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Painkiller Addiction

While opioid painkillers can be used effectively to reduce pain, these drugs also hold a severe risk of addiction, abuse, and overdose.

How do Opioid Painkillers Work?

According to the National Institution of Drug Abuse, opioid pain killers reduce the intensity of pain signals reaching the brain and affect those brain areas controlling emotion, which diminishes the effects of a painful stimulus. Medications that fall within this class include hydrocodone (e.g., Vicodin), oxycodone (e.g., OxyContin, Percocet), morphine (e.g., Kadian, Avinza), codeine, and related drugs.

Addiction, Abuse, and Overdose

The danger of addiction occurs mainly because patients who are prescribed opioids regularly develop tolerance to the effects, causing the patient to increase their usage to achieve the same level of pain relief. As usage of these drugs increase, as does the risk of overdose.


According to survey results recently conducted by the National Safety Council, ninety-nine percent of primary care doctors routinely prescribe potentially addictive opioid painkillers for longer than the three-day period recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sales of prescription opioids in the U.S. nearly quadrupled from 1999 to 2014; deaths from prescription opioids have also quadrupled since 1999.

Painkiller Abuse and Heroin Addiction

As the addiction becomes more severe, patients are more likely to turn to illegal substitutes like heroin. Still, painkillers hold more of risk of overdose.

For example, in Arizona, from 2005 to 2015, pain killers were the cause of significantly more deaths than deaths attributed to other drugs. In 2015, 405 deaths were caused by pharmaceutical painkiller overdose compared with 237 heroin-related deaths.

According to Cara Christ, M.D., M.S., director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, “Seventy-five percent of heroin users started along the path of drug use with prescription medication.”

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