When Prescription Painkillers Become the Problem

It’s easy to become addicted to any substance when it becomes your primary source of relief from an uncomfortable or painful experience. Unfortunately, this is often the case with many patients who receive prescriptions for pain medication and develop a painkiller addiction.

If you’re suffering from chronic pain that doesn’t respond to other treatments, then taking the wrong medication at the wrong time could lead to dependency issues. Here’s what you need to know about painkiller addictions.

What Is a Painkiller Addiction?

A person who needs continuous use of pain relievers because their body has a tolerance to them may have developed an addiction. The same goes for those who take these medications regularly and may not even feel the effects any longer.

A person in either situation will find themselves unable to function without daily doses of the drug(s) they’ve been using. They might also suffer from cravings, which makes stopping difficult.

It takes less than 30 days to develop a habit, so if you notice yourself falling into this category, you may need professional substance abuse treatment. You should never try to go cold turkey or stop all at once. Doing so can result in severe side effects.

There is no one type of painkiller that can lead to this situation. Multiple forms exist that can lead to dependence. The most common are highlighted in the next section.

Common Types of Painkillers

There are dozens of different kinds of painkillers available today. The specific type prescribed boils down to a doctor’s recommendations.

Doctors usually prescribe strong painkillers such as Vicodin, Oxycontin, Percocet, etc., for acute pain situations lasting longer than three months.

Others, such as Oxycontin and Dilaudid, will be used for longer periods because of their high dosage levels. These are for more severe, chronic forms of pain. Regardless of the specific form prescribed, the prescribing physician should always monitor the regimen closely.

Painkiller Addiction

How Do Painkillers Work?

Most commonly, painkillers contain opioids, a class of chemicals that act upon opioid receptors found throughout the brain and central nervous system. These receptors play important roles in regulating bodily functions, including pain perception and mood.

When activated, the cells associated with these receptors release substances called neurotransmitters that cause euphoric feelings and pain-relieving properties. Opioid analgesics (also known as opiates) mimic natural endorphins to relieve pain.

However, in some cases, they produce an overdose effect that causes nausea, drowsiness, and respiratory depression. This is why it’s important to never over-medicate or mix painkillers with other medications such as benzodiazepines.

Signs of Painkiller Addiction

Signs of painkiller addiction include uncontrollable craving, compulsive behavior, sleeplessness, irritability, anxiety, depression, and isolation. Since dependence happens gradually over weeks or months, people experiencing these symptoms may not realize right away that they’re battling an issue.

However, early detection can help prevent long-term problems. Once you recognize the signs, contact your physician immediately and ask him/her to refer you to an expert on substance abuse recovery.

Remember that addictive tendencies develop when certain areas of the brain malfunction during reward processing. As such, there are unique patterns of physical changes that occur within addicts’ brains depending on which part of the process gets disrupted.

For example, studies show that the frontostriatal pathway plays a crucial role in mediating responses to rewards. Deficits along this pathway result in decreased motivation, whereas excess activation leads to excessive risk-taking behaviors. Brain scans have revealed distinct differences in the properties of these areas in addicted and nonaddicted individuals.

Do Painkillers Cause Withdrawal?

Long-term usage of moderate to high doses of painkillers can trigger physical and psychological reactions once individuals stop taking them. The most common are headaches, fatigue, nausea, and insomnia.

Even short stints off of prescribed meds can cause serious discomfort. While most withdrawals last only a few days, some patients report feeling sick for up to two weeks following cessation.

People dealing with these symptoms should weigh their options in regard to medically-assisted detox. It’s also possible that underlying mental health conditions are at the center of the abuse issue and can be treated in inpatient or outpatient rehab.

Symptoms of Painkiller Withdrawal

Distinct symptoms accompany painkiller abuse disorder. The symptoms can be extremely uncomfortable to downright painful. Some of the most common effects include:

  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Nausea
  • Sleeping difficulties
  • Anxiety
  • Chills
  • Depression
  • Restlessness
  • Sweating
  • Intense cravings
  • Watery eyes

It’s important to be aware of the potential timeline for painkiller withdrawal to better prepare yourself for what lies ahead. The following section outlines an example of the potential painkiller withdrawal timeline.

Potential Painkiller Withdrawal Timeline

The painkiller withdrawal timeline is similar to other timelines involving opioid medications. This list provides an accurate example of the potential timeline after use is discontinued.

Day 1

Normally individuals will begin feeling the effects of withdrawal anywhere from 12 to 24-hours after their last use. Initial symptoms include anxiety about the approaching symptoms and not having medication, watery eyes, frequent yawning, and restlessness. One of the most common side effects of withdrawal is insomnia, which eventually sets in during stage two. However, before this happens, users will be extremely fatigued, and may sleep throughout the duration of days one and two.

Day 2-3

During the second and third days, individuals will enter a more intense period of withdrawal. Nausea, stomach aches, muscle and body pain, vomiting, sweating, and cold chills will become more prevalent. Individuals will also begin suffering from insomnia because of restless leg syndrome. This is one of the most demoralizing parts of withdrawal because the mind wants to rest, but the body won’t allow it.

Days 4-6

Symptoms continue during this stage; however, nausea and vomiting may subside, and individuals will begin to keep food down regularly. Muscle aches may become less severe, and the heart rate will decrease slightly as well as blood pressure. Cold chills will persist, and there’s still no relief for insomnia.

Days 7-10

Most of the symptoms will completely subside at this point. However, individuals will still be extremely sensitive to hot and cold as the body adjusts to life without painkillers. The process can be compared to learning how to do everything over again, which is essentially what is happening. Insomnia will still be an issue, with a couple of hours of sleep per night becoming possible.

