Prescription Drug Addiction

Libby Pelligrini
Calendar icon Last Updated: 01/25/2024

Reading Time: 6 minutes

What is Painkiller Addiction?

Painkillers are commonly used to treat moderate to severe pain and carry a high risk for abuse and dependence, as the majority of them are opioid drugs. Painkillers are often prescribed on a short-term basis to treat pain caused by injury, surgery, and some cancer treatments. Those who misuse painkillers or who use painkillers long-term face a high risk of drug overdose and related complications like coma and death.

An opioid addiction treatment center can help you or a loved one safely and thoroughly recover from both painkiller dependence and addiction. Knowing common risks and side effects of painkiller addiction can motivate you or your loved one to seek help in the form of professional addiction treatment.

What are the Risks of Painkiller Addiction?

Each year over 40% of all opioid overdose deaths are caused by the misuse of painkillers. Painkiller abuse can involve using a higher dose than prescribed, using another person’s prescription, or mixing additional painkillers and alcohol. The total number of overdose deaths caused by painkillers in 2016 was five times higher than it was in 1999.

Even when prescribed, painkillers carry a risk for addiction. It is estimated that 12% of people prescribed painkillers end up suffering from an opioid use disorder. Also, 80% of heroin addicts admitted to starting by misusing prescription painkillers.

Most people get painkillers from friends or family members, which makes overprescribing opioids a dangerous practice for most doctors. The DEA has listed many opioid painkillers as Schedule II drugs, meaning they carry a high risk for both physical and psychological addiction.

Types of Painkillers

All painkillers work similarly to one another in the way they bind to opioid receptors in the brain to offer pain relief. However, some painkillers are stronger than others and can be long-acting or short-acting. For instance, the effects of methadone can last for up to 24 hours, while the effects of hydrocodone may only last up to six hours.

  • Codeine: This mild opioid is naturally derived from the poppy plant just like heroin and morphine, and is up to one-third as strong as morphine. Codeine comes in many different doses and medicines and is widely used to treat diarrhea and coughs.
  • Demerol: Also known as meperidine, this opioid is between seven and ten times less potent than morphine, but offers a short half-life effective at treating post-surgical pain.
  • Dilaudid: Commonly known under its generic name of hydromorphone, this opioid is up to 10 times stronger than morphine. Dilaudid is often the second-line treatment for pain when morphine fails to provide relief.
  • Fentanyl: This painkiller is 100 times stronger than morphine and offers immediate pain relief that lasts between one and two hours. Fentanyl binds so tightly to pain receptors that people who misuse this opioid can suffer a fatal overdose.
  • Hydrocodone: Also available under the brand name Norco, this opioid offers the same strength as morphine and is usually combined with acetaminophen to offer pain relief. Hydrocodone is one of the three most commonly abused painkillers in the U.S.
  • Methadone: This drug is three times stronger than morphine, and is commonly used to treat opioid dependence. Methadone does not produce euphoria and is also one of the most commonly abused painkillers next to hydrocodone and oxycodone.
  • Morphine: Morphine is derived directly from the poppy plant and can offer pain relief in five to 10 minutes when used intravenously. This opioid is one of the oldest pain treatments and is used as an ingredient in many other painkillers.
  • Norco: The brand name of a prescription painkiller that combines hydrocodone and acetaminophen in its makeup. It can lead to dependence, overdose, and addiction.
  • Oxycodone: This drug is about 50% stronger than morphine and is most commonly prescribed to treat post-surgery pain. The effects of oxycodone begin within 15 to 30 minutes and last for up to six hours.
  • Subutex: Also known by its generic name buprenorphine, this opioid is up to 40 times stronger than morphine and can treat chronic pain without producing euphoria. Subutex is commonly used to treat opioid dependence.
  • Tramadol: This painkiller is about one-tenth the strength of morphine, but still carries the risk of abuse and dependence when misused.

What are the Symptoms of Painkiller Addiction?

