Painkillers and Opioids

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Part of the Complete Guide to Understanding Addiction


Painkiller opioids have a similar chemical makeup to that of heroin, and interact with opioid receptors in the body similarly as well. Although considered safe when prescribed for a short time at a low dose, they can produce euphoria when taken in large doses, leading to abuse, overdose, and addiction.

Doctors have cut back on openly prescribing opioids to reduce abuse and addiction, but death rates continue to climb. From 2017 to 2018, total opioid death rates went up 5%, and another 6% in the following year. Prescribed opioid deaths have decreased, but synthetic opioid deaths have gone up 15% since 2018. 

The main culprit behind these disturbing death rates is fentanyl, a powerful synthetic drug. Read on to discover why.


Opioid Painkillers: What Are They?

Found naturally in the opium poppy plant, opioids are a category of drugs made either naturally from the plant or synthetically in a lab, replicating its chemical structure. Opioids are powerful drugs that alter a person’s pain processing ability by attaching to opioid receptors in the brain and body. 

Below is a list of all of the prescription opioid pain killers: 

  • Morphine: Common brand names include Duramorph and MS Contin. Morphine is administered during surgery to eliminate all pain. 
  • Hydromorphone: Common brand name is Dilaudid. Hydromorphone is used when people need an around-the-clock pain reliever for an extended period of time.
  • Meperidine: Common brand name is Demerol. Meperidine is often given just after surgery to ease severe post-surgical pain. 
  • Methadone: Common brand names include Dolophine and Methadose. Methadone has been used for decades to treat those that have heroin or narcotic dependencies. 
  • Oxycodone: Common brand names include OxyContin, Percodan, and Percocet. Oxycodone is typically used short-term to eliminate pain from injuries, cancer, or arthritis. 
  • Codeine: Has various common brand names. Codeine is usually given to relieve mild pain felt during common sickness. 
  • Hydrocodone: Common brand names are Vicodin, Norco, and Zohydro. Hydrocodone is used only for people that need extended, constant pain relief for severe pain. 
  • Fentanyl: Common brand names are Actiq, Duragesic, and Sublimaze. Fentanyl isn’t prescribed much anymore, but it is sometimes given to those with serious cancer pain or high tolerance to other pain relievers. 

Aspirin and Ibuprofen are Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs). They are classified as minor pain relievers which aren’t addictive and don’t require a prescription to purchase. All opioid pain relievers require a prescription and are extremely addictive when misused or abused. The strongest opioid pain reliever is heroin, which is classified as an illegal drug and is never prescribed.

Even prescribed opioids often get abused by patients. According to the Addiction Guide, approximately 16 million people in the US alone abuse their prescription medications. 

Prescription or not, natural and synthetic opioids are easily found on the streets – hence the worsening opioid epidemic and rising death rates.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), synthetic Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine. As a result, doctors have cut back on prescribing Fentanyl to patients unless they have just had surgery. Still, this hasn’t stopped people from making it and selling it illegally. As a result, synthetic fentanyl-laced drugs and pills are the most common cause of drug overdose deaths. 

Most of the time, a person isn’t even aware they took Fentanyl until after being brought back from an overdose. 

Opioid Misuse and Abuse

Purchasing drugs illegally always puts one at risk of experiencing opioid abuse. That said, illicit drug use is the most common form of opioid abuse today. Even when taking opioids prescribed by a doctor, it is extremely easy to form a dependency on the drug. Patients who experience chronic pain can quickly develop a tolerance, which proves to be a snowball effect leading to drug abuse and addiction.

The main reason Fentanyl was ever prescribed to chronically ill patients is because they had been on painkillers for so long that they became completely desensitized to them. Their tolerance was so high that nothing else would work. This might still be the case for some patients, but doctors have cut back immensely from prescribing Fentanyl to non-surgery patients. 

Regardless of the opioid, they are all extremely addictive and easy to abuse and they are considered to be one of the most dangerous medicines. Especially for those that require painkillers around-the-clock for extended periods of time.  

Perhaps the most common reason that prescription pain killers get abused is because of how easy it is to build a tolerance for the drug. The body gets used to the chemicals in the drug, and in a matter of time, the person feels they need a stronger dose to reap the same pain-relieving benefits as before. Therefore, it is dire that patients never take more than prescribed without first speaking with their doctor. 

It is too easy for patients to take their prescribed dose and realize the pain is still there, so they reach in and take half a dose more. This is how addiction starts. A doctor is the only person that can safely increase the painkiller dosage. The doctor might have another option available that isn’t related to opioid drugs or increasing the dosage. 


