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Painkiller Abuse

  1. Table of ContentsPrint
  2. About Painkiller Abuse
  3. Signs and Symptoms
  4. Effects of Painkiller Abuse
  5. Painkiller Abuse Treatment
  6. Painkiller Abuse Statistics
  7. Teen Painkiller Abuse
  8. Resources, Articles and More Information


About Painkiller Abuse

Painkillers cover a wide variety of drugs, but the ones that tend to be abused are opioids and opiate painkillers. These range from codeine cough syrup to drugs used in the management of extreme pain, such as fentanyl. When used correctly, these drugs provide welcome relief from the symptoms of cancers, bone breaks and other injuries, but painkiller abuse is a growing problem.

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.

One of the first painkillers to be abused was morphine. It was first used extensively in the Civil War to help wounded soldiers recover from their injuries, which resulted in a large addiction crisis.

Heroin was developed in 1898 as a wonder drug more effective for treatment than morphine, but was a rather unfortunate alternative. Oxycodone and hydrocodone were developed a little later, but not widely available until the 1950s. 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.

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

Painkiller Abuse question 1

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Signs and Symptoms

If a loved one has been prescribed painkillers, it's relatively simple to spot abuse by watching for the following signs:

  • If your loved one is going through painkillers at a faster-than-expected rate, it's entirely possible that they might be abusing the drug. It's also a sign of tolerance, which means the body has gotten used to the drug and requires increasing amounts to feel the same effects. Developing tolerance paired with ever-increasing doses can quickly lead to addiction.
  • You may notice your loved one seems "out of it" or has changing moods with no reason.
  • You might notice unexplained pill packets in the trash or discarded syringes. Typically, the firstdose in this case would come from a family member or friend, not from a random dealer.
  • 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.

Overall, the symptoms of painkiller abuse can be very subtle, but you'll probably notice something's not quite right, especially if your loved one appears to be sedated. If you are concerned about painkiller abuse, talk to your loved one. You can also call 1-888-744-0069Who Answers? to speak to someone confidentially who can advise you of your options for treatment.

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Effects of Painkiller Abuse

Effects of painkiller use go far beyond the common physical effects of these drugs. Someone addicted to painkillers may experience:


  • 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 work days, 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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Painkiller Abuse Treatment

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

Painkiller addiction treatment typically starts with detox and stabilization, along with an assessment to see why the painkiller was taken in the first place. If the user has legitimate pain-management needs, alternative methods of pain control are an option, including methadone maintenance or buprenorphine (Suboxone or Subutex).

A treatment plan is developed to help build and sustain recovery. Treatment typically involves counseling andtherapy.

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. To help a Painkiller addict, call our helpline at 1-888-744-0069Who Answers? for more information.

Aftercare and long-term recovery is the final stage. When patients are in recovery, they generally use support groups to 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 who have been in the same situation in life. This aids the recovery process dramatically, and it gives recovering addicts the best chance of remaining clean and sober.

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Painkiller Abuse Statistics

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration survey, 3.8 million people misused prescription pain relievers in 2015. This represents 1.4% of the population aged 12 or older 1.


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

  • Overdose from prescription painkillers among women rose by over 400% betweeen 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 Painkiller Abuse

Teens are among the most vulnerable for painkiller abuse. Teens often won't know the facts about painkiller abuse. Many teens will experiment with drugs at some point during their lives, and painkillers 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 current misusers of pain relievers. This represents 1.1% of adolescents 1.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse's 2015 Monitoring the Future Study 3:

  • 5.9% of 12th graders reported using any prescription drug in the past month.
  • 2.1% of 12th graders reported using narcotics other than heroin in the past month.
  • 4.4% of 12th graders, 2.5% of 10th graders, and 0.9% of 8th graders reported using Vicodin in the past month.
  • 3.7% of 12th graders, 2.6% of 10th graders, and 0.8% of 8th graders reported using OxyContin in the past month.

The acetaminophen in Vicodin can lead to liver failure, particularly in overdose situations. It's essential that you seek out help for any teen who has a painkiller addiction and needs drug rehab.
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Resources, Articles and More Information

NIDA has useful resources on drug abuse, particularly painkiller abuse.

Also, see the following articles for more information:

You can also share your story and find support in our Forum today.



  1. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2015). Results from the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Detailed Tables (HHS Publication No. SMA 16-4984, NSDUH Series H-51).
  2. American Society of Addiction Medicine. (2016). Opioid Addiction: 2016 Facts & Figures.
  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2015). Monitoring the Future Study: Trends in Prevalence of Various Drugs
Last updated on June 11, 2019
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