Pain is common and we all experience it. It’s your body’s way of telling you that something is wrong when you break a leg, cut your finger or have another injury.

Chronic pain is different. Your body hurts even when there is no obvious injury, and it lasts for months, sometimes years. It’s not all in your mind – you really do feel pain. But the fix is not in a pill. Below are five negative side effects of painkillers that can actually make your pain worsen over time.

1. Over time, prescription painkillers can make pain worse

In the United States, we’ve been taught to think that when we feel pain, a pill will make us feel better. That’s true after you have surgery or an injury that will heal in a few days or weeks. But, you may not know that if you use opioid pills for four or more weeks, it makes you more sensitive to pain, which makes the pain worse. So, it’s possible that pain medication can cause pain – and it’s also possible to become immune to painkillers.

Opioids do provide relief by blocking pain. But as a result, your body reacts by increasing the number of receptors to try to get the pain signal through again. So when the drug wears off, you will experience more pain for about three days. If you continue to take opioids, the pills become less and less effective but the pain keeps increasing – not because of an injury, but due to the opioids themselves.

In addition, our bodies have natural opioids called endorphins. If your body becomes used to opioid pain medication, its ability to create and use natural endorphins will decrease, making your body unable to reduce pain on its own. Learn more about opioid addiction.

2. Opioids can mask emotional pain and trauma

Pain is often a mixture of physical pain, emotional pain and suffering. In fact, about 3 out of 4 people we see at HealthPartners RiverWay Pain Clinic have experienced trauma.

Emotional pain affects the same area of the brain as physical pain, and it can be very hard for the brain to separate them. Each of these parts, however, requires appropriate treatment and care to maximize healing.

Opiates can have the psychological effect of covering up emotional pain and trauma. And if you begin to cut back on your opioid use, it often amplifies pain and suffering, especially if you’ve started to rely on taking painkillers for depression or other mental health issues.

Sometimes the traumatic experience that’s triggering pain happened a long time ago. Trauma can put your nervous system in a state of constant heightened alert. If you feel constantly under attack, this response stays turned on even when you are not aware of it. This can increase pain, anxiety and sleep problems. So in treatment, it’s also important to include psychotherapy that will address the root cause of your pain.

3. Painkillers don’t build our resilience – which is key to feeling better

For years we wondered why some people become disabled after an injury and some don’t. The answer is that some people are more resilient than others.

Resilience is the ability to endure difficult experiences and adapt to challenges. And one of the best predictors of recovery is the height of your “mood elevator.”

We all have a mood elevator. When we take the elevator to higher floors, we experience attitudes and feelings such as being curious, energetic and grateful. When we spend time on lower levels, we are worried and irritated. Taking opiates for a short time can help create a state of well-being. However, long-term opiate use can result in dependence and lead to negative psychological effects like increased anxiety.

The first step in moving up the mood elevator is to recognize when you are tense and learn healthy ways to relax. This releases chemicals in our bodies that make us feel good, protect us from sickness and help our tissues rebuild.

4. Opioid pain medication can make sleep problems worse

Poor sleep is associated with many health problems. People who sleep less than 6 hours per night are more likely to be overweight, and they’re also at greater risk for heart disease, depression and other problems.

More than half of the people who have chronic pain, experience problems with sleep. Pain can make it hard to get enough good sleep – and not getting enough sleep can make you more sensitive to pain. If someone uses opiates for more than a few weeks, it can reduce the kind of sleep that restores your body. So, it’s important to get an assessment and treat any sleep problems you may be experiencing.

5. Opioids discourage movement

Many people stop moving in response to pain, but the best medicine is to keep moving. Daily stretching and movement increases your body’s natural fluids that lubricate your joints.

Physical therapy can show you how to improve strength and flexibility. We offer physical therapy at the TRIA Neck and Back Strengthening Program, HealthPartners and Park Nicollet physical therapy clinics and TRIA. And while complementary medicine such as aromatherapy or yoga are not cures, they can help you relax, which will help reduce pain and is good for your overall health.

Twin Cities pain clinics: Where you can go to get help for long term pain management

Chronic pain is pain that lasts for more than three months. If you have chronic pain, HealthPartners' pain treatment program can give you the tools to take control and manage pain without pills. We have pain clinic locations in Bloomington, Coon Rapids, St. Louis Park and St. Paul. Each of these clinics provides a range of services that treat the source of your pain. They include physical therapy, sleep medicine, mental health therapy, massage therapy and non-opioid medication.


Download our guide to pain relief and opioid safety

National Helpline 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
If you are ready to find treatment options for mental health or substance use disorders, call this number for 24/7 confidential help and guidance. You can also find a treatment facility near you through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.