People who abuse painkillers are at risk of becoming addicted. Painkiller addiction is a complex medical disorder characterized by excessive use of the medication to get high, feel euphoric, or otherwise have adverse effects of the drug that were not intended by the manufacturer.

Repeated use of painkillers for uses other than they are prescribed or in doses that are higher than the prescribed dose can lead to:

  • An inability to create natural feelings of pleasure in the brain
  • Physical dependence on the drug, resulting in physical withdrawal symptoms
  • Psychological dependence on the drug, resulting in mental health issues
  • Drug cravings, and a building of tolerance to the painkiller

Long-term abuse of painkillers can lead to:

  • Respiratory failure
  • Heart attacks
  • Digestive problems
  • Sensitivity to pain
  • Overdose

What are the Signs of Painkiller Addiction?

  • Legal trouble as a result of drug use: Many people are charged with a DUI, public intoxication, or suffer other legal problems as a result of their drug use.
  • Risky activity while on medication: Mixing pills or alcohol. Resorting to illegal activities to continue drug use (e.g., stealing).
  • Financial problems as a result of prescription addiction: Drug habits are expensive to support. As a result, financial issues could point to drug use.
  • Doctor shopping for pills: Users will try and find doctors who will prescribe the drug, or will forge prescriptions.
  • Loss of control over prescription use: Addicts may take more than they intended, do things that they otherwise wouldn’t do while they are under the influence, or they may forget to take the medication altogether.
  • Relationship problems: Addicts may lie to their loved ones, fight with them over the drug, or neglect their loved ones because they are more interested in the drug.
  • Continued prescription medication use despite known consequences: Addicts will continue to use even if they cannot afford it, have ruined relationships, or have had health issues because of the drug.
  • Inability to stop using: Even if they want to, if they are addicted, physical dependence will prevent many from being able to stop abusing painkillers without intervention.

What to do if Someone You Love is Abusing Painkillers?

People who start using higher amounts of painkillers after becoming tolerant to the drugs are at heightened risk for physical dependence, which is characterized by withdrawal symptoms when quitting painkillers abruptly. Those who are unable to stop using painkillers despite trying to quit may be suffering from a painkiller addiction, and need drug detox and therapy to fight and overcome their addiction in full.

Painkiller addiction can be very problematic for both the addict and those around them. Families and loved ones suffer because the medication becomes more important than them and society suffers because the addiction leads to a lack of productivity, stealing or lying to get the drug, and potential accidents such as DUI as a result of the individual being high on the medication. The consequences of painkiller abuse can be mild, or they may be severe depending on the type of medication used, the severity of the addiction, and the level of the drug abuse.

Which Treatment Options are Available for Painkiller Addiction?

If you or a loved one is addicted to painkillers, rehab may be the most suitable answer. There are many methods of rehab available to help you safely detox and recover from painkiller addiction.

Some of the most common painkiller addiction rehab programs include:

  • Inpatient rehab for prescription addictionThese programs provide the patient with a place to live while they undergo intense counseling and therapy for their addiction. Detox is also provided in a safe and secure atmosphere that is monitored by medical staff to ensure the safety of the patient.
  • Outpatient rehab for painkiller addiction – These programs usually provide counseling and therapy on a limited support basis and may even include random drug testing to ensure that the patient remains on track with their recovery efforts. Outpatient rehab is an excellent choice for the recovering addict who has already completed an inpatient rehab program or for someone who is only mildly addicted to prescription medication.
  • Aftercare programsBehavioral therapy programs can assist in aftercare, and long-term recovery by providing helpful strategies to cope with addiction. These sessions will often address underlying co-occurring disorders, such as mental health issues, and provide guidance on how to deal with triggers.

Types of Addiction

Medical Reviewer
Libby Pelligrini, MMS, PA-C
Physician Assistant & Medical Writer
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Libby Pellegrini, MMS, PA-C, is a professionally-trained physician assistant. She has worked in numerous emergency healthcare settings, ranging from the rural United States to large metropolitan areas. Her experience helping patients suffering from acute crises related to intoxication and substance use disorders informs her passion for addiction medicine.