The Shocking Truth About Painkiller Addiction and Abuse in America

Doctors are prescribing painkillers as if they are candy. In 2012 alone, more than 259 million prescriptions for pain relievers were written. Prescription pain meds treat moderate to severe pain to provide patients relief. Although they’re very effective, they are also quite addictive. It’s not unusual for patients to become dependent on these drugs. Here’s everything you need to know about the rampant painkiller addiction and abuse in America.


Types of Pills for Pain

Pain meds are also known as opioids. They’re usually synthetic alternatives to opiates, which are natural derivatives of opium. These drugs boost serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain to create a sense of euphoria. Depending on the level of pain experienced, various pain meds are prescribed. Some are stronger and much more potent than others.

Popular weak pain relievers include codeine and dihydrocodeine. These medications are available as tablets, liquids or injections. Prescriptions are often written for minor injuries.

Popular weak pain relievers include codeine and dihydrocodeine. These medications are available as tablets, liquids or injections. Prescriptions are often written for minor injuries. The strongest painkiller pills available include:

  • Buprenorphine
  • Diamorphine
  • Fentanyl
  • Hydromorphone
  • Methadone
  • Morphine
  • Oxycodone
  • Pethidine
  • Tramadol

These medications are often prescribed for severe pain. They are ideal for patients that have undergone surgery or who are dealing with chronic pain. The strongest painkiller is ten times stronger than the weakest one. The stronger the drug, the more likely it is to cause an overdose.

Clinical Painkiller Addiction Symptoms

Many patients are unaware that they have developed an addiction until it’s too late.

They start off taking prescription medications to relieve pain, but soon become dependent. Common clinical symptoms of addiction include:

  • Anxiety
  • Constipation
  • Depression
  • Euphoria
  • Flushed skin
  • Itchiness
  • Mood swings
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Psychosis
  • Rapid heart beat
  • Respiratory depression
  • Seizures
  • Slurred speech
  • Stomach pain

In worst-case situations, addiction to pain meds can lead to coma and death. The overdose rate for painkillers has been steadily climbing over the years.

It’s often hard to identify an addict. Many are capable of functioning in society. They may hold important jobs or may even act quite normally.

Some addicts never show any outward signs of addiction. They may be the perfect parents or spouse. The only difference is that they take larger doses than prescribed. They might also secretly seek more avenues to get their hands on more pain medications.

Others may slip up more often. In these situations, the most common signs to look for include:

  • Change in energy level. Addicts may stop exercising and going out, as they often feel lethargic.
  • Constant drowsiness. Pain pills often cause users to feel drowsy. The medication affects the respiratory system. It’s not unusual for addicts to start dozing off at random times.
  • Decreased libido. The chemicals in pain meds lower estrogen and testosterone levels. Both are needed to maintain a normal libido.
  • Frequent flu-like symptoms. Withdrawal symptoms are similar to flu symptoms.
  • Lack of hygiene. Even the best-dressed people can start dressing and looking gruffly.
  • Loss of relationships. Addicts often favor getting high over maintaining friendships.
  • An addiction to pain medications can become rather costly. Many addicts often have unexplained credit card statements or low bank balances.
  • Poor spending habits can result in theft. Keep an eye out for missing items that can be easily pawned.
  • Weight loss. Opioids in painkillers often cause metabolic changes. This can result in severe weight loss.

While the signs above can show an addiction to painkillers, it doesn’t apply to all addicts. Trust your own intuition. You know them best. If you have any suspicious whatsoever, it’s vital that you speak out. Get them to take our addiction quiz to determine if they need help getting sober. There are plenty of addiction treatments available.

painkiller addiction recovery

Painkiller Addiction Statistics

It’s easy to ignore the horrors of a painkiller addiction. Many try to rationalize it as being harmless; however, the numbers tell a different story.

Take a look at these mind-blowing and shocking painkiller addiction statistics below:  

  • 44% of Americans knew an addict abusing painkillers in 2016
  • 18,893 Americans died from overdoses caused by pain pills in 2014
  • 4 in 5 heroin users started out by misusing prescription painkillers
  • 3 million misused an opioid painkiller in one month in 2014
  • 70% of addicts gain access to pain medications from people they know
  • 3,600 people start misusing pills for pain each day
  • Over 900,000 Americans reported heroin use in 2014

Painkillers like hydrocodone and oxycodone have similar chemical effects and structures to heroin. The body processes both of these in almost the same way. This has led opioid painkiller users to be 19 times more like to use heroin than non-users.

Painkiller addictions affect women just as much as they affect men. In fact, emergency room visits from women due to painkiller abuse happen every 3 minutes. Also, women who take prescription painkillers during pregnancy are three times more likely to have a stillbirth.

Negative Effects of Painkillers

Prescription pain pills work by interacting with the brain. The medication prevents the brain from releasing GABA chemicals. These chemicals are responsible for releasing neurotransmitters, like dopamine. When dopamine floods into the brain, it creates a euphoric high.

The prescription pain pills artificially boost dopamine levels, as well as other neurotransmitters. When taken, patients feel euphoric. This sensation also leads to both short-term and long-term side effects.

