What to Do About Prescription Painkiller MisuseEvery year, millions of Americans misuse a prescription painkilling medication[i]. Potential consequences of this misuse include diagnosable symptoms of substance abuse and/or substance addiction, as well as fatal and nonfatal overdoses. There are several things that people, doctors and addiction specialists can do to reduce the numbers of people affected by these problems.

What Are Prescription Painkillers?

Prescription painkillers belong to the opioid family of substances. Some of these medications are synthesized in pharmaceutical laboratories from naturally occurring substances found in the opium poppy. Products in this group include hydrocodone (Lortab, Vicodin) and oxycodone (Percocet, OxyContin). In addition, some prescription opioids are synthetic products designed to mimic the effects of naturally occurring opioids. Products in this group include fentanyl (Subsys, Duragesic) and several substances made from the same chemical template as fentanyl.

Defining Misuse

Doctors, researchers and public health officials use the term misuse to describe any situation in which a person takes a prescription drug in ways other than intended by medical professionals. Some misusers hold legitimate prescriptions for the medications they consume. However, they take those medications more often than prescribed and/or in larger amounts than prescribed.

Other people that misuse painkillers do not hold legitimate prescriptions for the medications they consume. Prescription medication misuse is also known as prescription medication abuse or prescription drug abuse[ii].

The Extent of Painkiller Misuse

Opioid painkillers are the most commonly misused prescription medications in America. In fact, almost five out of every 100 people over the age of 11 take these medications improperly. Men misuse opioid medications more often than women. By age, misuse is most common in young adults in their late teens and early to mid-20s. Roughly one out of every six people who misuse a prescription painkiller meets the terms used to diagnose opioid use disorder (opioid abuse and/or opioid addiction).

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Looking for Indicators of Painkiller Misuse

Anyone who misuses an opioid medication (or an opioid street drug) can develop certain telltale symptoms. Common examples of these symptoms include[iii]:

  • Unusual daytime sleepiness
  • A poor ability to coordinate normal body movements
  • A euphoric mental state
  • A confused mental state
  • Unusually slow breathing
  • Nausea
  • Slow bowels
  • Unexplained mood swings

In addition, people engaged in a pattern of misuse may undergo some noticeable changes in their day-to-day behavior. These changes can include such things as:

  • An unexplained increase in the frequency of medication consumption
  • An unexplained increase in the amount of medication consumed
  • Use of a painkiller prescribed to another person
  • Use of an opioid painkiller in situations that pose a clear danger
  • Recurring complaints about “missing” or “lost” doctor’s prescriptions
  • Obtaining painkiller prescriptions from multiple doctors
  • Falsifying a doctor’s prescription to obtain painkiller access
  • Stealing blank prescriptions from a doctor’s office
  • Buying blank prescriptions from a third-party

What Can Private Citizens Do?

People who hold opioid painkiller prescriptions may not understand that their actions may constitute medication misuse. However, to reiterate, misuse occurs when anyone with a prescription consumes a painkiller more often than intended, or in greater amounts than intended. Similarly, people who consume painkillers without a prescription may not understand the seriousness of their actions.

It may be possible for people misusing prescription painkillers to stop on their own. However, over time, a sustained pattern of misuse can lead to changes in normal brain function that support the onset of opioid dependence and opioid addiction. A person affected by dependence or addiction can easily lose control over medication intake. This means anyone misusing a painkiller may need help from a doctor or an addiction specialist.

A person who misuses painkillers may be willing to self-report this fact and seek help voluntarily. However, few people affected by serious opioid problems (or any other kind of substance problem) look for help on their own. Intervention[iv] is a technique sometimes used to confront and assist people showing signs or symptoms of misuse. For a variety of reasons, anyone considering staging an intervention should ask for advice from an addiction specialist or another experienced professional.

What Can Doctors Do?

If doctors suspect that a patient is involved in a pattern of painkiller misuse, they can provide help through something called a brief intervention[v]. Brief interventions take the form of a structured conversation between doctor and patient. They have three main goals:

  • Alerting patients to the known harms associated with medication misuse
  • Providing advice on ways to stop misuse from snowballing into diagnosable substance abuse or substance addiction
  • Referring people with existing abuse/addiction symptoms to appropriate treatment

Brief interventions have demonstrated usefulness as deterrents for people at-risk for serious substance problems.

What Can Treatment Centers Do?

If painkiller misuse has led to a diagnosable case of opioid use disorder, addiction treatment centers can help. A full-spectrum opioid program begins with monitored detoxification (detox) and substance withdrawal. Once initial sobriety is established, the active phase of treatment begins.

Opioid use disorder is usually treated with some combination of medications and behavioral psychotherapy[vi]. Medications can help by reducing the impact of withdrawal symptoms and blunting the urge to return to painkiller consumption. Behavioral therapy helps people in treatment understand why they first got involved in substance misuse. It also helps participants develop healthy coping skills that can prevent future misuse episodes.

At Transformations Treatment Center, we address all aspects of the recovery process for people affected by opioid-related substance problems. Beginning with initial detoxification at Summit Detox, our staff of experts creates personalized programs for each client. In addition to medication and behavioral therapy, these programs often include secondary forms of care that increase the overall effectiveness of treatment. We aim to provide the most supportive and caring environment for inpatient or outpatient care to help each client establish and maintain a substance-free daily routine.

  1. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States – Results from the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health
    https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/NSDUH-FFR1-2016/NSDUH-FFR1-2016.htm#sud4
  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse: Misuse of Prescription Drugs https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/misuse-prescription-drugs/summary
  3. Mayo Clinic: Prescription Drug Abuse – Symptoms
    https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/prescription-drug-abuse/basics/symptoms/con-20032471
  4. Mayo Clinic: Intervention – Help a Loved One Overcome Addiction
    https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/mental-illness/in-depth/intervention/art-20047451
  5.  Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: Brief Interventions https://www.integration.samhsa.gov/clinical-practice/sbirt/brief-interventions
  6. National Institute on Drug Abuse: Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/treatment-approaches-drug-addiction
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