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The Effects of Painkiller Use

  1. Table of ContentsPrint
  2. Are Painkillers Harmful?
  3. Short-Term Effects of Painkillers
  4. Side Effects
  5. Long-Term Effects of Painkillers
  6. Painkiller Dependence
  7. Painkiller Withdrawal Treatment


Are Painkillers Harmful?

Painkiller abuse kills a substantial number of Americans each year.

Heroin and painkiller infographic
Click the image above for the full infographic.

A painkiller can be any one of a number of drugs, from over-the-counter (OTC) medications like ibuprofen, naproxen and aspirin to prescribed drugs like:

All painkillers carry risks — even OTC ones — but it's the narcotic painkillers that carry the highest risk of addiction.

Consequently, painkillers can be harmful, especially when taken incorrectly. Painkiller abuse kills a substantial number of Americans each year, and this doesn't count accidental overdoses and medical catastrophes. That said, Americans have a love affair with painkillers, and their use has bloomed since the early 1990s as more people can get hold of these relatively cheap drugs.

Narcotic painkillers remain a front-line defense against pain, and this means they're routinely prescribed after major surgeries. Additionally, because many believe that the fact that the drug comes from a doctor means its safe and nonaddictive, the risk of addiction to these drugs increases.
Painkillers Effects question 1

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Short-Term Effects of Painkillers

Most painkillers that are typically abused fall under the opiate category, although tramadol is one that does not.

The effects are broadly the same: an intense high that differs depending on the way the drug is taken (snorted, injected as liquid, injected as powder, swallowed as crushed tablet, or swallowed as whole tablet), a period of partial sedation, and delayed reactions.

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Side Effects

Because opiates and their analogs interact at the various opioid receptors in the brain, they have a wide range of side effects. When a painkiller attaches to the opioid receptor, it prevents a chemical known as GABA from being released. This chemical normally controls the release of dopamine, along with a couple of other neurotransmitters, which causes dopamine to flood the brain, creating the high.

Because opiates and their analogs interact at the various opioid receptors in the brain, they have a wide range of side effects.

However, this causes everything to relax, from the muscle in the iris (causing pinpoint pupils) to the muscles in the extremities (causing jerky reactions). It also reduces your ability to be able to react quickly and control your movements, so driving is particularly dangerous.

Being caught behind the wheel while on painkillers can lead to a jail sentence of up to a year and loss of driving privileges, depending on the state.
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The following tells the story of Wes, a teenager whose prescription drug abuse led to his tragic death.

Credit: Don'tGetMeStartedOhio

Long-Term Effects of Painkillers

There are a number of unpleasant side effects associated with painkiller abuse. Mild side effects include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, usually caused by the way the drug interacts with opioid receptors along the digestive tract.

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You can also expect random muscle spasms that occur as a result of the nerves reacting at random to various stimuli. As the opiate in the body breaks down at the opioid receptor, GABA starts going back into full swing, but this also causes a sudden cessation of dopamine, which causes the random twitches.

The long-term effects also depend on how the drug is taken. Crushing and injecting the tablet into the bloodstream can cause long-term heart damage and other cardiovascular issues, and can increase the likelihood of a heart attack. Even injecting injectable solutions creates track marks that can become infected. Injecting painkillers or any type of drug, especially if done under non-sterile conditions or in association with shared needles elevates one's risk of contracting serious blood-borne illnesses. Such is the case with oxymorphone, or Opana. In 2015, parts of the state of Indiana saw an alarming spike in HIV cases in conjunction with IV Opana abuse.

Virtually all opiate painkillers—no matter what route of administration they are used—carry the risk of long-term addiction.
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Painkiller Dependence

old-man-hands-pouring-pills-into-hand-addicted-to-pain-killersLong-term addiction is usually preceded by tolerance to the drug, which means you feel as though you need a regular supply of the drug. The reason isn't usually to reduce the effects of pain, however. The reason is because you start to suffer from the effects of withdrawal when treatment is stopped. This manifests itself as pain and flu-like symptoms. It might include headaches, nausea, general soreness, and even random spasms. You may also find that your relationships with others are compromised as a result of the addiction. Generally, the definition of an addiction means you keep having to take the drug despite the negative effects of it.

All of these painkiller withdrawal symptoms usually indicate that you need to attend a rehab program, particularly if you've tried to get off these drugs on your own without success.

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Painkiller Withdrawal Treatment

Painkiller withdrawal treatment tends to follow a set pattern for most painkillers, although what actually happens at first will depend on the specific painkiller and dose. Generally, you'll be weaned off the drug, and then you'll be encouraged to seek counseling and support.

Finally, you'll be encouraged to attend a 12-step program that links you up with peers who have been through the same thing.

Aftercare is a crucial part of long-term recovery. To help a Painkiller addict, call our 24/7 helpline at 1-888-744-0069Who Answers? for more information.

Last updated on June 11, 2019
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