Prescription Painkiller Side Effects: Psychological and Physical Dependence

Addiction and Substance Abuse

Author: Thomas C. Weiss
Published: 2013/08/09 - Updated: 2021/08/29
Contents: Summary - Introduction - Main - Related

Synopsis: Article examines aspects of psychological and physical dependence or addiction of prescribed painkillers. Taking too much of a particular opiate painkiller, or more often than it has been prescribed, may be dangerous or fatal. Combining opiates with alcohol or other drugs may lead to severe reactions. Painkillers such as Vicodin, Percocet, or OxyContin are Opoids and have a higher risk value of addiction when compared to over-the-counter (OTC) medications like Aspirin, Tylenol, or Ibuprofen.


Prescriptions painkillers such as Darvocet, Vicodin, Oxycontin, Percocet, Tramadol, Fentanyl, and Lortab are often prescribed in America to treat moderate to severe pain. The medications block pain signals by attaching to opiate receptors located in different located in different parts of a person's brain and their body.

Main Digest

Analgesics (painkillers) are defined as any member of the group of drugs used to achieve analgesia - relief from pain. Analgesic drugs act in various ways on the peripheral and central nervous systems. They are distinct from anesthetics, which reversibly eliminate sensation, and include paracetamol (known in the US as acetaminophen or simply APAP), the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as the salicylates, and opioid drugs such as morphine and opium.

Prescribed painkillers are effective in treating persistent or chronic pain and may be taken safely. One of the unfortunate aspects of these painkillers is that they may cause psychological and physical dependence or addiction. Side-effects-of-painkillers vary greatly and some are more common than others. The side-effects may be mild, yet in the case of overdose or misuse - the side-effects may even be fatal.

Constipation is one of the more commonly reported side-effects associated with the use of prescribed painkillers. Whether a person is taking pain medications at therapeutic levels or is abusing them, sluggish bowel movements that are annoying or painful may occur. The issue might be compounded if a person is taking a combination of prescribed medications. Opiates have the potential to interfere with average elimination by relaxing the smooth muscle in a person's intestines and preventing them from contracting and expelling waste. Regular use of opiates may find a person's stools becoming hard as rock and blocking their bowels. In severe instances, a person's bowels may even rupture, something that can lead to sepsis or even death. The symptoms of constipation include:

  • Nausea
  • Weight loss
  • Abdominal bloating
  • Decreased appetite
  • Straining to pass stool
  • Swelling and cramping
  • Pain, discomfort or blood with a bowel movement

Pain Killer Use, Misuse, and Side-effects

The degree and frequently to which people experience side-effects depends on a number of factors. The amount a person takes is one of the factors. Prior exposure to opiates may also determine the side-effects a person experiences. Some people might build up a tolerance to prescription painkillers, meaning the dose prescribed is not adequate in terms of pain relief. The method a person uses to take opiates can also affect their psychological and physical symptoms. Chewing, crushing, or tampering with pain medications may lead to an overdose. Even if a person uses painkillers over a short period of time they may experience one or more side-effects. The side-effects may include ones such as:

  • Itching
  • Fatigue
  • Delirium
  • Tremors
  • Sedation
  • Euphoria
  • Sweating
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Dry mouth
  • Depression
  • Hallucination
  • Anxiousness
  • Sleeplessness
  • Upset stomach
  • Muscle spasms
  • Pupil constriction
  • Extreme irritability
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Muscle and bone pain

Taking too much of a particular opiate painkiller, or more often than it has been prescribed, may be dangerous or fatal. Combining opiates with alcohol or other drugs may lead to severe reactions. More serious side-effects may include confusion or stupor, severe respiratory depression, clammy skin, coma, cardiac arrest and circulatory collapse.

Dizziness and Drowsiness:

A person may experience dizziness and drowsiness while they are taking narcotic pain medication. The side-effects should decrease over times as a person's body adjusts to the medication. Taking the medication with food might decrease the side-effects. Use caution while operating hazardous machinery or driving if you take painkillers until you are aware of how the medication affects you.

Nausea and Vomiting:

Nausea and vomiting are common side-effects of narcotic pain medications. Take the medication with milk or food to help reduce gastrointestinal effects. It is possible that after taking the medication for a few days, the levels of nausea and vomiting will decrease as a person's body adjusts to the medication. Minor dietary changes might influence the side-effects, such as avoiding fatty or spicy foods, or eating smaller portions that are spaced throughout the day.

