Symptoms of Painkiller Addiction

man addicted to painkillers

More than 106,000 people in the U.S. died from illicit drugs and prescription opioids in 2021. About two-thirds of those overdose deaths were linked to painkillers like fentanyl. Opioids are widely referred to as “painkillers” because they interact with receptors in the brain, blocking pain signals between the body and the brain.

Whether opioids are prescribed or illegally obtained, users are at a high risk of addiction. Recognizing the symptoms of painkiller addiction is crucial for early intervention and treatment.

Types of Painkillers

Painkillers consist of two main categories – opioid and non-opioid, with each offering potential risks and benefits.

  • Opioids – Opioid painkillers, such as codeine, oxycodone, and fentanyl, are derived from the opium poppy and bind to opioid receptors in the brain to reduce pain signals. These medications can be highly effective for managing severe pain but also carry a risk of addiction and overdose if misused.
  • Non-opioids – Non-opioid painkillers, such as acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen, work by blocking the production of pain-causing chemicals in the body. These medications are generally considered safer than opioids but may have risks and side effects.

Common Signs of Painkiller Addiction

According to Mayo Clinic experts, common signs of opioid addiction, known clinically as opioid use disorder (OUD), may include:

  • Taking an opioid other than as prescribed.
  • Taking opioids “just in case,” even when not in pain.
  • Mood changes, including excessive swings from elation to hostility.
  • Changes in sleep patterns.
  • Borrowing medication or “losing” medications so that more prescriptions must be written.
  • Seeking the same prescription from multiple doctors for a “backup” supply.
  • Poor decision-making, including putting themselves and others in danger.

Johns Hopkins Medicine adds that the following signs may also point to painkiller addiction:

  • Evidence of physical dependence on the drug is exhibited by withdrawal symptoms such as cravings, sweating, stomach cramps, and nausea when drug use stops.
  • Continuing to use despite harmful consequences to health, safety, financial security, or personal relationships. Time and focus on getting and using opioids increasingly interfere with daily life.
  • Other signs may include:
  • Drowsiness
  • Weight loss
  • Frequent flu-like symptoms
  • Decreased libido
  • Lack of hygiene
  • Changes in exercise habits
  • Isolation from family members or friends
  • Stealing from family members, friends, or businesses
  • Financial difficulties

Risk Factors for Painkiller Addiction

Several factors can increase the risk of developing painkiller addiction, including a personal or family history of addiction or substance abuse, mental health disorders, chronic pain conditions, and trauma or adverse life events.

Additionally, individuals taking higher doses of painkillers or using them for extended periods are more likely to develop tolerance, dependence, and addiction.

1. Genetics – Research suggests that genetics can play a role in the risk of developing opioid addiction. Certain genetic variations can affect how the body processes opioids, making some individuals more susceptible to their addictive properties. Scientists have analyzed the genomic data of more than 1 million individuals and discovered shared genes commonly inherited across addiction disorders, irrespective of the type of substance used.

2. Environment – When individuals are exposed to various stressors and triggers, such as peer pressure, social isolation, and exposure to trauma or adverse life events, their risk of substance abuse and addiction increases. Access to addictive substances, such as prescription opioids or illicit drugs, can also increase the risk of addiction.

3. Mental Health – Individuals who struggle with stress, physical or emotional pain, or mental health conditions like depression or anxiety are more at risk for addiction. Pain often causes emotional distress, leading some individuals to self-medicate with opioids.

Some mental health conditions can co-occur with substance abuse disorders, resulting in a cycle of addiction and worsening mental health symptoms. Therefore, addressing mental health issues promptly and effectively is essential to reduce the risk of developing addiction.

4. Age and Gender – Studies have shown that younger individuals, particularly those in their teens and early twenties, are at a higher risk of developing opioid addiction due to ongoing brain development and increased impulsivity.

Gender differences can also affect the risk of addiction, with men more likely to misuse opioids and women more likely to experience chronic pain conditions that require pain management with opioids.

Long-Term Effects of Painkiller Addiction

Chronic use of opioids can lead to changes in brain structure and function, which may result in cognitive impairment, mood disorders, and other adverse effects. Even non-opioid painkillers, such as NSAIDs, are not safe for excessive or long-term use as they increase the risk of gastrointestinal bleeding, kidney damage, and other health problems.

Non-Opioid Painkillers

Non-opioid OTC and prescription painkillers include Aleve, Advil, Motrin, Tylenol, COX-2 inhibitors, some antidepressants, and anticonvulsants like Neurontin and Lyrica. The Cleveland Clinic warns long-term use of non-opioids increases the risk of the following:

  • Liver damage.
  • Kidney damage.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Bruising and bleeding.
  • Heart attack, stroke, and other cardiovascular problems (those with existing heart problems or high blood pressure at the highest risk).
  • Gastrointestinal bleeding and ulceration can lead to chronic inflammation and damage to the stomach and intestines.
  • Skin rashes or blisters.

Physical Effects of Opioid Addiction

  • Organ damage – Opioids can cause respiratory depression, leading to decreased oxygen supply to the body’s organs, which can cause organ damage or failure. Long-term use of opioids also increases the risk of liver and kidney damage due to the accumulation of toxic metabolites in these organs.
  • Respiratory failure – Prolonged use of opioids or high doses can increase the risk of respiratory depression and failure, which can be life-threatening. Additionally, combining opioids with other drugs that depress the central nervous system, such as alcohol or sedatives, can increase the risk of respiratory depression and further complications.
  • Chronic pain – Prolonged use of opioids can increase the sensitivity of pain receptors and decrease the body’s natural ability to modulate pain signals, leading to hyperalgesia, which is an increased sensitivity to pain.
  • Increased risk of infection – Opioid abuse can impair immune function and increase susceptibility to respiratory infections such as pneumonia. Using needles to inject drugs increases the risk of skin infections and abscesses and the transmission of infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C.

Psychological Effects of Opioid Addiction

Individuals with painkiller addiction may experience depression, anxiety, irritability, mood swings, and changes in sleep patterns and appetite. Painkiller addiction can also lead to cognitive impairment, such as memory loss, difficulty concentrating, impaired decision-making abilities, and increased suicidal ideation. Additionally, painkiller addiction can lead to social withdrawal, relationship problems, and an overall decrease in quality of life.

Treatment Options for Painkiller Addiction

Stopping opioid use and undergoing the accompanying withdrawal without professional help can be uncomfortable and potentially dangerous. Most experts advise withdrawing under a physician’s care at a medical detox center or hospital. Health professionals can administer medications (medication-assisted treatment) to keep you more comfortable and continuously monitor your vital signs to ensure your physical and mental well-being.

Once you complete detox, you are ready to enter an outpatient or residential treatment program where addiction specialists will help you identify the root causes of your addiction and teach you how to manage it successfully. Participating in a support group during and following rehab will help you stay on track with your recovery.

With the right help and support, individuals can overcome painkiller addiction and reclaim their lives.

Why Choose Midwest Recovery Centers?

Offering a world-class medical detox program and proven extended care treatment model, Midwest Recovery Centers has helped countless people recover from alcohol and drug use and transform their lives. Contact us to learn how we can help you or a loved one overcome addiction.


Reviewed and Assessed by
Taylor Brown, B.A.Com., CADC
Tim Coleman, M. of Ed.

Staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

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