A Guide to Painkiller Addiction: Symptoms, Treatment, Recovery, and More

Table of Contents
  1. What are Painkillers?
  2. How does Painkiller Addiction Develop?
  3. What are the Signs and Symptoms of Painkiller Abuse?
  4. What if I Know Someone Going Through Painkiller Addiction?
  5. What are the Treatment Options for Painkiller Addiction?
  6. Painkiller Addiction Recovery at Avenues Recovery

What are Painkillers?

“Painkillers” is the umbrella term that encompasses opiates, opioids, narcotics, and over-the-counter (OTC) pain medicine such as Tylenol (acetaminophen) and Advil (ibuprofen). These drugs relieve varying degrees of pain and range from non-addictive to highly addictive, but they all pose dangers when upon overdose. This guide will explain these terms and discuss the symptoms and treatment options for painkiller addiction.


Opiates are drugs derived from opium, a naturally occurring chemical in poppy plants. They are prescribed to treat moderate to severe pain and have a calming effect on the body. But because they are extremely effective, they are also easy to abuse.

There are two main types of opiates: agonists and antagonists. Agonists — such as morphine and codeine — activate opioid receptors in the nervous system and cause the sensation of pain relief. Antagonists, namely naloxone and naltrexone, reverse the effects of agonists by blocking opioid receptors and are primarily used to combat the toxic effects of an opioid overdose. Both are strong substances that come with a risk of addiction. Antagonists are considered less addictive than agonists, but it is still possible to become addicted. Thus, these drugs are best used either in supervised medical settings or exactly as directed, not more.


In 2020, an appalling 2,499 people died from opioid-related overdoses in Maryland. This is a record number of fatalities for the state and reflects the nation’s ongoing opioid epidemic, exacerbated by the past year’s global pandemic.

The main difference between opiates and opioids is its origin. Opiates are derived from natural sources, whereas opioids are lab-synthesized or semi-synthesized to mimic the calming effects of opiates. Examples of opioids made to imitate the effects of opiates include oxycodone, fentanyl, and the illegal drug heroin.

It’s not just illegal drugs that pose a serious risk to public health. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that over 50% of people who abused prescription painkillers got the substance from a friend or relative.

In many cases, lab-made opioids are engineered to be much stronger than their natural counterparts — another reason why opioid addiction is rampant. But regardless of origin, both opiates and opioids have the potential to become highly addictive and should be carefully discussed with your doctor prior to prescribing medication.


According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the term “narcotic” refers to psychoactive substances that dull the senses and relieve pain. Opiates and opioids — whether procured legally or illegally — fall under this broad classification. U.S. Law also classifies cocaine as a narcotic even though it isn’t an opium derivative. Thus, it’s helpful to think of these terms as subsections of one another: opiates are a kind of opioid, and opioids are a sort of narcotic, but not all narcotics are opioids.

Over-the-Counter Painkillers

OTC painkillers include ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), aspirin (Bayer, Alka-Seltzer), and acetaminophen (Tylenol). Ibuprofen and aspirin are pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory, whereas acetaminophen is only pain-relieving. Most people experience few to no side effects with these drugs, but it’s important to discuss with your doctor before use if you have certain medical conditions or take other medications, which may interact negatively with OTC painkillers.

Unlike opioids, OTC painkillers are generally not habit-forming because they work more in the body than the brain, but it is possible to overdose on them. Depending on the drug, overdosing can damage the liver, stomach, and/or intestines, or lead to death.

For the purposes of this article, when we refer to painkillers, we are referring primarily to the habit-forming opiates and opioids.

How does Painkiller Addiction Develop?

Using painkillers is considered abuse when someone takes more than the prescribed amount, whether in dosage or overall period of time. This can occur when the person collects painkillers from multiple doctors, takes someone else’s prescription, and/or procures illegal painkillers on the street.

If someone takes more than the prescribed amount of a painkiller, eventually their body will increase its tolerance to the drug. Tolerance leads to physical dependence, a stage where the person takes the drug just to feel normal. As mentioned earlier, taking more of an opioid painkiller is easy to do because people often want to chase the euphoria that results from taking opioids. Those at a special risk of developing opioid dependence are people recovering from surgery or severe injury, since they tend to be prescribed more powerful painkillers.

