Thousands of people in the United States rely on painkillers for the relief of discomfort and pain from medical conditions such as back pain, headaches, and injuries.
However, almost 15,000 Americans die each year from painkiller overdose, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). For many individuals, the reliance on painkillers can easily turn into a physical dependence and even addiction. The body goes from using painkillers such as Percocet, Oxycontin, Codeine, and Methadone to eliminate pain to needing them to feel normal.
Each type of opioid affects the body in different ways. For instance, hydrocodone medications, like Oxycodone and Morphine, are typically prescribed for injury or dental related pain. Codeine is often prescribed for mild pain. Morphine is given to individuals prior to and after surgical procedures to lessen pain. Morphine, codeine, and oxycodone abuse are all equally dangerous and deadly.
How the Painkillers Affect the Body
Painkillers are considered opioids. They attach to specific proteins in the brain, gastrointestinal tract, spinal cord, and other organs that have opioid receptors. As the drugs attach to these receptors, they reduce a person’s pain perception.
The painkillers produce various symptoms such as nausea, drowsiness, mental confusion, and constipation; it also causes euphoria. The specific symptoms vary according to the amount of painkillers consumed; thus, the person’s pain disappears.
In 2010, one in 20 Americans reported that they used painkillers for nonmedical reasons, cites the CDC.
The euphoric high is like a reward system to the brain, and it is usually the high they want. So, people become dependent on the euphoric “reward” they receive after taking them and become dependent on the drug. Physical dependence of painkillers happens when the person takes them over a long period of time. As a result, they build up a tolerance for the drug. Physical dependence involves the body needing higher and higher doses of the painkillers to achieve the same high they used to achieve with a lower dose. They also undergo changes like:
- A change in personality
- Increased sensitivity to noise, sights, and emotions
- Change in eating or sleeping habits
- Runny nose
- Glazed, red eyes
Painkiller dependence can become abuse. Painkiller abuse is defined as using the medication in a way that isn’t intended by the prescribing physician. For instance, the obsessive need to obtain the euphoric high is one misuse of painkillers. The abuse of painkillers has different effects on the body such as:
- Low blood pressure
- Decreased breathing rate
- Poor coordination
In addition, the abuse of painkillers causes the body to become sedated and the person develops mood swings. If a woman is pregnant, the painkillers could cause a spontaneous abortion. If the fetus survives to a full term, it may experience a low birth weight.
How Painkillers Emotionally Affect the Body
Everyone starts taking painkillers to kill the physical pain they feel.
However, the painkillers also affect the body by distancing the individual from emotional pain. The emotional pain may manifest in different ways, such as fear or the inability to forget what happened during an accident. The same thing can be achieved with talk therapy, but sometimes people choose to use painkillers instead.
Physical Abuse of Painkillers
When a person starts abusing painkillers, they begin taking them in a way that isn’t intended. For instance, they may crush the pills and inject them into the body using a syringe. They may crush the painkillers and snort them. Both achieve a faster, more potent euphoric high than they would if they took the pills uncrushed. It also makes them more susceptible to slipping into a coma or dying from a painkiller overdose.
Some people experience additional symptoms when they take painkillers along with other drugs or alcohol. For instance, their heart rate slows to a dangerous pace. Their respiration also slows to a dangerously low level.
The combination of painkiller abuse and alcohol may lead to a coma or death.
How Painkillers Affect the Body during Withdrawal
Many people try to stop abusing painkillers without the help of any treatment plan. This is commonly referred to as going “cold turkey.” Other people may not want to stop taking painkillers, but undergo withdrawal symptoms when they can’t obtain the medication through legal or illegal means.
With painkiller withdrawal, people experience restlessness, diarrhea, insomnia, and vomiting.
Also, they have cold flashes which produce goose bumps. Individuals experience pain. However it’s usually not in the area where they were originally suffering the pain, but in the bones and muscles. Also, they experience leg movements like tremors. As soon as people take painkillers, the withdrawal symptoms disappear.
When the body is injured, it sends special messages to nerve endings and to the brain. The painkilling medication interferes with the messages being sent to the brain and decreases the pain. However, when painkillers are used too much, it can have a devastating effect on the body. It can even cause death.
Unfortunately, with pain, physicians are limited when prescribing painkilling medication. Pain isn’t like a bruise or broken bone physicians can see and evaluate. Instead, pain is subjective, so they must depend on what the patients tell them when prescribing pain medication. Physicians must take extra caution when prescribing painkillers and look for signs of how painkillers are affecting a patient’s body.
Many people try to avoid this by obtaining multiple prescriptions from multiple physicians. In 2009, nearly half a million emergency room visits were due to individuals abusing or misusing painkillers according to the CDC.
Although about 10 percent of high school seniors have used painkillers for nonmedical reasons in the past year, painkilling abuse is higher among older adults according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). There is a higher prevalence of pain in this age group which contributes to the greater number of written painkiller prescriptions. For instance, an older individual may be given multiple prescriptions for painkillers for different ailments or medical conditions. These multiple prescriptions can lead to drug interactions, changes in drug metabolism, or painkiller dependence or abuse.