While the short-term risks of prescription drug abuse (e.g., accident, overdose, other medical emergencies, etc.) are serious, the long-term risks of continued prescription drug abuse are just as deadly. Some risks include:
- Physical dependence: Building a tolerance to a prescription drug can happen to anyone, and while it is normal, physical dependence can make it more difficult to stop using the medication. It can also trigger withdrawal symptoms that are uncomfortable or even life-threatening in some cases.
- Psychological dependence: A psychological dependency upon a medication is usually defined by cravings for the drug. Obsessing over how many pills are left, how to get more, or how to get the most high every time can all characterize a psychological dependence upon a prescription drug.
- Addiction: Physical dependence and psychological dependence together create an addiction, and when addiction is diagnosed, treatment is necessary. Otherwise, the negative impact of drug abuse harms every aspect of a person’s life: social connections, job prospects, legal standing, health, and more. Without treatment, few are able to stop using prescription drugs safely.
- Accidents: When under the influence of any mind-altering drug, the risk of accidents increases significantly. Car accidents, drowning, burns, falls, and more are a higher risk when someone is taking prescription drugs.
- Illegal choices: Addiction is defined by compulsive use of prescription drugs, and new laws and regulations have made it difficult to get enough to maintain an addiction legally. This means that many people who are dependent upon prescription medications are taking action that is illegal. That is, they may commit fraud and alter a written prescription or attempt to get that prescription filled at multiple pharmacies. Others may go to multiple doctors (even crossing state lines to avoid detection), seek out illegal pain clinics, or buy pills on the black market to augment their supply.
- Decreased cognitive functioning: Studies show that long-term use of prescription drugs cause long-term changes to the brain. The size and structure of neurons may change, which in turn can impact a person’s ability to function physically and emotionally without their drug of choice. While some of the damage may heal with time, not all the problems caused by ongoing prescription drug abuse can be reversed.
- Health issues and chronic disorders: Drugs of any kind are toxic to the body in high doses and over a long period of time. Opiate painkillers and benzodiazepines, for example, heavily impact the respiratory system, while ongoing abuse of stimulant drugs negatively impact the heart. Continued use of any of these substances can cause the kidneys to deteriorate, as well.
- Social issues: When addiction is the primary focus of someone’s life, it is difficult for them to have positive interactions with others. From friends and family members to coworkers and neighbors – it is rare for someone to be able to manage healthy relationships with anyone. As a result, isolation, frequent arguments, job loss, and divorce are all common.
- Financial struggles: Ongoing addiction makes it difficult to function at work – even if the person abuses stimulant drugs with the goal of increasing their ability to work long shifts or burn the midnight oil on a regular basis. Additionally, use of any substance, including prescribed medications, can interfere with a person’s ability to do their job safely, which in turn can impact the safety of their coworkers and/or the company’s bottom line.
Job loss and the inability to find a new job or maintain work for any length of time can lead to financial hardship. Foreclosure, bankruptcy, and even homelessness and poverty can result from an ongoing, untreated addiction.
- Heroin addiction: Due to the increase in regulations regarding the prescription of opiate painkillers (e.g., OxyContin, Vicodin), many opiate addicts have turned to a far less expensive resource: heroin. Heroin is also an opiate and creates a similar high in the user, plus it is far easier to get and far less expensive.
Similarly, those who are addicted to prescription stimulant (e.g., Adderall, Vyvanse) may trade in their pill habit for abuse of cheaper street drugs like crystal meth.
- Legal difficulties: Whether addicts engage in illegal behaviors and abuse their prescription or someone else’s, or abuse black market street drugs, they put their freedom at risk. Heavy fines, jail time, and parole/probation appointments and check-ins are all common among people who live with a drug addiction for the long-term.
- Overdose: Though a number of medical emergencies are potential problems for people who abuse prescription drugs for the short-term or long-term, overdose is perhaps the most feared, and rightfully so. Opiate painkiller or sedative overdose may cause breathing and the heart to simply stop – and never start again. Stimulant prescription drug overdose may trigger a cardiac arrest that is fatal.
Prescription drug addiction can sneak up on those who have a legitimate prescription and those who intended only to abuse the medications recreationally. No matter how it began, there are a number of therapies and treatments that can help anyone to stop using prescription drugs safely and start thriving in recovery. Most patients will utilize a combination of treatments based on their past history of drug abuse and treatment attempts as well as their goals for treatment and recovery. Some options include:
- Medicated detox: Whether the patient opts for maintenance medications (e.g., buprenorphine or methadone for the treatment of opiate addiction) or takes non-addictive medications to assist with the discomfort associated with withdrawal symptoms from other prescription drugs, professional detox is an important first step in recovery. Psychological withdrawal symptoms will also need to be addressed, and for this purpose, some patients benefit from antidepressants and/or anti-anxiety drugs.
- Evaluation and assessment: Treatment should address all the issues facing the patient in recovery, and this begins with a complete evaluation and assessment. Determining diagnoses from mental health disorders to behavioral disorders to learning disabilities and medical health issues will help the therapeutic team to assess the best possible combination of treatments and therapies to help the patient stabilize in recovery. From there, treatment goals can be created and updated as they are reached through treatment.
- Mental health treatment: If the process of evaluation determines that a mental health disorder is an issue, it is essential that the patient get treatment for that disorder while addressing addiction issues. Often, the mental health symptoms trigger the urge to use prescription drugs; similarly, use of prescription substances can contribute to or worsen mental health symptoms. Because of this, it is difficult to effectively address either disorder without dealing with the other disorder at the same time.
- Behavioral therapies: When a patient learns how to make changes to the perspectives and behaviors that are harming them, it can significantly and positively impact their experience in recovery and make relapse prevention far easier. Usually a one-on-one experience with a therapist who specializes in substance abuse treatment and behavioral therapy is an essential component of comprehensive care.
- Support groups: A range of group therapy sessions, including 12-step treatment, can help patients to become stronger in their communication skills, share their experience, and benefit from the experience and support of others. Connecting with other people who have been through similar struggles and who are facing the same road ahead in recovery can be empowering in addition to the topics covered and skills learned from the therapist.
- Alternative treatments: Non-talk therapies can be hugely beneficial for patients who need alternative avenues of understanding their experience in addiction, their co-occurring mental health issues, and family circumstances, as well as any other issues including trauma that may be difficult to discuss.
Additionally, alternative therapies can help a patient to focus on one specific issue that may be contributing to the abuse of prescription drugs. For example, if someone is struggling with finding employment and part of the use of prescription drugs stemmed from the need to escape the pressure to find meaningful work, then working with a life coach to identify career goals and interests may be beneficial.
- Holistic treatment: Almost every patient will benefit from incorporating a range of holistic treatment options into their treatment plan. These can help to lower overall levels of stress, providing stress-reducing coping mechanisms for the patient to utilize in the moment, and deepen one’s spiritual and emotional connection with the world around them. Some common options include aromatherapy, acupuncture, yoga, massage and bodywork, and others.
- Aftercare options: When treatment is complete, some patients are ready to return home and start their lives in recovery while others prefer to take a slower step, such as moving into a sober living home or choosing to take part in outpatient treatment. No matter what choice is made, all patients are encouraged to actively continue their therapeutic growth in recovery in the months and years following treatment. Few will be able to withstand the triggers that can end in relapse without ongoing support and therapeutic growth.