When pain medications are taken, all muscles relax. Short-term effects include:

  • Pinpoint pupils caused by the muscles in the iris
  • Jerky reactions caused by muscles in the extremities
  • Respiratory depression caused by muscles in the lungs

The chemicals in the pain pills also inhibit one’s ability to react quickly and efficiently. This limits your control over your own movements. Engaging in activities, like driving, can be dangerous. This is why taking pain pills before driving can lead to a DUI.

Other side effects include constipation or diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, headaches and muscle aches. Most of these side effects are normally triggered by how the painkillers damage the digestive tract.

Long-term abuse will also lead to long-term side effects that are trickier to deal with. The longer that the abuse goes on, the more likely you are to experience symptoms like depression and anxiety. It can also lead to paranoia, disorientation, mood swings and confusion. This is mostly caused by chemical imbalances in the brain.

Other long-term effects are mostly caused by how the pain pills were ingested.

If you crush and inject the pills into your bloodstream, you can cause long-term damage to your heart. This can increase your chances of experiencing a heart attack.

If the pain meds are injected under non-sterile conditions, you might contract a blood-borne condition or illness. Indiana saw an increase in HIV cases and oxymorphone use in 2015. This was caused by addicts sharing needles with one another. Blood-borne illnesses can spread quickly in the community.

Most importantly, long-term use of painkillers often leads to dependence and addiction. This leads patients into a downward spiral.

Drug Overdoses from Painkillers

Fatal overdoses caused by synthetic opioids doubled from 2015 to 2016. Of all the prescription opioids involved with addictions, fentanyl is the most deadly. This prescription pain med is often prescribed for pain management after surgery.

In 2016,  fentanyl was responsible for 20,145 fatal overdoses. Other opioid pills were only responsible for 14,427 fatal overdoses in the same year. These numbers are significant. Drug overdoses are killing people at double the rate of both firearms and car accidents.

Unfortunately, the government isn’t doing much to halt this epidemic. There still aren’t enough enforceable regulations to control prescription drug use.

Common Signs of an Overdose

Because prescription painkiller overdoses are so common, it’s important to know what to look for. Common indications of an overdose can include:

  • Cold or clammy skin
  • Drowsiness
  • Hypotension
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Unconsciousness
  • Weak pulse

In general, it’s impossible to wake someone who is overdosing. They become limp and unresponsive.

These signs are similar to heroin overdose symptoms. This is because both drugs react in similar ways when ingested. Those who notice signs of an overdose should contact emergency services immediately. If you act fast, you could potentially save a life.

How to Treat an Overdose

Overdoses often conceal their true identity. You might expect someone who is overdosing to turn blue and to have a huge reaction to the drugs. However, the truth is that someone who is overdosing will usually look as if they are dozing off.

An overdose can quickly turn fatal. The best thing you can do is to immediately call emergency services (9-1-1).  However, if you have naloxone on hand, you can use it to treat an overdose as well.

Naloxone will reverse the effects of an overdose. It is basically an antidote although it is only effective if it is administered in time.

Steps for Dealing with an Overdose

You can get naloxone from a pharmacy without a written prescription in 41 states. It only works if there are opioids or painkillers in the body. If there isn’t any, administering naloxone will not produce any effects at all.

When someone is overdosing, naloxone will usually work its magic within 3 to 5 minutes. The effects of this medication will last anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes. This antidote comes in the form of an injection or a nasal spray.

The University of Rhode Island College of Pharmacy has outlined 5 steps on how to deal with an overdose. The steps include:

  • Step 1: identifying the overdose
  • Step 2: calling 9-1-1
  • Step 3: performing CPR
  • Step 4: administering the naloxone
  • Step 5: staying until help arrives

To administer the naloxone, simply follow the instructions on the package. With a nasal spray, spray the medication into the nasal cavities.

If the naloxone is to be injected, use a long needle to draw up 1cc of naloxone. Inject the medication into any muscle. You can inject it into the thighs, the upper and outer quadrant of the butt or the shoulders.

Stay with the person until help arrives. If the naloxone does not seem to be working even after 3 to 5 minutes, administer a second dose.

painkiller withdrawal symptoms

Painkiller Withdrawal Symptoms

Withdrawing from painkillers is not medically dangerous. Unlike alcohol withdrawals, there isn’t a risk of death. With that said, withdrawal symptoms can be intolerable and even agonizing. Symptoms are more severe and intense if you’ve been abusing painkillers for a long time. It also depends on how much you’ve been taking, and the type of drugs you’ve been taking.

The most common withdrawal symptoms to expect include:

  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Cravings
  • Confusion
  • Diarrhea
  • Dilated pupils
  • Exhaustion
  • Goosebumps
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability
  • Loss of appetite
  • Muscle aches
  • Nasal stuffiness
  • Profuse sweating
  • Rapid breathing
  • Runny nose
  • Salivation
  • Stomach aches
  • Tremors
  • Vomiting and nausea

Because withdrawing from pain medications can be difficult and tough, it’s a good idea to seek medical help. Addiction treatment programs are designed to lessen the intensity of these symptoms, and to help you stay as comfortable as possible.

