How using painkillers can lead to opioid addiction

People addicted to opioids usually develop the addiction by starting with another drug — a gateway drug — that leads to using opioids.

One type of opioid gateway drug, the prescription painkiller, has gained attention because it is easily available legally.

Many people who have used opioids are often prescribed them by their physician to manage pain and/or injury that is not responding well to other medications. 

Opioid drugs work by binding to opioid receptors in the brain, spinal cord and other areas within the body.

They illicit euphoric effects by binding with the opioid receptors in the brain. “Different opioid drugs have different effects determined by the way they are taken and by the timing and duration of their activity at the opioid receptors,” says

Opioids reduce and eliminate some messages of pain sent to the brain, reducing their sensation felt by the body.  Those who are suffering from chronic pain find them to be a welcome relief to a body fraught with continual pain. In many instances, the discontinuation of the drug by the prescribing physician may leave the patient with physical and/or psychological cravings.

This craving may incite the need for continuation to seek the drug; not only for the reduction and blocking of pain signals, but increasingly for the feelings of relaxation and relief.  These unfortunately are the first glimpses of substance abuse occurring within the patient.

“Most public health officials and a growing number of policymakers now acknowledge that the country’s rise in prescriptions for opioid-type painkillers such as Vicodin and Percocet play a major role,” HealthLine says.

Sometimes, it’s easier to think of people who are addicted to drugs as being completely different from you, living the type of life you won’t encounter. However, the connection to painkillers means people you know and love could be addicted, and even you could be vulnerable.

“People often assume prescription pain relievers are safer than illicit drugs because they are medically prescribed; however, when these drugs are taken for reasons or in ways or amounts not intended by a doctor … they can result in severe adverse health effects,” the National Institute on Drug Abuse says.

Research shows addiction to painkillers can lead to heroin use partially because it is less expensive and more accessible than prescription opioids, according to the NIDA.

Additionally, in a 10-year poll, people who said they had used pain relievers for non-medical purposes were 19 times more likely to have tried heroin than people who had not used pain relievers outside their intended purposes, according to research published by the Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality.



How do you avoid the road to heroin abuse for yourself and your loved ones?

Educating yourself by reading this and other articles helps. Additionally, if you or a loved one has prescription opioids, follow your medical provider’s directions carefully. If you feel the prescription is wrong — either too high or too low — speak with your doctor to get it changed.

When you have leftover painkillers you don’t need, dispose of them properly, so neither you nor anyone else will be tempted to use them. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration gives continually updated information about how to dispose of various drugs.

Beating an addiction to painkillers or heroin may require rehabilitation, therapy and other options. If your loved one is battling a heroin addiction, you can offer your love and support while still setting boundaries that make you comfortable and don’t enable the addict.

“When initially bringing up the suggestion of treatment, do your best to avoid negative dialogue that focuses on blame and judgment,” says. “Addiction is already isolating and stigmatizing so negative communication can push the addict further away. You will likely have better results if you encourage treatment in a caring and supportive manner while also making your personal boundaries clear and consistent.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, call Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority at 1-800-241-4949 or visit for more information on prevention, treatment and recovery services.

We are here to talk. We are here to help.

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