How Painkiller Addiction or Overuse Happens

Is Your Prescription Painkiller Use a Problem?

No patient starts taking doctor-prescribed painkillers with the intention of becoming addicted. Typically, people start taking these medications to ease post-surgery pain or to deal with pain related to diseases, such as cancer, or chronic pain following an injury. Still, the risk of addiction exists.

Here are some common factors that can fuel an addiction or overuse behavior in patients taking painkillers.

Painkillers Numb Physical Pain Very Effectively

woman at her work station taking headache pills
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Because painkillers work well with little effort, they are frequently the first choice for pain management. Rather than exploring alternative pain management techniques, which take effort and may not eliminate pain to the same extent as the painkillers, patients reach for the pill bottle.

The ease of use and their effectiveness may lead some to reach for the drugs more often than is safe or necessary.

Painkillers Distance You From Emotional Pain

Over time, patients come to depend on prescription painkillers to manage their negative emotions, too. It is no surprise, then, that people with mood disorders are more likely to use prescription pain medication.

People in physical pain may have suffered emotional trauma making them more vulnerable to the attractions of a pill that just “makes it all go away.” 

Non-Medication Pain Management Services are Inaccessible

There are many other effective forms of pain management, but our medication-oriented culture promotes drugs as the first approach.

Prescribing of opioids for pain relief quadrupled between 1999 and 2013, as did the number of deaths by overdoses.

Even when people are desperate to try non-drug alternatives for pain relief, they often have a much harder time accessing these alternatives than they do ​getting a prescription for painkillers.

This leaves people with few alternatives for pain management, other than the drugs.

Painkillers Can Be Pleasurable

Opioids give you a euphoric feeling. The pleasurable effects of these painkillers can seem like a delightful surprise.

Seeking repeated experiences of pleasure through an addictive behavior or substance is one of the hallmarks of addiction.

Painkillers Induce Relaxation

Unless you practice non-drug pain management techniques, such as yoga or meditation, you are likely to tense up when you feel pain.

Because many painkillers induce a state of relaxation, they can provide welcome relief from tension. After a while, patients rely on painkillers to provide this relief.

Tolerance Builds Quickly

You can quickly develop a tolerance to opioids, which means you need to take increasingly higher dosages to get the same effect. Tolerance is one of the key signs of a developing addiction.

Physical Neglect Intensifies Pain

The effects of opiates can potentially cause physical behaviors such as:

  • Overuse of an injured part of the body
  • Poor posture resulting from a lack of sensation when in positions that would otherwise be uncomfortable
  • A lack of moderate exercise that would otherwise strengthen the weakened area

Instead of correcting these actions that are contributing to further pain, the patient often takes more painkillers, creating a vicious cycle concealed by the effects of the drugs.

Withdrawal from Opioid Painkillers is Very Unpleasant

If you are physically dependent on an opiate, you will experience withdrawal when the drug wears off. It often feels like a more intense version of the very symptoms you were trying to escape through taking painkillers.

If you take the drug again, the unpleasant withdrawal symptoms disappear. Over time, patients choose to manage withdrawal by taking more painkillers, sometimes without even realizing this cycle is causing symptoms.

Particularly worrying is the reduction in medical support for youth and women with opioid use disorders, even while the number of people dying from overdoses is increasing.

Evidence shows that adolescents with opioid use disorder receive significantly less medical treatments for their addiction than those over 20, despite the fact that opioid use disorder often develops during adolescence.

Painkillers are Legally Available

Although painkillers prescribed to you are legal, some are chemically similar to illicit drugs, such as heroin.

The implicit encouragement by a medical professional and the explicit encouragement in advertising can lead people who would normally avoid addictive substances down a dark path.

Addiction Leads to Stigma, Which Can Lead to Illicit Drug Use

Drug-seeking is a sign you have a problem. Once recognized, you may find your physician suddenly becomes less sympathetic to your need for painkillers. At this point, many patients turn to getting their medication illegally.

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Article Sources
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Additional Reading
  • Halbert B, Davis R, Wee C. Disproportionate longer-term opioid use among U.S. adults with mood disorders. Pain;157(11):2452-2457. 2016.
  • Hu M, Griesler P, Wall M, Kandel D. Age-related patterns in nonmedical prescription opioid use and disorder in the US population at ages 12-34 from 2002 to 2014. Drug & Alcohol Dependence;177:237-243. 2017.
  • McCarberg B. The continued rise of opioid misuse: Opioid Use Disorder. American Journal of Managed Care ;:S169-S176. 2015.
  • Prevention and Management of Opioid Misuse and Opioid Use Disorder Among Women Across the Lifespan. Women's Healthcare: A Clinical Journal For NPs; 5(1):22-27. 2017.
  • Zimlich R. Teens not being treated for opioid use disorders: Early intervention for adolescents is the key to heading off a cascade into lifelong addiction. Contemporary Pediatrics;34(9):32-35. 2017.