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Are Painkillers Harmful?

Painkiller abuse kills a substantial number of Americans each year.

Heroin and painkiller infographic

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painkiller can be any one of a number of drugs, from over-the-counter (OTC) medications like ibuprofen, naproxen and aspirin to prescribed drugs like:

All painkillers carry risks — even OTC ones — but it’s the narcotic painkillers that carry the highest risk of addiction.

Consequently, painkillers can be harmful, especially when taken incorrectly. Painkiller abuse kills a substantial number of Americans each year, and this doesn’t count accidental overdoses and medical catastrophes. That said, Americans have a love affair with painkillers, and their use has bloomed since the early 1990s as more people can get hold of these relatively cheap drugs.

Narcotic painkillers remain a front-line defense against pain, and this means they’re routinely prescribed after major surgeries. Additionally, because many believe that the fact that the drug comes from a doctor means its safe and nonaddictive, the risk of addiction to these drugs increases.


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Short-Term Effects of Painkillers

Most painkillers that are typically abused fall under the opiate category, although tramadol is one that does not.

The effects are broadly the same: an intense high that differs depending on the way the drug is taken (snorted, injected as liquid, injected as powder, swallowed as crushed tablet, or swallowed as whole tablet), a period of partial sedation, and delayed reactions.


Side Effects

Because opiates and their analogs interact at the various opioid receptors in the brain, they have a wide range of side effects. When a painkiller attaches to the opioid receptor, it prevents a chemical known as GABA from being released. This chemical normally controls the release of dopamine, along with a couple of other neurotransmitters, which causes dopamine to flood the brain, creating the high.

Because opiates and their analogs interact at the various opioid receptors in the brain, they have a wide range of side effects.

However, this causes everything to relax, from the muscle in the iris (causing pinpoint pupils) to the muscles in the extremities (causing jerky reactions). It also reduces your ability to be able to react quickly and control your movements, so driving is particularly dangerous.

Being caught behind the wheel while on painkillers can lead to a jail sentence of up to a year and loss of driving privileges, depending on the state.

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