The Warning Signs of Painkiller Addiction

Still, avoiding a tolerance and switching off of opioid pain killers are easier said than done in many situations. If you are prescribed opioid pain killers and fear you might be experiencing addiction symptoms, call your doctor and schedule an appointment as soon as possible. Your doctor will gladly work with you to come up with a better solution for pain management. 

That said, here are a few warning signs you might notice before any physical signs of addiction start popping up: 

  • You find yourself constantly thinking about your medication 
  • You lie to your doctor and say you lost your prescription to get more medicine
  • You are doctor shopping
  • You find pain killers from illicit sources if need be
  • You get upset when people try to talk to you about your prescription drug use
  • Your personality isn’t like it used to be
  • You’ve used painkillers for years
  • You take more than your doctor prescribed

Aside from these personal warning signs, physical warning signs pop up when people abuse their painkillers. Here are a few of the physical warning signs:

  • Changes in personality or behavior
  • Changes in sleep 
  • Mood swings and emotional outbursts
  • Weight loss
  • Unkempt appearance
  • Slurred speech 
  • Tremors
  • Seizures

Most people that suffer from painkiller addiction will lose touch with their personal and business relationships as well. The person will most likely neglect all of their closest and longest relationships while simultaneously making new ‘friends’ every so often, only to keep them for a short amount of time until those relationships also suffer. 

The Health Effects of Painkiller Abuse

The health effects of painkillers are usually painfully obvious to the loved ones of the person suffering from addiction. But, unfortunately, the person suffering from addiction is too wrapped up in the drug itself that they neglect personal necessities like hygiene and health, much of which are listed above. 

By far, the biggest danger of painkiller abuse is overdose. According to the CDC, prescription opioid use is responsible for 60% of all yearly overdoses. That means nearly 50 people die each day in the United States from opioid painkillers. 

When someone decides they are done taking painkillers and limit or stop their intake altogether, their bodies fight back. The body starts to release any toxins leftover in the blood and tissues. In turn, the person ends up craving the drug as their body produces withdrawal symptoms. 

Some common opioid painkiller withdrawal symptoms are: 

  • Irritability 
  • Anxiety 
  • Muscle pains
  • Abdominal pains
  • Confusion 
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea 
  • Tremors 

Anyone addicted to prescription opioid painkillers is highly encouraged to contact their doctor before limiting their drug intake. The doctor will have helpful advice and medications that can relieve some or all of the withdrawal symptoms. They can even recommend certain drug detox facilities they think might help you on your road to recovery. 

Everyone is different, making it difficult to gauge if someone took too high of a dose of their opioid painkillers. Nearly every overdose results from respiratory failure, but before that happens, there will be signs the person expresses. 

Here are the common first signs of overdose: 

  • Tiny pupils
  • Slow, shallow breathing
  • Clammy skin
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Seizures
  • Vomiting 
  • Confusion 
  • Extreme drowsiness 
  • Blue complexion in lips and fingernails 

Using Opioid Painkillers Safely

Remember, the most important thing to do when taking prescription painkillers is to always keep your doctor informed. Before you even begin taking painkillers, you have to be completely transparent about your history of addiction or substance abuse. Your doctor also needs to know any symptoms or side effects you may be feeling, along with any addictive thoughts you have. 

Always, always follow the directions as they are printed on the medicine bottle. Doctors give specific directions when prescribing opioid painkillers because they understand the risks involved. Never stray from those directions without first getting permission from your doctor. 

Clean out your medicine cabinet regularly. If you have old medications that expired, dispose of them properly. Check with your local police department; they will typically have a safe drop off locations for expired medications and even pill bottles.

While there are several myths out there for ridding your household of medications, such as grinding up the medications and disposing of them with either coffee grounds or kitty litter, the truth is, they can still be found a used by others. The safest way to dispose of them is through unwanted medicine take-back programs. In any other means of disposal, the risk is still there and leaves the possibility for someone to get hurt.

One last safety tip to remember is to never mix opioid painkillers with:

  • Alcohol
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Barbiturates
  • Antihistamines

Your doctor will have a complete list of do’s and don’ts if you are prescribed painkillers. 


Opioid Painkiller Addiction Treatment at Avenues Recovery

Opioid painkillers are some of the most deadly drugs on the market and the streets today. Luckily, it seems doctors are more aware of the opioid epidemic than ever before and are taking the strides necessary to prevent opioid death rates from increasing any higher.

But, if you are struggling with painkiller addiction, there is a way out that doesn’t involve living with chronic pain. At Avenues Recovery you’ll be given a personalized opioid addiction treatment plan with the guidance of the best addiction professionals and medical team who will hold you or your loved one’s hand. Become part of a community that creates hope and a real chance at lasting recovery!

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