Pain Medicine Misuse

When it comes to the misuse of prescription pain medicine, everyone is at risk.


Misuse means to take it in a way that was not instructed by your health care provider or pharmacist. It is possible to accidentally misuse medicine by borrowing a medicine from someone else or by confusing pills. Misuse can also include taking an opioid pain medicine to feel its feel-good effects.

Check out our tips on taking medicine safely to avoid accidentally misusing medicine

Risks of Prescription Pain Medicine

Opioid pain medicine reduces the feeling of pain in our bodies. At the same time it causes temporary, but powerful feelings of well-being in our brains. This feeling can lead people to use opioid pain medicine even when they are not experiencing pain. The exact reason why someone is more likely to misuse or become addicted to a medicine is not known. But factors, such as our personal or family history of addiction, disability, stressful life events, anxiety and depression, can all play a part. We may not be aware of any of these risk factors in our lives. But we may still be at risk of misusing these powerful drugs that can cause strong feelings in our minds and bodies. 

When taking opioid pain medicine for a longer period of time, you may develop tolerance. Tolerance means that over time you might need more medicine than you did before to get the same effect. Higher doses of medicine can be risky for dangerous side effects, such as dizziness and even overdose. With an overdose, your body is poisoned causing slowed heart rate and limited breathing. Taking opioid pain medicine for longer periods of time may also lead to dependence. Dependence means you have withdrawal symptoms when the medicine is stopped. Withdrawal symptoms may include flu-like symptoms, anxiety or body cramps. Risks of dangerous side effects increase if you take opioid pain medicine with other prescription and over-the-counter medicines.


Misuse can also include taking medicine to feel its feel-good effects. Early on, this behavior is typically a person’s choice. But with continued use, a person loses the ability to control their use. This is when a person may experience signs of addiction. Addiction is a treatable disease that affects the brain and the body. It causes changes in the brain that lead a person to misuse and crave a medicine, or other substance, even if problems arise.  

Some signs of opioid pain medicine misuse may include: 

  • Increased confusion or memory impairment
  • Sleep problems, including nodding off at inappropriate times 
  • Mood changes, such as increased agitation
  • Dizziness

Find more information about older persons who are experiencing medicine or other substance addiction at Health In Aging.

Be Prepared

If taking an opioid pain medicine, keep track of how it is affecting you. Check in with yourself to note any side effects or changes in behaviors that you are experiencing. Because of the side effects and risks of pain medicine misuse, it is important to talk about any concerns with your doctor, pharmacist, nurse, or other health care provider. 

If your health care provider is concerned about opioid misuse, they may ask you questions about: 

  • Family history of substance abuse or addiction 
  • Personal history of substance abuse or addiction 
  • History of mental illness, like depression or bipolar disorder

Take Action

Talk to your health care provider if concerned about opioid medicine use. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s website to learn about opioid addiction treatment options. Click here to use a search tool to locate a treatment provider near you.

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