While prescription painkillers may seem harmless, long-term abuse can be deadly. If you or a loved one is struggling with prescription painkillers, reach out for help. We are here to assist you every step of the way. A life free from addiction is possible.
What Are Prescription Painkillers (Opioids)?
Prescription painkillers are powerful numbing medications that medical professionals prescribe to treat pain associated with chronic diseases, like cancer, and other times, for treating acute pain due to surgical procedures or injuries. Most painkiller medications should be taken on a short-term basis, normally a week or less.
Opioids attach themselves to and activate opioid receptors found in cells located on the spinal cord, brain, and digestive tract. They inhibit the transmission of pain signals from the nervous system to the brain, thus blocking the brain’s perception of pain. Taking opioids at a higher-than-prescribed dose can cause feelings of euphoria, but also increase risk of respiratory depression.
Regular or long-term use of opioids can lead to dependence, increased tolerance and, in some cases, addiction. Shockingly, in a given year, 16 million or 6% of Americans over the age of 12 abuse prescription medications. If the user becomes dependent or addicted, stopping painkiller misuse can cause uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. If you are worried about the possible negative side effects of opioid medication, there may be other pain management alternatives, so talk to a professional or specialist about your concerns.
What Are the Most Commonly Abused Prescription Painkillers?
Oxycodone – Prescribed drug pain medication used to treat moderate to severe pain. Most commonly, it is prescribed for around-the-clock treatment. Oxycodone comes in immediate release (IR) tablets, mostly used for acute pain, and extended release (ER) tablets.
Demerol – Powerful prescription pain medication used to relieve short-term pain when other non-opioid medications are not strong enough.
Percocet – Highly addictive painkiller made up of a combination of oxycodone and paracetamol. Mostly used to relieve acute pain.
Vicodin – Pain reliever drug used for the relief of moderate to moderately severe pain. Made up of both hydrocodone and acetaminophen.
Codeine – Many doctors prescribe codeine for mild to moderate pain, such as pain associated with headaches, dental surgery, or mild injuries. Codeine can also be prescribed as a cough suppressant.
Hydrocodone – Used to treat severe pain for around-the-clock treatment, usually when other medications have not been effective. It normally comes in extended-release capsules and tablets.
Morphine – Used to relieve severe pain and should only be used where other forms of pain relief have not been successful in managing pain or are not tolerated.
For any opioid medications, never crush or chew the tablets as it can result in dangerous and high levels of the drug in your body’s system. Do not modify your dosage or stop taking any of these medications without speaking with a doctor first.
What Do Prescription Painkillers Look Like?
The appearance of prescription pain medications varies depending on the brand and dosage. They come in a variety of tablet and pill forms. For example, Hydrocodone comes in a white circular or oval tablet and has the strength/dosage imprinted on the pill. On the other hand, Percocet pills can come in an oval or round shape and can be yellow, blue, or white.
How Are Prescription Painkillers Used?
Prescription painkillers are abused orally, crushed and sniffed, or dissolved in water and injected. There are also creams, ointments, and patches. Furthermore, there are typically immediate-release and extended-release opioids. Both can be highly addictive, but immediate-release opioids are more sought after since they are usually a doctor’s first choice. They also provide an instant high that people crave.
What Are the Short-Term Effects of Prescription Painkillers?
Prescription painkillers are used to manage moderate to severe physical discomfort. They are typically taken after undergoing surgery but can be used to soothe other bodily aches. Prescription painkillers are also known to cause feelings of euphoria and relaxation. Despite the temporary relief they may provide, prescription painkillers can have lethal side effects. Some of the short-term effects of prescription painkiller misuse are:
- Slowed heartbeat
- Constricted pupils
- Shallow breathing
- Slow reaction time
Why Are Prescription Painkillers Harmful?
Prescription painkillers are not often regarded to be as harmful as other drugs that are sold illicitly, but they can be incredibly dangerous and addictive. Oftentimes, prescription painkiller misuse can lead to suppressed breathing and organ damage. Misuse can look like anything from increasing your dosage without talking to a doctor first or using someone else’s medication who has a similar condition. Furthermore, prescription painkillers are especially damaging when mixed with alcohol because combining the two boosts the risk of respiratory failure. This destructive mixture can also cause mental health issues such as anxiety and depression to develop.
What Are the Long-Term Effects of Prescription Painkiller Abuse?
Continuous misuse of prescribed opioids can lead to painkiller addiction and serious health problems, including:
- Liver damage
- Muscle spasms
- Severe constipation
- Kidney failure
- Respiratory failure
- Weakened immune system
- Cardiovascular issues
What Are the Signs of Prescription Painkiller Addiction?
Repeated opioid abuse can cause the brain to become dependent on these drugs. One of the most common signs of painkiller abuse is drowsiness and nodding off at random times. In addition, other signs of a prescription painkiller addiction include:
- Mood changes
- Lack of energy
- Irregular sleeping habits
- Weight loss
- Slow movements
- Digestive problems
What Does a Prescription Painkiller Overdose Look Like?
An overdose occurs when an individual’s body cannot metabolize the substance fast enough to avoid the unintended side effects. During an overdose, prescription pills affect the part of the brain that controls breathing. In most cases, breathing stops completely. Oxygen starvation eventually stops vital organs. Signs of a prescription painkiller overdose can include:
- Clammy skin
- Slowed heart rate
- Bluish nails, skin, or lips
- Gurgling sounds
- Erratic breathing
In the event of an overdose, one should call 911 for help and if possible, administer naloxone (sold under the name Narcan), an over-the-counter medicine designed to reverse opioid overdoses. Knowing how to use Narcan properly could save a life. In many cases, multiple doses may be necessary. Because of the severe damage that painkillers can have on the body, it is important to seek immediate medical attention immediately, even if naloxone is successful at reversing the overdose.
How to Use Narcan
How is a Prescription Painkiller Addiction Treated?
Because prescription painkillers take a tremendous toll on physical health, medically-monitored detox is strongly recommended before beginning any other form of addiction treatment. During the detoxification process, toxic substances are eliminated from the body, allowing it to begin to heal. Due to the strong physical dependence caused by long-term abuse, it is important that individuals detox under the supervision of a healthcare professional. This will ensure the individual’s safety and comfort during this challenging process. Opioid withdrawal symptoms may include:
- Muscle aches
- Intense cravings
- Hot flashes
- Abdominal cramps
Recovering from addiction is more than just abstaining from pills. It is important that after the body has been stabilized, individuals continue onto a rehabilitation program that will help them uncover the root cause of their addiction, address their emotions and behaviors, and learn how to maintain their sobriety through drug counseling. The most common treatment options are inpatient (residential) and outpatient treatment programs, which are often supplemented with medication-assisted treatment.
Substance abuse negatively impacts an individual’s physical, mental, and spiritual wellness. Combining alternative therapies with traditional drug treatment helps to address the individual as a whole. By improving overall well-being, individuals find themselves better prepared to overcome any challenges they may face in the future.
Certain holistic therapies can meet the needs of those struggling specifically with prescription painkiller addiction. Some wellness experts even recommend turning to the Buddhist practice of mindfulness to manage pain in a healthy way. Individuals who relied on painkillers to alleviate their physical discomfort can find a similar but safer form of relief through acupuncture. Another natural alternative to painkiller medication is yoga, which gently stretches and strengthens the body to relieve pain. Those who experienced adverse physical side-effects as a result of their painkiller use can learn how to properly nourish and restore their bodies through nutrition education.
Explore our Wellness page to learn about other therapeutic activities that provide holistic rejuvenation.