issues.
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