Prescription Drug Abuse & Addiction

There is almost no ailment that exists that does not have the option of a pharmacological solution. Whether in combination with alternative, physical, and/or behavioral therapies, prescription drugs can be a beneficial part of a comprehensive treatment program for medical and mental health issues.

For most patients, the use of prescription drugs is helpful, not harmful. However, if those medications are taken outside of the bounds of a doctor’s orders or if someone abuses those drugs without a prescription for recreational purposes, addiction can develop – and a slew of legal, social, financial, and health problems may result as well.

The more you understand about how prescription drugs work and the potential risks that come with abuse, the better able you will be to identify a drug abuse problem in yourself or a loved one that requires treatment. Here’s what you need to know.

Commonly Abused Prescription Drugs

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), some of the most commonly abused addictive prescription drugs include prescription painkillers, prescription sedatives and prescription stimulants.

Prescription painkillers

Painkillers or opiates, are drugs prescribed to treat moderate to severe pain. They are abused for the euphoric high they create. These drugs are abused by taking too much; crushing the pills before swallowing, snorting, or injecting them; and/or taking the drugs with alcohol or other mind-altering substances.

Examples of prescription painkillers include:

  • Codeine
  • Oxycodone
  • Hydrocodone
  • Morphine
  • Methadone

Short-term health problems caused by the use of painkillers may include nausea, respiratory depression, confusion, miscarriage, overdose, and more.

Withdrawal symptoms can include bone and muscle pain, sweating, vomiting, diarrhea, agitation, and more.

Medications including Suboxone and Subutex are available to treat prescription opiate addiction, but medication alone is not enough. behavioral therapies are recommended as well as long-term aftercare and support.

Prescription Sedatives

Prescribed to treat anxiety and sleep disruption, sedatives slow the brain’s activity and can be highly addictive. Types of prescription sedatives include barbiturates, benzodiazepines and sleep aids.

Examples of barbiturates include:

  • Pentobarbital
  • Phenobarbital
Examples of benzodiazepines include:

  • Xanax
  • Valium
  • Ativan
Examples of sleep aids include:

  • Lunesta
  • Ambien
  • Sonata

Short-term health issues caused by abuse of sedatives include confusion, low blood pressure, drowsiness, and slowed breathing. Withdrawal symptoms include rebound anxiety, seizures, and serious abstinence syndrome.

No medications are available to treat sedative withdrawal symptoms, but medical care is recommended in case of complications. Behavioral therapies can help the patient to remain drug-free for the long-term.

Prescription Stimulants

Prescription stimulant drugs are commonly prescribed to address the symptoms related to attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Increased heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure are common results of use.

Examples of prescription stimulants include:

  • Adderall
  • Benzedrine
  • Concerta
  • Ritalin

When misused, users may take these medications by swallowing them as is, or crushing and snorting or injecting after being dissolved in water. High doses of stimulants can result in seizures, heart attacks, and other medical emergencies. Long-term abuse of the drugs can lead to cardiac problems, paranoia, anger management issues, and/or psychosis.

Withdrawal symptoms may include insomnia, intense fatigue, depression, and/or suicidal thoughts or actions. Long-term behavioral therapies and relapse prevention are recommended treatment options to those ready to overcome stimulant drug dependence.

Statistics on Prescription Drug Abuse

Though it may seem that prescription drug use is inherently safe, the fact is that the prescribing doctor only prescribes these drugs in certain situations after careful consideration of past medical history, symptoms, other medications, and other issues. Taking these drugs without a doctor’s care or taking more than prescribed by the physician can lead to serious medical consequences, including death.

Consider the following data on prescription drug abuse:

  • About 52 million people older than 12 report having abused prescription medications at some point in their life.
  • About 2.7 percent of the US population, or about 7 million people, abuse a prescription medication every year.
  • SAMHSA Administrator, Pamela Hyde, said in a November 2011 CDC press release that an estimated 5,500 people abuse a prescription medication for the first time every day on average.
  • NIDA reports that in 2010 an estimated 5.1 million people reported abuse of opiate painkillers, 2.2 million people said that they had abused tranquilizers, 1.1 million people reported the abuse of stimulant medications, and almost half a million people said that they struggled with the abuse of sedatives.
  • The 2010 DAWN Findings on Drug-Related Emergency Department Visits released in July 2012 found that more than a half-million visits to the ER were caused by the misuse or abuse of prescription medications.
  • Alcohol and marijuana are the first and second most commonly abused drugs in the US, respectively, but prescription and over-the-counter drugs come in third as the most commonly abused substances by people over the age of 14.
  • It is possible to overdose on a prescription drug while taking the drug as directed by the doctor. In most cases, this occurs when the patient inadvertently takes two doses too close together, combines medications, or drinks alcohol while their medication is still in their system.

Dangers of Prescription Drug Misuse

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: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 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.
  • 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.
  • Legal difficulties: When individuals 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 addiction 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.

Treatments for Prescription Drug Addiction

Prescription drug addiction happen even those who have a legitimate prescription. 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:

  • Medical 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, medical 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.
  • 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.

Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.