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People who become addicted to painkillers often start their use with a very real or justified reason. Perhaps they were injured in a car accident or have nagging, chronic pain and need serious relief. To block or ease the relentless discomfort, a physician prescribes them pain medication. But after weeks or months of taking the pain medication, they find that their mind and body can no longer function without it.

Sound too simple? That’s how easy it is to fall prey to addiction. But why are painkillers so addictive?

Learn why people get addicted to painkillers and how addiction can damage and destroy an addict’s life and the family they hold dear.

Why Are Painkillers So Addictive?

Painkillers and the Mind & Body

Prescribed by a doctor to treat specific conditions, prescription painkillers are highly effective at treating severe or chronic pain. In fact, opioid-based painkillers are almost essential in managing high levels of pain because the body cannot generate enough natural opioids to control overwhelming agony.

When taken as directed, and when mindful of addiction warning signs, painkillers will safely control pain symptoms.

However, opioid medications affect every mind and body differently. One of the main reasons why painkillers are so addictive is because the body builds a fast and dangerous tolerance to the substance.

How Opioids Affect the Brain

Prescription painkillers (synthetic opioids) attach to opioid receptors in the brain and prompt an extreme release of dopamine – an important neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure system.

When the brain’s reward and pleasure system is flooded with dopamine, the entire body experiences a pain-blocking high.

By nature, the brain wants to repeat activities that trigger the reward and pleasure system. In turn, the brain equates consuming pain pills with pleasure.

The longer painkillers are taken, the less responsive the brain becomes to the substance. To reach the desired pain relief, a higher dose needs to be taken. This is how a tolerance is built. As the cycle continues, an addiction ensues.

For a more in-depth breakdown of how prescription opioids affect the brain, be sure to read our post on opioid addiction and the mind.

How Opioids Affect the Body

Long-term use of opioids can spell disaster for some important body systems, such as the:

• Respiratory System with respiratory depression and respiratory arrest
• Nervous System with hyperalgesia and psychomotor impairment
• Digestive System with constipation, gastrointestinal perforation, small bowel obstruction and nausea
• Immune System with suppression of the immune system, leading to an increased chance of infection
• Liver with the potential for liver injury or failure

To learn more about how prescription opioids affect some of the body’s main systems, read our post on opioid addiction and the body.

Mental Health Effects of Addiction

The National Institute on Drug Addiction reports that many drug addicts are also diagnosed with one or more mental disorders. Addicts are roughly twice as likely to suffer from mood and anxiety disorders.1

An addiction fundamentally changes the brain’s chemistry, altering how the brain functions and communicates with the rest of the body. In addition to seizing control over one’s mind and body, addictions can lead to a number of serious mental health issues, such as:

• Anxiety
• Paranoia
• Aggression
• Depression
• Other disorders

Addiction and Social Issues

Unfortunately, the damage doesn’t stop there. Addictions always seep into the unassuming lives of family and friends. When an addict is in the throes of their addiction, their priorities drastically shift. Family and friends no longer take precedence; the addiction is the only focus.

Addictions almost always cause a devastating downward spiral, resulting in:

• Loss of relationships
• Loss of employment
• Poor decision-making
• Criminal conduct, such as buying prescription drugs illegally or stealing from people with a prescription

When a Painkiller Addiction Becomes a Heroin Addiction

With prescription pain addictions, the goal is simple: get more pills to remain high/pain free. Even when a person has healed from a surgery or injury and is not experiencing any related pain symptoms, the addiction carries on.

Because the addiction started from a prescription, an addict must rely on their doctor for continuous refills. Eventually, all prescriptions cease, and addicts usually find themselves searching for a new way to replenish their supply or a viable, alternative substitute to achieve their high.

It’s at this point that a painkiller addiction evolves into a heroin addiction due to availability and affordability.

The danger of this substance evolution is the fact that the addict is no longer receiving their supply from a licensed pharmacist. Instead, the supply comes from a drug dealer who can mix household chemicals or even fentanyl into the product – making the drug use and dosage exponentially more dangerous.

Life-Altering Addiction Treatment at Covenant Hills

For any addict who wants to regain control over their entire life, you must believe that your life can begin again. It is our firm belief at Covenant Hills that addicts can recover from their disease and can rebuild abstinent, productive lives. Our faith-based treatment program focuses on your Whole Person Health, helping you restore your mind, body and spirit. Learn about our Christian drug treatment, or contact us for a free and confidential assessment.


1 National Institute on Drug Addiction. Health Consequences of Drug Misuse. Accessed April 21, 2018.