Causes & Effects of Prescription Painkiller Addiction

Understanding Prescription Painkiller Addiction

Learn About Prescription Painkiller Addiction & Abuse

Prescription painkillers have unquestionably improved the quality of life for countless individuals throughout the United States and in many other nations. Unfortunately, when these medications are misused, they also have the potential to inflict great harm. Many of the most powerful prescription medications contain synthetic or semi-synthetic opioids, which share certain structural and functional similarities with substances that are derived from the opium poppy plant.

Among the more commonly prescribed opioid-based prescription painkillers are OxyContin, which contains oxycodone, Vicodin, which contains hydrocodone, and Dilaudid, which contains hydromorphone. The opioids in each of these medications are included for their analgesic properties; however, as is the case with other opioids, they also induce euphoria, relaxation, and elevated mood. These effects make opioid-based prescription painkillers attractive to individuals who are in search of a recreational high. Regardless of why a person begins to use a prescription painkiller, he or she is always at risk of becoming dependent. This risk is lessened when a person uses a prescription painkiller as directed by and under the supervision of a qualified healthcare provider. The risk increases when a person abuses a prescription painkiller, either recreationally or for purposes of self-medication.

When a person becomes addicted to or dependent upon an opioid-based prescription painkiller, he or she may find it extremely difficult to overcome this problem without effective professional intervention. Among the many obstacles that can prevent individuals from overcoming opioid dependence are the distressing withdrawal symptoms that can set in soon after a person stops or reduces his or her opioid abuse.

Luckily, treatment professionals with experience can work with men and women who have struggled with prescription painkiller abuse, and specialized programming exists that has proved to be effective at helping individuals end their dependence upon these medications.


Prescription Painkiller Abuse Statistics

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) estimates that about more than five million Americans engage in prescription painkiller abuse in a typical 12-month period. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) the annual death rate from prescription painkiller overdose among women rose by more than 415% between 2000 and 2010. Over the same 10-year period, the annual death rate among men due to prescription painkiller misuse increased by 200%.

Causes & Risks

Causes and Risk Factors for Prescription Painkiller Abuse

A person’s risk for abusing and becoming addicted to prescription painkillers can be influenced by several factors, including the following:

Genetic: According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), about 40% of the risk variance for a substance use disorder is due to genetics. A person whose parents and/or siblings have struggled with substance abuse and addiction is more likely to have a similar problem than is an individual who has no family history of these problems. The APA also reports that impulsivity and novelty are among the heritable traits that may increase a person’s risk for developing an opioid use disorder, which is the clinical term for being addicted to or dependent upon opioids.

Environmental: Individuals who live in a culture in which prescription painkiller use is common may have an increased risk of abusing and becoming dependent upon these medications. Other environmental factors that can increase a person’s risk of prescription painkiller abuse and addiction include experiencing a disease or injury that is treated with a prescription painkiller.

Risk Factors:

  • Age (prescription drug abuse is most common among older adolescents and young adults)
  • Family history of substance abuse
  • Personal history of mental illness and/or prior substance abuse
  • Family history of mental illness
  • Easy access to prescription painkillers
  • Early exposure to prescription painkillers
  • Experiencing acute or chronic pain
  • Poor impulse control
  • Novelty seeking personality

Signs & Symptoms

Signs and Symptoms of Prescription Painkiller Abuse

No single symptom or set of symptoms will universally apply to all cases of prescription painkiller abuse, but the following are among the more common signs and symptoms of this problem:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Trying to steal or borrow painkillers that have been prescribed to someone else
  • Attempting to get prescriptions for painkillers from multiple doctors
  • Continuing to abuse prescription painkillers even after experiencing negative effects as a result of prior use
  • Using prescription painkillers prior to driving a car, when consuming alcohol, or at other times when it is obviously dangerous to do so
  • Trying and failing to end one’s use of prescription painkillers
  • Associating with individuals who abuse prescription painkillers

Physical symptoms:

  • Constipation
  • Heavy sweating
  • Appetite change (either increase or decrease)
  • Weight change (either increase or decrease)
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Shallow or slowed breathing
  • Significant change in blood pressure
  • Coordination impairments

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Problems with memory
  • Confusion
  • Impaired ability to focus and/or concentrate
  • Temporary periods of hyper-focus
  • Racing thoughts

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Extreme shifts in mood
  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Paranoia
  • Loss of interest in significant activities
  • Withdrawal from social circles

Lasting Effects

Effects of Prescription Painkiller Abuse

An individual who continues to abuse prescription painkillers and does not receive effective treatment may be at increased risk for several negative effects, including the following:

  • Cognitive impairments
  • Heart damage
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Damage to other organs
  • Impaired vision
  • Physical injuries due to impaired coordination and/or judgment
  • Family discord
  • Damaged or ruined interpersonal relationships
  • Academic setbacks, including failure
  • Substandard job performance
  • Job loss
  • Unemployment
  • Financial problems
  • Legal problems, including arrest and incarceration
  • Social isolation
  • Homelessness
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Suicide attempts

Co-Occurring Disorders

Prescription Painkiller Abuse & Co-Occurring Disorders

People who struggle with prescription painkiller abuse and addiction may also have an elevated risk for the following co-occurring mental health conditions:

  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Bipolar disorders
  • Depressive disorders
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Other substance use disorders

Withdrawal & Overdose

Effects of Prescription Painkiller Withdrawal & Overdose

Effects of prescription painkiller withdrawal: When a person has become dependent upon a prescription painkiller, attempting to stop or significantly reduce one’s abuse of these medications may trigger the onset of several distressing withdrawal symptoms, including the following:

  • Intense cravings for the painkiller that one has been abusing
  • Watery eyes and runny nose
  • Cramping in the abdomen
  • Hot flashes
  • Cold sweats
  • Pain in muscles and bones
  • Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
  • Psychomotor retardation or agitation
  • Fatigue, exhaustion, and loss of motivation
  • Anxiety and/or irritability
  • Insomnia
  • Nightmares
  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions

Effects of prescription painkiller overdose: An individual who ingests a prescription painkiller in an amount that overwhelms his or her body’s ability to process the medication should be brought to the immediate attention of a qualified medical professional. The following are among the more common symptoms of prescription painkiller overdose:

  • Bluish coloration near lips and fingertips
  • Unconsciousness
  • Shallow or rapid breathing
  • Irregular heart rate
  • Extreme confusion and/or disorientation
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizure
  • Stroke
  • Coma
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