Painkillers Addiction Causes and Effects

Sunrise Recovery Ranch provides painkiller addiction treatment rooted in a science-based, research-supported clinical model to ensure a healthier, more satisfying life, without addiction.

Understanding Painkillers

Learn about painkillers and substance abuse

Prescription painkillers have improved the lives of countless individuals who were suffering with acute or chronic pain. However, these medications are not without dangers. Regardless of whether they are taken under the supervision of a qualified healthcare provider, illicitly misused in an attempt to self-medicate, or abused for recreational purposes, prescription painkillers pose a risk of addiction. Many of the most commonly prescribed painkillers, such as OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin, and Demerol, contain opioids, a highly addictive category of substances that also includes heroin and morphine.

This does not mean that taking a painkiller that has been prescribed by a qualified physician is the same as taking heroin. These medications can be extremely beneficial, and the risks are significantly less when they are taken as directed. However, the danger of developing an opioid use disorder is real, and the risk is magnified significantly when these drugs are taken without proper medical oversight.

Oxycodone (the active ingredient in OxyContin and Percocet), hydrocodone (Vicodin), and meperidine (Demerol) are synthetic or semisynthetic opioids, which means that they are manufactured in a laboratory but share structural similarities with naturally occurring extracts from the opium poppy plant. They also have similar properties, such as relieving pain, creating a sense of mild euphoria, and posing the risk that users will develop an opioid use disorder. Over time, people who take prescription painkillers that contain opioids may develop tolerance, which means that they need to take more of the drugs in order to receive the desired pleasurable effects. Tolerance is a sign of dependence, as is the presence of distressing withdrawal symptoms when a person attempts to stop using the drug or significantly reduce the amount that they have been taking.

The desire to experience the pleasurable effects of an opioid-based painkiller while avoiding the pain of withdrawal can trap an individual in what may feel like an inescapable opioid use disorder. It can be extremely difficult for a person in this situation to end his or her dependence upon opioids without effective professional intervention. With comprehensive care, though, a person can rid his or her body of opioids in a safe and much less painful manner, and can then complete the therapeutic programming that will empower him or her with the ability to resist relapse and live a healthier and more satisfying life, free from the compulsion to abuse prescription painkillers.


Painkiller addiction statistics

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), more than 52 million Americans have used prescription drugs for non-medical purposes at least once in their lifetime, and six million have done so in the past 30 days. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that opioid-based prescription medications are responsible for about 44 overdose deaths every day in the United States, a daily average that includes about 18 women and 26 men. In 2013, more than 16,000 people died after overdosing on prescription opioids. In 2011, prescription painkillers were responsible for more than 420,000 visits to hospital emergency rooms.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for painkiller addiction

The abuse of prescription painkillers and the development of opioid use disorder may be influenced by several factors, including the following:

Genetic: Considerable research strongly supports the presence of a genetic influence on the development of chemical dependency. For example, a genetic predisposition toward impulsivity and novelty seeking may put a person at increased risk for abusing prescription painkillers and other drugs. Also, studies involving twins and adopted children show that having a biological parent who has a substance use disorder significantly increases the likelihood that an individual will have a similar problem.

Environmental: A person who was abused as a child or who experienced other forms of childhood adversity will be at an increased risk for engaging in substance abuse, as will an individual who experiences levels of stress that exceed his or her ability to cope. Specific to prescription drug abuse, experiencing an accident or injury that requires treatment with prescription painkillers can be an environmental precursor to developing opioid use disorder.

Risk Factors: 

  • Ease of access to prescription pain medications
  • Experiencing severe acute or chronic pain
  • Family history of substance use disorders
  • Trauma
  • Stress
  • Poor coping skills
  • Prior substance abuse

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of painkiller addiction

The following signs and symptoms may indicate that a person has been abusing opioid-based prescription painkillers:

Behavioral symptoms: 

  • Slurring speech
  • Visiting multiple doctors to get prescriptions for painkillers
  • Deception regarding whereabouts and/or activities
  • Diminished participation in significant activities
  • Borrowing or stealing medication that has been prescribed to someone else
  • Social withdrawal and isolation

Physical symptoms:

  • Constipation
  • Itchiness
  • Heavy perspiration
  • Pupil dilation
  • Impaired coordination
  • Disrupted sleep patterns
  • Decreased blood pressure

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Poor decision-making skills
  • Confusion
  • Disorientation

Psychosocial symptoms: 

  • Irritability
  • Drastic changes in mood
  • Depression


Effects of painkiller addiction

Untreated opioid use disorder involving prescription painkillers can have a devastating impact on a person’s physical, mental, and social wellbeing, and may lead to the following negative outcomes:

  • Development of physical health problems
  • Impaired or destroyed interpersonal relationships
  • Family discord, including separation and divorce
  • Isolation and ostracization
  • Job loss and chronic unemployment
  • Financial distress
  • Legal problems, including arrest and incarceration
  • Homelessness
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Suicide attempt or attempts
  • Death

Co-Occurring Disorders

Painkiller addiction and co-occurring disorders

A person who has become dependent upon prescription painkillers may also be suffering from a co-occurring mental illness. The following disorders are commonly diagnosed people who have also developed opioid use disorder:

  • Major depressive disorder
  • Persistent depressive disorder
  • Other substance use disorders
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Withdrawal & Overdose

Effects of painkiller withdrawal & overdose

Effects of prescription painkiller withdrawal: Ceasing or dramatically reducing one’s use of prescription painkillers after becoming dependent upon them can result in several distressing withdrawal symptoms, including the following:

  • Powerful cravings for opioids
  • Irritability and agitation
  • Dysphoria
  • Watery eyes and runny nose
  • Loss of appetite
  • Heavy perspiration
  • Tremors and twitches
  • Inability to sleep
  • Fever
  • Pain in bones and muscles
  • Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea

Effects of prescription painkiller overdose: Opioids interact with parts of the brain that also influence involuntary processes such as respiration and heart rate. Thus, overdosing can put a person in considerable peril. Anyone who exhibits the following signs after ingesting a prescription painkiller may be in need of immediate emergency medical attention:

  • Breathing problems
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Slow or otherwise irregular pulse
  • Extreme disorientation
  • Seizure
  • Loss of consciousness

Thanks to Sunrise Recovery Ranch, my daughter was able to get the lasting recovery she deserved from her addiction and her co-occurring mental health disorder. I am super grateful!

– Michelle A.
Marks of Quality Care
These accreditations are an official recognition of our dedication to providing treatment that exceeds the standards and best practices of quality care.
  • American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM)
  • California Consortium of Addiction Programs and Professionals (CCAPP)
  • Department of Health Care Services

Licensed by the State Department of Health Care Services