Lesson “Prescription Pain Medications: What You Need to Know”

First published 2016. To view the latest Heads Up content, click here.

Statistics show that the abuse of prescription opioids—a type of pain medication—is a serious problem in the United States. In 2015, 4.4 percent of high school seniors reported using the prescription opioid Vicodin™ for nonmedical reasons.1 More Americans die every year from overdosing on prescription opioids than die from illicit drugs such as cocaine or heroin. This article explains the risks of opioid pain medications and how opioids work in the body, and gives students advice about precautions that can lower their risk of addiction and overdose.


Download a PDF version of this lesson page and accompanying work sheet

Student Article/Informational Text:
Students will gain a scientific understanding of why opioids can be so effective at relieving pain yet so harmful when misused. The article concludes with tips for staying safe.

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> Leveled version (PDF) – grades 4-5 reading level
> Leveled digital interactive version
> Interactive Supplements

Student Work Sheet:
The skills sheet has students analyze data regarding opioid prescriptions and overdose deaths from these medications. Critical-thinking questions help them link the data to what they learned in the article. See the “Additional Tools” document (below) for guidelines and answers on how to evaluate student responses.

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Additional Tools (PDF):
Grade-tiered resources that support teaching this lesson and article:

  • Expanded Answer Key for Critical-Thinking Questions and Work Sheet
  • Tiered Adaptations of Critical-Thinking Questions
  • Academic and Domain-Specific Vocabulary Lists
  • Additional Writing Prompts
  • Expanded Paired-Text Reading Suggestions
  • Expanded Standards Charts for Grades 6-12


Science Literacy RST.7 Integrate information from a text and graph LS1.A Structure and Function Structure and Function in Living Things
English Language Arts W.9 Draw evidence to support analysis and reflection LS1.D Information Processing Personal and Community Health
Health/Life Skills
Math (Graphs and Statistics)



  1. Explain how opioid medications work in the brain. How are they different from natural endorphins in the brain? (Prescription opioids have a similar structure to endorphins, a type of chemical in the brain that blocks pain and contributes to feelings of pleasure and relaxation. Opioid medications act on the same receptors in the brain, brain stem, spinal cord, and other parts of the nervous system as endorphins do. These medications, however, have a stronger effect than endorphins; they are capable of blocking severe pain and flooding the brain’s reward center with large amounts of dopamine, which puts a person at risk for addiction. If too much is taken, these drugs can cause a person to stop breathing.)
  2. What are three examples of prescription opioid misuse and/or abuse? Cite evidence from the article. (Taking medication that was prescribed to anyone other than yourself; taking medication at higher doses than was prescribed; taking medication not to treat pain but to experience a “high.”)
  3. Why might abuse of prescription opioids lead a person to start using heroin? (Prescription opioid pain medications and heroin are both opioids and therefore have similar effects on the body. If a person becomes addicted to prescription opioids, he or she may start taking heroin to achieve the same result.)


Instruct students to use evidence from the article in their responses to the writing prompts.

  • Grades 6-8: What are the risks of misusing prescription opioid pain medications? Use evidence from the article to support your answer.
  • Grades 9-10: Use evidence from the article to explain why prescription drug abuse is as dangerous to your health as illegal drug abuse.
  • Grades 11-12: How is dependence different from addiction?




1SAMHSA (2014) “Results from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings.”

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