Painkillers Kill More Than Just Pain

By on January 4, 2017


Opioid (painkillers) overdoses now kill more people than cocaine or heroin.

In many medicine cabinets, sitting right alongside our toothpaste and eye creams are opaque amber bottles of Percocet, Vicodin, or Demerol. Though the commonly prescribed drugs help to heal immediate acute pain caused by everything from oral surgery to broken bones, they’ve become some of the most addictive, and lately deadliest, medications around. The new opioid epidemic that’s developed into a public health crisis prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to publish its first set of national standards advising doctors not to prescribe the addictive painkillers for long-lasting or chronic pain, to limit supplies for short-term use to three days, and to avoid writing scripts for longer than seven days.

On average, 44 people in the U.S. die every day from an overdose of opioid prescription painkillers. This is double the number of deaths from heroin overdose.

Over-the-counter pain relievers are great for ordinary aches and pains, but for severe, unrelenting pain that interferes with daily life, you may need something stronger. In such cases, people may end up taking medications called opioids, which block pain perception in the brain.

What is a drug?

A drug is any chemical you take that affects the way your body works. Alcohol, caffeine, aspirin and nicotine are all drugs. A drug must be able to pass from your body into your brain. Once inside your brain, drugs can change the messages your brain cells are sending to each other, and to the rest of your body. They do this by interfering with your brain’s own chemical signals: neurotransmitters that transfer signals across synapses.

How do painkillers work?

When part of your body is injured, special nerve endings send pain messages back to your brain. Painkilling drugs interfere with these messages, either at the site of the injury, in the spinal cord or in the brain itself. Many painkillers are based on one of two naturally occurring drugs: aspirin and opiates. Aspirin uses a chemical found in willow bark, used by the Ancient Greeks to relieve pain. Opiates all work in a similar way to opium, which is extracted from poppies.

How do opioids work?

These drugs are easily absorbed through the gastrointestinal tract and attach to one or more of the four types of opiate receptors in the brain. When receptors are stimulated, they reduce pain without eliminating its cause. They produce sleepiness, euphoria and respiratory depression. And they slow gut function, leading to constipation. Peak effects generally are reached in 10 minutes if taken intravenously—30-45 minutes with an intramuscular injection, and 90 minutes by mouth.

Common opioid pain relievers

Medication Formulation
Codeine Tablet, capsule, or liquid, often combined with other medications.
Fentanyl (Abstral, Actiq, Duragesic, Fentora, Lazanda, Onsolis, Sublimaze, Subsys) Injection, intravenous infusion, transdermal (skin) patch, oral lozenge, dissolving oral film or tablet, oral or nasal spray.
Hydrocodone (Lortab, Lorcet, Vicodin, Zohydro ER, and dozens of others) Tablets containing just hydrocodone or combined with other pain relievers, such as acetaminophen, aspirin, and ibuprofen.
Hydromorphone (Dilaudid, Exalgo, Hydrostat IR, and others) Tablet or capsule, injection, intravenous infusion, oral liquid, rectal suppository.
Morphine (Avinza, Kadian, MS-Contin, Oramorph SR, Roxanol, and others) Tablet or capsule, injection, intravenous infusion, oral liquid, rectal suppository.
Oxycodone (Oxecta, OxyContin, Percocet, Percodan, Roxicodone, and many others) Tablets containing just oxycodone or combined with other pain relievers, such as acetaminophen, aspirin, and ibuprofen.
Tramadol (ConZip, Rybix ODT, Ultracet, Ultram) Tablet or capsule. Ultracet combines tramadol and acetaminophen.


These medications are dangerous because the difference between the amount needed to feel their effects and the amount needed to kill a person is small and unpredictable.

Source: National Safety Council

Sources of Painkillers
graph showing where abused painkilles are obtained
The 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health revealed that when painkillers are used for nonmedical reasons, they are usually obtained from a friend or family member.

Source: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

Pain is the most common reason people seek medical treatment. Patients often want the most potent painkillers— opioid drugs. There are many reasons why you should try safer medications before taking opioid painkillers. Misuse and abuse of opioid painkillers is the fastest growing drug problem in the United States. Since 2003, more overdose deaths have involved opioid painkillers than heroin and cocaine combined. This epidemic parallels the huge increase in the number of prescriptions written for opioid medications during the past decade.

Doctors agree that painkillers are valuable early–up to seven days- following injury or surgery. But after that, is where a problem could develop. The best way to approach this is to have a plan. And a huge part of this plan is to investigate alternatives.

An excellent place to start is to look closely at something close to home–take a good look at the foods you are eating.

Stay tuned because that’s exactly where we are going!

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