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Painkiller Addiction

In the United States, prescription pain medicines like Vicodin and Oxycontin are very widely prescribed for a variety of ailments, like arthritis, injury, and cancer. These medications are opiates, and when they are taken, their effects are similar to those of morphine or heroin. Opiates affect receptors in the brain, and when they are abused, they permanently change brain function. Painkiller addiction is a growing problem, and people who use them for their “high” are becoming addicted every day.

Because of the advanced nature of modern medicine, painkiller addiction is a very real problem, and its growing prevalence is a big problem for schools, doctors, and the DEA. In 2007 over two million first-time drug users got their start abusing prescription painkillers, and there were almost two million people struggling with painkiller addiction. Opiates also made up ten percent of all drug rehab admissions.


A painkiller addiction can happen to anyone, at any time, but those most likely to become addicted are people in their late teens to mid-thirties, and the elderly- anyone who is prescribed a painkiller has the potential to become addicted. Also at risk are those whose jobs carry a great deal of stress.

Signs of painkiller addiction are easy to spot. The addict will express a need for the drug, long after their pain has gone away. These drugs are very highly addictive, and can inspire intense cravings almost to the point of obsession. This can lead to a life of crime as the addict resorts to theft, illegal prescriptions, and buying the drug off the streets. Here are some other signs to watch for.

  • Apathy (person does not seem to care about anything)

  • Weakness

  • Lethargy

  • Confusion

  • Nausea/vomiting

  • Slower breathing

  • Sudden seizures

  • Red/raw nostrils (if the person is snorting the drugs)

  • Needle marks (if they are injecting)

Painkiller addicts take the drugs in a variety of ways, such as injection, by mouth, or crushing the pills up and snorting them like cocaine. The longer a painkiller addiction goes unnoticed and untreated, the harder it is to beat, so prompt attention is essential. You may end up saving their life.

Painkiller addictions are usually treated in the same way as an addiction to any other opiate- with medicines like naltrexone, methadone, and buprenorphine (that mimic the effects of the addictive drug) and behavior modification therapy. Withdrawals can happen as soon as a couple of hours after the last use of the drug, so prompt attention to the symptoms of withdrawal is necessary to prevent illness.

There are over 13,000 drug treatment centers in this country, but only a few offer painkiller addiction therapy and the administration of medicines like methadone. Addicts are usually sent to a detox center or hospital to get through the withdrawal period, and then they go to a drug treatment program. It is impossible to break free of a painkiller addiction without counseling, because of the emotional dependence that the drugs create. If you or someone you care about is addicted to prescription painkillers, get evaluated by a doctor that will guide you in choosing a treatment plan.

Drug Enforcement Agnecy (DEA) –
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services (SAMHSA) –
National Institue of Health (NIH) –

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