Eventually dependence cascades into full-blown addiction, where people’s brain and body chemistry are so drastically altered that they experience intense withdrawal symptoms when deprived of the painkiller.

If you have a personal or family history of substance abuse, you may have an increased risk of becoming addicted to opioids. Discuss this history with your doctor and ask about alternative treatments, as these can mitigate the chance of opioid use precipitating into addiction.

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Painkiller Abuse?

The intended effect of a painkiller is pain relief, but if taken in greater amounts or longer periods of time than prescribed, painkillers can cause a variety of other physical, psychological, and behavioral symptoms. Factors like genetics, the particular substance, and length of abuse will determine the exact symptoms from one individual to the next, but they generally include:

  • nausea, vomiting
  • constipation
  • pinpoint pupils
  • sedation
  • slurred speech
  • itchy, flushed skin
  • respiratory depression
  • seizures
  • needle marks/vein damage from injected use
  • coma
  • anxiety, depression
  • euphoria
  • mood swings
  • social isolation

If these symptoms are severe enough and remain untreated, they can be fatal. For example, opioids slow breathing and heart rate in order to have a calming effect, but an overdose can restrict breathing to a dangerously low level. That’s why it is vital to seek help from a professional rehab center before the problem escalates.

What if I Know Someone Going Through Painkiller Addiction?

If you know someone struggling with painkiller addiction, it can be difficult to know how to help. On top of that, the person may even deny that they have a problem. An intervention specialist can facilitate the conversation and help the addicted person sign up at a treatment center. Here are some signs that someone is struggling with painkiller addiction:

  • borrowing money or medication from others
  • impulsive or aggressive behavior
  • changes in mood and sleep patterns
  • health issues, including depression and eating disorders
  • deterioration of physical appearance

Show them your support throughout the rehabilitation process, which can be a painful and vulnerable time for them. Be patient and nonjudgmental, since there is enough of a social stigma regarding opioid abuse as is.

What are the Treatment Options for Painkiller Addiction?

Because painkiller addiction withdrawal can be painful and even dangerous, the best treatment option is inpatient detoxification and rehabilitation in a professional facility staffed by medical and addiction specialists.

A good detox program should closely monitor the individual during his or her withdrawal period. Opioid withdrawal symptoms include dizziness, vomiting, abdominal cramps, irregular heartbeat, hypertension, muscle pain, stress, and anxiety.

Sometimes it may be appropriate to administer medications to help curb opioid cravings and withdrawal symptoms. These medications include methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone, which bind to the opioid receptors in the brain but don’t cause a “high.” Although they can sometimes be prescribed for the recoverer to take at home, they are safest when used under the medical supervision of an inpatient setting.

Following detox, the patient should solidify their sobriety by getting involved in support groups or therapy through a residential program. These steps will help the individual uncover the root causes of their drug use, avoid triggers, create healthy habits, and make sobriety as long-lasting as possible. The goal is to get the patient back on their feet and into society once more.

Painkiller Addiction Recovery at Avenues Recovery in Maryland

Maryland is dealing with one of the worst opioid epidemics in the country. Part of the solution is providing better addiction recovery services.

At Avenues Recovery, patients receive professional care from medical professionals who specialize in addiction recovery. We’ll look after you throughout every stage of recovery, including detox, rehabilitation, therapy, and any further treatment or support you may require.

We offer residential treatment, Partial Hospitalization (PHP), Intensive Outpatient (IOP), and Outpatient (OP) treatment programs that are fully customizable to your unique needs. These options can include family and couple therapy sessions, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), immersive 12-step programming, yoga, outdoor activities, and more.

Our modern facilities have a casual atmosphere, beautiful grounds, and advanced amenities so that you can recover comfortably. At the center of every treatment plan are our core values: life skills, wellness, nutrition, social acceptance, financial responsibility, and family.

If you or a loved one suffer from painkiller addiction, don’t wait to seek help. It could mean life or death. At Avenues Recovery, we believe in your strength and resilience and want to help guide you to a better tomorrow.

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Brooke Abner,

Motivational Coach