Prescription painkillers are opioid medications used to manage pain of moderately high to very high severity (such as pain associated with surgical procedures or more chronic conditions like cancer). They can be safe and extremely beneficial medications when taken exactly as prescribed, but when misused they have powerful addictive potential and can cause dangerous depressant effects (especially when taken in combination with alcohol or other drugs).
The active chemicals in opioid pain medications activate opioid receptors in the brain, minimizing the levels of perceived pain and producing feelings of calm and wellbeing. When taken in high doses, the euphoric feelings that are produced can mimic those of the potent street opiate heroin. Many who strive to achieve these feelings time and again fall prey to a cycle of compulsive misuse. Those using the drugs to get high will often:
- Take higher doses than directed.
- Take doses more frequently than directed.
- Crush the pills into a powder form for unintended routes of administration, including snorting the pills or dissolving the powder in solution to then inject into a vein or muscle, or below the skin.
Doing any of the above can have detrimental and potentially life-threatening consequences ranging from respiratory depression to widespread vascular inflammation.
What are examples of opioid painkillers?
Some of the most common prescription painkillers are:
- OxyContin (oxycodone).
- Percocet (oxycodone + acetaminophen).
- Vicodin (hydrocodone + acetaminophen).
Can I get addicted even if I have a prescription?
Yes, you can get addicted to opioids even if you have a prescription.
Opioids activate the reward pathways in the brain and induce feelings of pleasure. This mechanism acts as positive reinforcement to continue taking the drug. This addictive potential is the reason why someone taking a painkiller should be closely monitored and re-evaluated regularly. Taking more than instructed or taking it via alternate methods like snorting or injecting can further increase the risk of developing an addiction.
If you take a painkiller for a legitimate medical need, follow your doctor’s instructions very carefully and avoid taking more than prescribed, the risk of addiction is low. Over time, you may develop some level of tolerance to the medication and require a higher dose in order to alleviate pain. This is a normal response to ongoing opioid therapy; however, you should never make the decision to increase your dosage on your own. Doing so will put you at risk of adverse effects and overdose and may increase your chances of eventually becoming addicted.
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Are painkillers safer than illegal drugs?
One common misconception is that opioid painkillers are inherently safer than illicit drugs due to their legality and medicinal properties, but that isn’t always the case.
In high enough doses, the effects of many of the prescription opioids are virtually indistinguishable from heroin, a dangerous illicit substance. Painkillers can produce profound respiratory depression at high doses, so those who abuse them are at increased risk of respiratory arrest, which can result in widespread organ injury, coma, and subsequent death.
Possible Side Effect of Painkillers
Some side effects of abusing painkillers include:
- Slow heart rate.
- Respiratory depression.
Long-Term Effects of Painkiller Abuse
The long-term effects of prescription opioid abuse are as follows:
- Growing tolerance and increased risk of overdose.
- Acute opioid withdrawal syndrome upon cessation of use.
- Sleep apnea.
- Falls and fractures.
- Sexual dysfunction.
- Perforated nasal septum from insufflation (snorting).
If you inject these drugs, you’re also at risk of dangers like:
- Collapsed veins.
- Tuberculosis and other pulmonary disease.
HIV, hepatitis, and other communicable diseases.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), long-term opioid abuse can also cause decreased white matter in the brain, with potential negative influences on:
- Behavior regulation.
- Decision-making skills.
- Responses to stressful situations.
Can I overdose on prescription opioids?
Yes, it is possible to overdose on prescription opioids. These drugs are prescribed with strict dosing parameters for a reason. When people abuse painkillers, they often take far more than the recommended amount and approach lethal doses much faster than intended (especially if used in combination with other opioids, sedatives, or alcohol). Again, because these drugs are depressants, overdose can result in slowed or even stopped breathing and death.
About 17,000 people die per year from an overdose of opioid painkillers, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine’s Opioid Addiction Disease 2015 Facts and Figures.
How many people abuse opioid painkillers?
The American Society of Addiction Medicine estimates that nearly 2 million people currently suffer from an addiction to opioid painkillers
America consumes an overwhelming amount of painkillers relative to the rest of the world; the United States, which has less than 5% of the world’s population, is responsible for taking about 80% of the world’s supply of prescription opioids (Manchikanti & Singh, 2008).
How similar are prescription opioids and heroin?
