Signs & Effects of Painkiller Abuse

Red River Hospital helps individuals struggling with painkillers addiction build a strong foundation for long-term recovery. Serving Wichita Falls, TX, Red River is the leading provider of painkillers addiction treatment.

Understanding Painkillers

Learn about painkillers and substance abuse

Prescribed to alleviate pain associated with medical procedures and conditions, injury, and severe illnesses or diseases, prescription painkillers can provide a source of relief to those who require it. Medications that purposefully block pain receptors affect the areas of the brain that produce feelings of pleasure. Prescription painkillers belong to the opioid class of drugs and can be highly addictive due to their effects on a person’s central nervous system.

The three most-abused painkillers are Oxycodone, Hydrocodone, and Meperidine. Oxycodone, known on the street as OxyContin, is known to be as powerful as heroin. Hydrocodone, also known as hydros, are often mixed with other substances and are frequently used for non-medical reasons. Lastly, Meperidine are painkillers that are frequently crushed in order to be snorted, injected, or smoked, much in the same way heroin is abused. Prescription painkiller abuse is serious and often requires treatment in order for a person to overcome his or her addiction.  And while its takes dedication to beat an addiction, it is possible to live a life free of the constraints related to a substance abuse problem.


Painkiller addiction statistics

Prescription painkiller-related deaths have almost tripled in the last twenty years, a rate higher than deaths related to heroin and cocaine. A problem that is on the rise in the United States, it is estimated that 2.5 million people have abused painkillers for the first time in the last year, with high school-aged kids representing a portion of that number by admitting to experimentation with painkillers. It has also been hypothesized that those who abuse painkillers are 19 times more likely to abuse heroin at some point.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for painkiller addiction

Because there are a number of contributing factors that play into the development of a painkiller abuse problem, it is a widely believed that there is not an isolated cause for an addiction to prescription drugs. Genetics, brain chemistry, and environment all play a role in the development of this kind of addiction. The following causes and risk factors are believed to lead to the abuse of painkillers:

Genetic: Addiction is believed to have a strong genetic component in determining vulnerability to a substance abuse problem. Heritability of addiction is known to be especially higher in those with a first-degree relative who has struggled with a substance abuse problem.

Physical: People with lower levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain, are said to be more susceptible to substance abuse and addiction. Dopamine, which regulates a person’s ability to experience pleasure, is released when someone abuses drugs. Drug use triggers the release of dopamine and causes a high that can make users feel pleasure or euphoria, but the high is time-limited. To keep the high going, a person may develop tolerance to drugs as the abuser requires more and more of the substance to feel the effects of the high. Tolerance also has the ability to effect other chemicals in the brain which can impair emotional and behavioral functioning.

Environmental: Early exposure to drugs or drug abuse is known to increase the development of a substance abuse problem in a person’s lifetime. Additionally, environments in which drug use is widespread could also render a person susceptible to addiction later in life.

Risk Factors:

  • Ease of access to prescription drugs
  • Family or personal history of addiction
  • Pre-existing mental health disorder
  • Undiagnosed mental health disorder
  • Peer pressure
  • Medical conditions involving chronic pain

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of painkiller addiction

Signs and symptoms of prescription painkiller abuse can present in varying forms of behavioral, physical, cognitive, and psychical impairments. Common signs and symptoms of painkiller abuse and/or addiction are:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Lack of good hygiene
  • Decreased impulse control
  • Social withdrawal / isolation
  • Lying
  • Academic failure
  • Inability to maintain work responsibilities
  • Decrease in participating in pleasurable activities
  • Lack of control over drug use
  • Changes in energy levels
  • Increase in drug use
  • Increase in effort to seek out drugs

Physical symptoms:

  • Appetite loss
  • Changes in sleeping patterns
  • Itchy / flushed skin
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Tolerance
  • Withdrawal
  • Constricted pupils
  • Declining health
  • Seizures
  • Elevated risk of cardiovascular problems
  • Constipation
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Drowsiness
  • Coma
  • Death

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Problems with memory
  • Lack of good-decision making
  • Disorientation
  • Confusion
  • Blackouts

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Extreme shifts in mood
  • Euphoria
  • Poor mental health
  • Inability to effectively control emotions
  • Feeling self-protective when questioned about drug use


Effects of painkiller addiction

Every aspect of a person’s life does not go unscathed when a painkiller abuse problem is present. Depending on a person’s tolerance for painkillers, length of addiction, and frequency of use, the effects of a painkiller addiction can vary from mild to severe. Examples of effects experienced due to painkiller abuse are:

  • Self-injury
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Interaction with the legal system
  • Financial strife
  • Decrease in quantity and quality of interpersonal relationships
  • Divorce
  • Social withdrawal / isolation
  • Inability to abstain from continued use
  • Unemployment
  • Homelessness
  • Increased health risks
  • Seizures
  • Overdose
  • Death

Co-Occurring Disorders

Painkiller addiction and co-occurring disorders

A person with a substance abuse problem or addiction can also meet criteria for other mental health disorders. Prescription painkiller abuse and addiction can also co-occur with the following mental illnesses:

  • Alcoholism
  • Another substance abuse disorder
  • Depressive disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Schizophrenia

Withdrawal & Overdose

Effects of Withdrawal and Overdose from Prescription Painkillers

Withdrawal from prescription painkillers: Experiencing adverse symptoms after stopping excessive use of a substance (after the body has become physically dependent) is known as withdrawal. Illicit drug use is commonly known to cause withdrawal symptoms and the same holds true for painkillers. Even though they can be legally obtained, the following could occur in a person experiencing withdrawal from perception painkillers:

  • Intense cravings for painkillers
  • Cold flashes
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Dilated pupils
  • Decrease in appetite
  • Excessive sweating
  • Tremors
  • Muscle / bone pain
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Involuntary leg movements

Overdose from prescription painkillers: Overdose occurs when a person exceeds the amount of a substance that his or her body is able to metabolize. Whether done on purpose or accidentally, overdose can be fatal if medical assistance is not sought. The following are possible outcomes of prescription drug overdose:

  • Unresponsiveness or coma
  • Disorientation
  • Excessive drowsiness
  • Hallucinations
  • Tremors
  • Labored or shallow breathing
  • Constricted pupils
  • Vital organ damage
  • Death

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