Headache and Fatigue:

Headache and fatigue are other common side-effects associated with narcotic painkillers. A person might feel more weak or sleepy than usual. Headache and fatigue may diminish over time as a person's body adjust to the medication they are taking.

Over-The-Counter Side-Effects

If a person takes more than the maximum dose of over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers it can trigger serious side-effects.

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) medications such as Ibuprofen and aspirin can cause gastrointestinal bleeding, heartburn, and peptic ulcers. They can affect the blood's ability to clot. Tylenol (acetaminophen), may be easier on a person's stomach - yet high amounts of it has the ability to damage the liver. The more of these pain medications a person takes, the less their brain produces pain-relieving chemicals on its own.

Addiction and Opiate Painkillers

Painkillers such as Vicodin, Percocet, or OxyContin are Opoids and have a higher risk value of addiction when compared to over-the-counter (OTC) medications like Aspirin, Tylenol, or Ibuprofen. Even though all of these medications help with pain relief, the side-effects of using these medications may become harmful if people are not aware of them. The physical effects of opiates depend upon the particular opiate that is used, its source, as well as the dose taken and the method used. Opiates slow a person's breathing rate, their brain activity and their heart rate.

Opiates also depress a person's appetite, sexual desire, thirst, and increase their body's pain tolerance level. As with other depressants, opiates produce a euphoric and tranquil effect.

People who inject an opiate such as heroin might also experience a kind of rush as the drug circulates through their body. Some people combine opiates with a stimulant like cocaine referred to as, 'speed balling.' The stimulant prevents the person from falling asleep while the opiate reduces the hyperactive effects caused by stimulants. The possibility for contamination through using opiates combined with other drugs, as well as from using needles that are not sterile, increase the dangers of opiates. Using needles that are not sterile may lead to tetanus, hepatitis, or AIDS. People who become addicted to opiates in low doses may experience effects such as:

  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Drowsiness
  • Droopy eyelids
  • Slowed breathing
  • Impaired concentration

People who are addicted to larger doses of opiates may experience skin that is cold, pupils that constrict to pinpoints, as well as breathing that might slow to a complete stop and result in death. When opiates are injected intravenously, they experience a surge of pleasure that over-rides pain, hunger, or sexual urges.

When people continue to use opiates illegally, or even sometimes on a prescribed basis, the chances of them becoming psychologically dependent upon them increases. When a person becomes dependent on opiates, their main focus in life becomes finding and using their drug of choice. Opiates induce tolerance and the person finds themselves needing more of the drug to produce the same effects. People who regularly use opiates and suddenly stop experience withdrawal symptoms within 4-6 hours after their last dose. The symptoms do not necessarily mean a person is addicted, but do mean a person has developed a physical dependence on the drug. The symptoms of opiate withdrawal include:

  • Chills
  • Nausea
  • Tremors
  • Diarrhea
  • Irritability
  • Sweating
  • Insomnia
  • Weakness
  • Uneasiness
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Runny nose and eyes

The intensity of the symptoms a person experiences depends upon how much of an opiate they have taken, how often, and over what period of time. The symptoms are often the strongest 24-72 hours after they begin and may continue for 7-10 days.

Opiates and Pregnant Women

Simply stated, opiates are harmful to a developing fetus. Women who are pregnant and dependent on opiates have a higher risk for spontaneous abortions, breech deliveries, premature births and stillbirths. Babies who are born to mothers that are addicted to opiates many times experience withdrawal symptoms similar to adults. The symptoms can las several weeks or even months. Researchers have also discovered an increased risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) among babies born to mothers who are addicted to heroin.

Author Credentials:

Thomas C. Weiss is a researcher and editor for Disabled World. Thomas attended college and university courses earning a Masters, Bachelors and two Associate degrees, as well as pursing Disability Studies. As a Nursing Assistant Thomas has assisted people from a variety of racial, religious, gender, class, and age groups by providing care for people with all forms of disabilities from Multiple Sclerosis to Parkinson's; para and quadriplegia to Spina Bifida. Explore Thomas' complete biography for comprehensive insights into his background, expertise, and accomplishments.

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Cite This Page (APA): Weiss, T. C. (2013, August 9 - Last revised: 2021, August 29). Prescription Painkiller Side Effects: Psychological and Physical Dependence. Disabled World. Retrieved July 17, 2024 from

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