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A man talking with a friend about his prescription painkiller addiction.

Painkillers and heroin are often used back-to-back. Learn why prescription painkillers can easily lead to heroin abuse.

Over the last decade, the face of opioid addiction has changed dramatically. What once was
dominated by homeless and indigent populations has now shifted into the suburbs, taking over
the lives of people who carpool to work and frequent Home Depot on the weekends.

A recent change in substance abuse trends around the country has seen the typical addict transformed
from destitute individuals to cops, nurses, and lawyers seemingly overnight. This new brand
of addict, struggling to break free from the grip of painkiller addiction, may seem shocking to some, but the root of the problem is easy to identify.

To understand how a painkiller addiction becomes a heroin addiction, we must first examine why an addiction to prescription painkillers started in the first place.

Why Do People Get Addicted to Prescription Pills So Easily?

Patients being treated for pain management issues within the U.S. have routinely been prescribed extremely potent opioid-based medications to deal with their issues. Typically, the use of prescription pills starts because of a very justified reason.

When individuals undergo surgery, experience a serious injury, or have chronic pain, they need serious relief to ease or block the relentless discomfort during the healing period. That’s when a physician will prescribe them pain medication.

However, without being properly informed of the addictive qualities of prescription painkillers, individuals begin taking the medication but soon find their tolerance building, and, with that, their addiction to the substance growing.

To learn how opioids fundamentally alter the brain’s chemistry and begin the cycle of prescription painkiller addiction, be sure to read our post on opioid addiction and the mind.

Painkillers and Heroin: Why the Transition Happens

After weeks or months of consistent opioid use, individuals find that their mind and body can’t function without their prescription pills. Even when they have healed from an injury or surgery and are not experiencing any pain symptoms, their addiction carries on. They find themselves needing more to achieve their desired pain relief or high, but, unfortunately, their prescription has run out.

Because purchasing an opioid-based pain pill on the black market, such as OxyContin, can cost upwards of $1 per gram, maintaining a consistent supply can add up to hundreds and thousands of dollars very quickly. Due to these back-alley prices, prescription pill addicts begin searching for a new way to achieve their high.

More times than not, individuals discover that a similar amount of heroin can be purchased for one-tenth of the cost of opioid-based pain pills. Simple addition tells these burgeoning addicts that heroin is a much more cost-effective option, and their journey from pain pill addiction to heroin addiction begins.

Painkillers and Heroin: How the Transition Happens

While this whole process seems complex and overwhelming, the origin of the addiction process can typically be traced back to a few key missteps made throughout the initial phases of doctor/patient interactions.

Poor Communication Between the Physician and the Patient

When an individual receives a prescription from a physician for a highly addictive substance, it is the responsibility of that medical professional to fully explain the dangers associated with a narcotic of this type.

However, more often than not, doctors do very little to inform their patients about the drug they are prescribing and the addictive qualities it possesses.

This fundamental lack of communication sets in motion a course of substance abuse that has routinely ended in the patient using the medication in increasingly larger doses, building their tolerance, and planting the initial seeds of opioid addiction.

Poor Oversight from the Prescribing Physician

The second misstep typically made is a lack of oversight regarding the patients use of the substance.

Without requiring weekly check-ins to monitor the patients pill usage, the physician is enabling the individual to begin using the substance more frequently as their tolerance builds.

Unbeknownst to the patient, the addiction continues to grow deeper roots, dulling their dopamine brain receptors and numbing their ability to reasonably discontinue their prescription use.

No Accountability Within the Home

Once painkiller addiction truly begins to take shape, the addict fails to quit using even though their prescription has expired.

At this point, the weight of addiction begins to spill onto an addict’s family. Unfortunately, loved ones don’t always recognize the warning signs of addition or choose to not speak up for fear they’ll offend their addicted loved one.

The inability of the addict’s family and social support network to step in and intervene on the addict’s behalf facilitates the addiction’s continued growth.

What You Can Do to Prevent Opioid Drug Abuse in Your Home

Education on opioid drug abuse and addiction is lacking across the board. Adults and children get caught in the opioid epidemic because of the absence of knowledge regarding how quickly opioid addiction can set in.

If you or a loved one are currently prescribed opioid-based painkillers, or preparing for a prescription because of an upcoming surgery or procedure, there are important steps you can take to prevent painkiller abuse and the potential for heroin addiction:

  • Be proactive in your communications with all prescribing physicians.
  • Monitor all pain medications coming into the home.
  • Properly dispose of unused medications in a timely manner.
  • Promote an open line of communication within the home so everyone feels comfortable asking questions and discussing their concerns about opioid addiction.

Opioid Addiction Rehab at Covenant Hills

Are you or a loved one contending with a prescription painkiller or heroin addiction? At Covenant Hills, you can remove yourself from the opioid crisis.

It is our utmost mission to help you return to the person you were made to be. Through a faith-based addiction rehab program, you can center your mind, revive your body, and awaken your soul. Stop your addiction for good.

Discover Covenant Hills and learn more about our opioid drug treatment programs, or contact us for a free and confidential assessment.


Gupta, Sanjay, Dr. CNN. Unintended consequences: Why painkiller addicts turn to heroin. Accessed July 13, 2018.