Prescription opioids and heroin are extremely similar in chemical structure as well as their effects on the mind and body. Its perhaps unsurprising then that research has revealed a connection between prescription painkiller abuse and heroin use.
People who abuse opioid painkillers will sometimes transition to using heroin due to its cheaper price and accessibility. In fact, one study found that prescription opioid users were 19 times more likely to initiate heroin use than those who hadn’t abused painkillers, while 80% of new heroin users had abused prescription opioids prior to using heroin.
What happens if I suddenly stop using opioids?
If you abuse opioid painkillers or have been taking them over a long period of time, then it’s likely that you will experience unpleasant withdrawal symptoms once you stop using. This is due to the physical dependence that develops as the body adapts to the presence of the drug. Once dependent on any drug, your body will act as if it needs the drug for baseline functioning.
Opioid withdrawal symptoms include:
- Muscle aches.
- Increased tear secretion.
- Excessive nasal mucus.
- Increased risk of suicide.
The appearance of withdrawal symptoms varies among types of painkillers; some are long-acting or extended release and some are short-acting. Withdrawal symptoms can appear within hours after the last dose if your prescription opioid is short-acting. Conversely, if it is long-acting, symptoms are more likely to appear a couple days after your most recent dose.
How do I quit abusing prescription painkillers safely?
If you suffer from an addiction to prescription painkillers, help is available to you. Quitting opioids cold turkey can be unpleasant and painful and may place you at increased risk of relapse. Fortunately, you can get assistance in detoxing safely in a supervised program. You may wish to detox at a center that specializes specifically in detox or in an inpatient program that incorporates detoxification into the more comprehensive addiction treatment program.
Once you have successfully cleared your body of opioids, there are many different kinds options for addiction treatment. These options include:
- Inpatient treatment: You can live at the facility while receiving 24-7 care. An inpatient drug rehab program will typically last between 30-90 days (or longer). Inpatient care will provide a tailored treatment plan that may include an intake evaluation, supervised detox, psychiatric and medical care, individual and group therapy, and aftercare planning.
- Outpatient treatment: You are able to live at home while attending a recovery program when it works with your schedule.
- Individual therapy: You will meet with a therapist one-on-one to address underlying factors influencing your opioid addiction and to develop coping skills to be used in stressful situations.
- Group counseling: Your group counseling sessions will consist of building sober social skills and healthy coping strategies.
- 12-step programs: Fellowships such as Pills Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous are free to join and provide members with a supportive and encouraging environment while working through the 12 steps to recovery.
For help finding a program to end your addiction to opioid painkillers, call us at 1-888-744-0069 . We can assist you in sorting through the options to find the right care for you or someone you love.
- What are opioids? (2014, November 1). http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/prescription-drugs/opioids/what-are-opioids
- Opioid Addiction Disease 2015 Facts and Figures. (n.d.). http://www.asam.org/docs/default-source/advocacy/opioid-addiction-disease-facts-figures.pdf
- Cicero, T., Ellis, M., Surratt, H., & Kurtz, S. (2014). The Changing Face of Heroin Use in the United States. JAMA Psychiatry, 71(7), 821-826. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2014.366.
- Muhuri, P., Gfroerer, J., & Davies, M. (2013, August 1). Associations of Nonmedical Pain Reliever Use and Initiation of Heroin Use in the United States. http://archive.samhsa.gov/data/2k13/DataReview/DR006/nonmedical-pain-reliever-use-2013.htm
- A Nation in Pain: Focusing on U.S. Opioid Trends for Treatment of Short-term and Long-term Pain. (2014, December 1).
- “How Do Opioids Affect the Brain and Body?” How Do Opioids Affect the Brain and Body? 2014. Web. 03 Mar. 2016. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/prescription-drugs/opioids/how-do-opioids-affect-brain-body.
- Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-5. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 2013. Print.
- Baldini, A., Korff, M., & Lin, E. (2012). A Review of Potential Adverse Effects of Long-Term Opioid Therapy. The Primary Care Companion For CNS Disorders Prim. Care Companion CNS Disord., 14(3).
- “What Are the Possible Consequences of Opioid Use and Abuse?” What Are the Possible Consequences of Opioid Use and Abuse? 2014. Web. 03 Mar. 2016. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/prescription-drugs-abuse-addiction/opioids/what-are-possible-consequences-opioid-use-abuse.