Last updated: September 25, 2023
On one hand, painkillers have recently attracted a lot of negative attention, and for good reason. Did you know, for example, 80 percent of the painkillers consumed worldwide are consumed in the United States, despite the fact that Americans make up only 5 percent of the world’s population? Or that prescriptions for these drugs have jumped 300 percent in the last decade? When you add in the fact individuals addicted to painkillers often resort to heroine as a substitute, it’s easy to see why experts are concerned.
On the other hand, chronic pain, the most common reason painkillers are prescribed, is a real and debilitating medical condition. The supervised use of painkillers may be the only way a person suffering from chronic pain can achieve any kind of functionality. These drugs can also provide an important level of relief after surgery or an injury. So there are benefits.
Given the pros and cons of painkiller use, separating myths about people who take painkillers from the facts is now more important than ever. The most common myths include:
People on painkillers are pain free
Contrary to popular belief, these drugs may not relieve all pain. There’s a reason doctors call the process “pain management.” The idea isn’t so much to make pain go away completely—that’s often not possible—but to make the pain manageable, taking it from, say, a nigh unendurable level eight (on a scale of one to ten) to a bearable two.
People on painkillers look and act all doped up
While it’s true painkillers can slow people down and make them feel sedated, these side effects are usually mild and temporary. As a matter of fact, a recent study found almost no difference in motor skills and mental reaction time between healthy drivers and those taking opioid painkillers.
People on painkillers depend exclusively on drugs to relieve their pain
This isn’t usually true. Painkillers are most often prescribed in tandem with other pain-control strategies—e.g., physical therapy, massage, acupuncture, biofeedback, meditation, and cognitive therapy.
People on painkillers become addicted
The truth is, the vast majority of patients taking legally prescribed painkillers never become addicted. Those that do usually have a genetic predisposition—a family history of drug abuse or alcoholism, for example—preexisting psychiatric issues, or have demonstrated addictive behavior it in the past.
People who take pain killers need more of them as time goes on
Actually, most patients stick with the same dose throughout treatment. Of course some patients do become tolerant and require a larger dose, especially if they become depressed or their conditions worsen.
If you suffer withdrawal, you’re addicted
While it’s true curtailing long-term use of prescribed painkillers can trigger withdrawal, physical dependence is actually normal and expected. Because withdrawal is a possibility, patients going off painkillers should do so under medical supervision.
People taking prescribed painkillers for short periods can’t become addicted
While the majority of patients never become addicted, some individuals can become addicted with just one prescription. For this reason, many doctors prescribe a short-term course and ask the patient to revisit once that course is completed. Some doctors only prescribe the drugs during flare-ups.
People on painkillers don’t OD on their prescribed medication
This is a particularly dangerous myth. Patients who decide to increase their dosage without consulting their doctors place themselves at serious risk. As evidence of this, some 44 people per day die of prescription opioid overdose.
People who take prescribed painkillers don’t graduate to other drugs
As mentioned at the outset of this article, individuals who do become addicted to prescribed painkillers (somewhere between 5–25 percent of patients) often turn to heroine as a substitute, either because they can no longer get painkillers legally, or because heroine is cheaper and easier to obtain.
People who take painkillers would be better off without them
On the contrary, painkillers legally prescribed and closely monitored can provide legitimate medical benefits, especially for individuals with an acute injury and chronic pain patients who haven’t found relief with other treatments. However, given the possibility of addiction, close medical supervision throughout the course of treatment is a must.