Because withdrawing from pain medications can be difficult and tough, it’s a good idea to seek medical help. Addiction treatment programs are designed to lessen the intensity of physical symptoms, and to help you stay as comfortable as possible.

Pain meds and street drugs like heroin are chemically similar. As a result, you can expect to experience similar symptoms. However, the withdrawal timeline for painkillers is quite a bit shorter.

In general, symptoms first begin to show 8 to 12 hours after your last use. The symptoms will only worsen from there, and peak anywhere from 12 to 72 hours after your last use. This is as bad as it gets. If you’re able to successfully tolerate and get past these symptoms, you’ll find that the physical symptoms will begin to subside after 5 to 10 days.

Unfortunately, the psychological withdrawal symptoms can linger behind for months. Addicts often find themselves still craving for their drug of choice even after completing the detox treatment. Sobriety is a long journey, and it will take months, or even years, to learn how to manage the cravings.

Painkiller Addiction Treatment

Since withdrawal symptoms for painkillers can be nasty, it’s wise to seek medical help. Addiction treatment programs usually take two different approaches to treat the addiction. One of the approaches treat immediate withdrawal symptoms while the other is for long-term sobriety.

Medications lessen the intensity of physical withdrawal symptoms. The medications counteract the effects of the pain meds.

Medications are only a short-term approach. While they’re great at treating immediate symptoms, they don’t treat psychological withdrawal symptoms.

To prevent relapses, most treatment programs recommend therapy or counselling. Cognitive behavioral therapy, motivational therapy, and individual or group counselling can do wonders. These treatments are known as maintenance therapy.

We’ll take a deeper look at the various addiction treatment approaches below.

One of the newer medications prescribed for withdrawals is buprenorphine. It can be prescribed alone or with naloxone.

The buprenorphine stimulates the same parts of the brain as painkillers. This helps to prevent cravings and to put a stop to withdrawal symptoms, making it much easier to detox. When paired with naloxone, the naloxone is believed to help prevent misuse of both medications.

The “fight or flight reflex” is often over-stimulated when withdrawing from painkillers. Addicts often feel on edge and hypersensitive to stimuli.

Clonidine is a type of medication that is often prescribed for high blood pressure. It’s effective for treating withdrawal symptoms as well. It calms patients down by reducing the intensity of “flight or fight reflexes”.

This medication is often paired with other types of medications, as it does not get rid of cravings.

One of the most highly studied medications is methadone. This drug stimulates the same receptors and areas of the brain as painkillers. As a result, they are effective in getting rid of withdrawal symptoms.

Based on your drug use, a certain dose of methadone will be prescribed. The methadone will prevent withdrawal symptoms and drug cravings without getting you high. You can be slowly weaned off of methadone without becoming dependent on it.

In general, methadone is believed to be less expensive and more effective than buprenorphine.

Other medications often used to treat pain med withdrawals include antidepressants and benzodiazepines.

Antidepressants help stabilize your emotions. They treat underlying psychological issues that might encourage relapses. They are also great for treating co-occurring disorders. While they’re great for short-term medical detox, they are not usually recommended for long-term use.

Benzodiazepines, like Valium, are prescribed to help prevent seizures during the detox process. They help make you feel much more comfortable when getting sober. These medications are often prescribed to treat other types of addiction as well.

Behavioral Counselling and Therapies

To prevent relapses, behavioral therapies and counselling are prescribed as long-term detox treatments. They are necessary even after the physical symptoms subside. In fact, attendance is key to relapse prevention.

These therapies treat the underlying behaviors that led to the drug abuse in the first place. They help patients develop key behaviors and responses to successfully deal with cravings.

There are various types of therapies available. Popular options to choose from include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  • Contingency Management
  • Dialectal Behavioral Therapy
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy
  • Group Therapy
  • Individual Counselling
  • Motivational Interviewing
  • Multidimensional Family Therapy
  • Person-centered Therapy
  • Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy

Each therapy or counselling style practices various beliefs and techniques. It is your job to find a therapy style that works for you.

This might mean trying out several therapies at a time. The goal is to find one that speaks to your strengths and works on your weaknesses. It’s also wise to find a support group. Having someone to lean on during dark times can make a huge difference to your recovery.

drug free woman

Freeing Yourself from Pain and Addiction

One pill can completely change your life. It’s not unusual for patients who are prescribed pain medications to become addicted and dependent on the drugs.

It’s time to free yourself from both pain and addiction. Take control of your life!

Our counselors work intimately with you to design an affordable and effective treatment plan that will get you sober. You’ll no longer be under the influence under our guidance and help.

Choose from various treatment programs, from Intensive Outpatient Programs (IOPs) to the 12-Step program. Learn how the pain pills are affecting your body, and what you can do to break free from the cycle of abuse.

Now is as a good a time as any to start working towards your future. You won’t regret your choice to get sober. In fact, you’ll thank yourself years from now. Don’t let addiction bully you into silence. Speak out and get help now. Sobriety may seem impossible now, but just as Nelson Mandela said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”