Post-Acute Withdrawal Phase

Post-acute withdrawal is the period that extends weeks or months after detox that can lead to possible relapse. It’s the random return of some of the common symptoms of the detox period, but only for a brief period. This is most likely triggered by some type of mental stimulus when a situation arises that reminds the user of painkillers.

Luckily, effective treatments exist for painkiller abuse disorder for individuals going through the detoxification process. However, these medications are typically only available during medically-assisted detox.

Effective Treatments for Painkiller Addiction

Effective Treatments for Painkiller Addiction

The most effective treatments for addiction to painkillers exist in several forms. The first, and most recommended step, includes medically-assisted detox.

Medically-Assisted Detox

Medically-assisted detox includes clients remaining in a hospital-style setting, monitored by professionals to ensure they remain stable. The withdrawal symptoms can become uncomfortable throughout detox, and vital signs may spike.

Physicians and nurses monitor the client, making medications available through the various stages of withdrawal. Normally clients receive a mixture of benzodiazepines, anti-depressants, and blood pressure medications like clonidine.

After medically-assisted detox, the best form of treatment is a transfer into inpatient rehab.

Inpatient Treatment

You will regularly meet with mental health and substance abuse professionals during the inpatient treatment process. Clients can begin the recovery process through one of several methods or a combination of methods.

Additional forms of therapy exist for clients to choose from as well. This includes art therapy, equine therapy, and several other forms of therapeutic activity.

Group recovery meetings are available as well, where clients will have a chance to engage with peers who are undergoing the same process. They’re able to share stories through a counselor-led meeting to encourage and inspire one another and hold each other accountable through a bond formed during the recovery process.

Family members may get involved as well through forms of group therapy. This helps clients mend relationships with loved ones and get family members actively involved with their recovery.

Some of the most common forms of mental health therapy received during treatment include the following:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a type of treatment administered for individuals during substance abuse counseling. The general idea is to identify certain negative behaviors associated with the individuals’ substance abuse issues and replace them with more positive behaviors and habits. Basically, clients learn how to respond to negative situations in a more positive manner instead of using old ways that commonly lead to substance abuse.
  • Dual-diagnosis therapy is one of the more preferred methods being used today. This form of therapy identifies co-occurring disorders in the form of mental health and substance abuse issues. These can include any form of substance abuse coupled with bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, schizophrenia, OCD, PTSD, and a plethora of other disorders. This treatment is preferred because it gets to the center of the issue, treating both simultaneously to help avoid relapse.

Outpatient Treatment

Outpatient treatment is an alternative to inpatient rehab that includes most of the same elements and options for therapy. However, the primary difference is the fact that clients will go home every night after treatment. Normally outpatient treatment requires nine hours of counseling per week.

In the case of intensive outpatient treatment, clients may be required to participate for up to 20 hours per week. There is also partial hospitalization, which is the most intense form of outpatient treatment before the level of care moves to the inpatient tier.

After completing detox, or as an alternative to medically-assisted detox, some clients may choose to participate in medication-assisted treatment.

This shouldn’t be confused with medically-assisted detox because it entails an entirely different process with separate goals. Medication-assisted treatment exists not with full detoxification in mind but as a transition to a maintenance program that allows clients to function without the need to chase opioids.

Medication-Assisted Treatment for Painkillers

Medication-Assisted Treatment for Painkillers

Medication-assisted treatment may include one of the following programs:

Methadone Maintenance

Methadone maintenance requires clients to receive a daily dose of methadone to avoid the symptoms of withdrawal. This form of treatment allows clients to return to a normal way of living without worrying about chasing a substance to feel normal every day. With this requirement off of their back, they can focus on recovery and rebuilding elements of their lives that may have been destroyed during active abuse.

The detox process is much easier after clients heal mentally. Immediately after the detox process (without any form of mental healing beforehand) is the most fragile state an individual in recovery can experience. This is why it’s always recommended that clients enter treatment immediately after medically-assisted detox.

Buprenorphine Maintenance

This is similar to methadone maintenance, with a few slight changes. Primary care physicians may administer buprenorphine, eliminating the need to make a trip to a clinic each day. Clients normally receive their prescription for a month at a time and are required to maintain some form of mental health or substance abuse counseling during buprenorphine treatment.

Clients are responsible for finding their own counseling if they receive a prescription from their primary care physician. In the case of methadone, counselors are made available to you at the clinic.


Naltrexone is given after clients have been abstinent for a period of 8 to 10 days. This is the most common form of medication-assisted treatment after clients finish medically-assisted detox.

Methadone and buprenorphine are opioid agonists, while naltrexone is an antagonist. Naltrexone binds to the opioid receptors, blocking any effects from any type of opioid medication or substance.

This treatment is given in the form of a monthly injection and can be obtained through a primary care physician. Naltrexone is not a maintenance program, and there are no withdrawals when clients decide to stop treatment.

Is Lasting Recovery from Painkillers Possible?

If you’re having challenges with painkillers or know someone who is, you need a strong team to stand behind you. At Pathfinders Recovery Centers in Arizona and Colorado, we have years of experience in assisting individuals through the opioid detox and rehabilitation process.

We also provide dual-diagnosis treatment to help with the most severe underlying conditions. To increase your chances for long-term recovery, you need a care team as compassionate about your recovery as you are.

At Pathfinders Recovery Centers, this is exactly what you get from our expert staff. To begin your journey towards recovery, contact a member of our admissions team today!


  • 7580 E Gray Rd Suite 201 Scottsdale, AZ 85260
  • (877) 224-0761
  • Mon-Sun: 24x7
  • Mon-Fri: 8:00AM – 4:00PM

Our Newsletter

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Contact Us

See how much of your treatment is covered by insurance

(877) 224-0761


Skip to content