Pain Drug Seeker Behaviors and Characteristics

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Say your pain isn't controlled, has worsened, or that you're running out of your current prescription. You know that a doctor may be hesitant to prescribe more, whether that means a higher dose, or a new, more effective drug. You're probably aware of the many reasons doctors are reluctant, or why they may just say "no." There are strict laws your doctor must follow regarding controlled substances.

Nonetheless, you are in pain, your pain is real, and you need to do something to relieve it. So you make an appointment with a doctor, or perhaps you decide the emergency room at your local hospital is your best bet for getting the prescription you need quickly.

Don't be surprised if there are certain behaviors the doctor and their staff look for to determine whether you truly need a prescription to control your pain. In fact, there are common behaviors and characteristics exhibited by patients who are considered drug seekers.

Drug-Seeking Behavior

The following are behaviors the US Drug Enforcement Agency advises doctors to look for. They are commonly seen in combinations, not in isolation.

A drug seeker may:

  • Be either dirty and sloppily dressed, or very well-dressed
  • Become demanding and assertive, insisting on being seen right away, and has no patience
  • Claim that they live elsewhere and are in town to visit a friend or relative, or they are just on their way through town
  • Claim that their doctor is unavailable, or that they do not have a doctor
  • Exhibit a high level of knowledge of controlled substances
  • Exhibit unusual behavior while in the waiting room
  • Go from doctor to doctor, or hospital to hospital, hoping that no records have been shared that would show they have picked up pain-relieving drugs from another place. (This is becoming less commonplace as many states are developing drug tracking databases.)
  • Pretend they are trying to relieve someone else's pain, such as a child or elderly relative or friend
  • Request a specific drug and does not want to change to a different drug
  • Try to strong-arm the doctor or play on the doctor's sympathies
  • Want to make the last appointment of the day, at the end of the day, or after regular office hours

Healthcare Status of Drug Seekers

Regarding healthcare status, a drug seeker:

  • Can either explain their medical history completely or is very vague about medical history
  • Is not interested in their diagnosis and has no interest in further testing or referrals
  • May complain about multiple fake symptoms (for example, migraines, back pain, and kidney stones)
  • May have evidence of drug abuse, such as needle marks, scars or new lesions
  • May pretend to have psychological symptoms such as depression, insomnia, or anxiety
  • Usually, has no health insurance
  • Will complain that over-the-counter pain relievers don't work, or that they are allergic to them

Staying Safe on Your Pain Medication

The abuse of prescription pain medications, especially opioids, is a very serious concern in the United States, and doctors have an ethical and legal responsibility to ensure the well-being and safety of their patients. This means only prescribing pain medications when medically indicated.

If you require prescription pain medication, be sure to establish a formal and trusting relationship with a doctor and follow up with them regularly. This way, you do not find yourself in a situation where your health needs are perceived as something they are not, like drug-seeking behavior.

Managing pain is a complex process, especially when opioids are incorporated into a person's pain regimen. This is because the potential for opioid abuse is very real.

If you suspect you or a loved one is dependent on or addicted to opioids, please seek help from a physician. There are doctors who are specially trained and certified in addiction medicine (called an ABAM-certified physician—ABAM stands for American Board of Addiction Medicine). 

A Word From Verywell

Hospitalizations for opioid abuse/dependence rose by over 70% from 2002 to 2012 in the United States. This includes the significant rise in serious infections due to intravenous drug administration, a very dangerous complication of the opioid epidemic. While you may be frustrated about being unable to fill a prescription easily, controls are in place to keep medications safe for those who need them.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration. Title 21 United States Code (USC) Controlled Substances Act.

  2. U.S. Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration. Don't Be Scammed By a Drug Abuser.

  3. Bao Y, Pan Y, Taylor A, et al. Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs Are Associated With Sustained Reductions In Opioid Prescribing By Physicians. Health Aff (Millwood). 2016;35(6):1045-1051. doi:10.1377/hlthaff.2015.1673

  4. Saloner B, McGinty EE, Beletsky L, et al. A Public Health Strategy for the Opioid Crisis. Public Health Rep. 2018;133(1 Suppl):24S-34S. doi:10.1177/0033354918793627

  5. Ronan MV, Herzig SJ. Hospitalizations Related To Opioid Abuse/Dependence And Associated Serious Infections Increased Sharply, 2002-12. Health Aff (Millwood). 2016;35(5):832-837. doi:10.1377/hlthaff.2015.1424

Additional Reading

By Trisha Torrey
Trisha Torrey is a patient empowerment and advocacy consultant. She has written several books about patient advocacy and how to best navigate the healthcare system.