Prescription Drug Addiction & Treatment: Overview

Last updated on May 27th, 2020

Substance abuse has long been a significant health concern in the U.S., with high rates of abuse of drugs like heroin and cocaine. But drug abuse is not isolated to illicit substances.

About 6.4 million people are currently engaging in nonmedical use of prescription medications, which makes these drugs the most frequently abused substances after marijuana.1

What is Prescription Drugs?

Prescription drugs may seem like a safer option, but they can be extremely dangerous, addictive, and even deadly when misused. To learn about specific drugs, their effects, consequences of use, and how to find help for addiction, click on a drug below:

Are Prescription Drugs Safe?

man looking at prescription pills in pill bottleWhen used properly, prescription drugs can be safe and effective options to treat a number of medical needs. When abused, however, certain prescription medications have the potential to be very dangerous.

The risks associated with prescription drugs increase when a medication is misused by:2

  • Taking a prescription meant for someone else.
  • Taking medication to get high.
  • Combining your prescription medication with other drugs or alcohol to alter or counter its effects.
  • Taking a medication improperly by:
    • Taking higher doses of the drug than prescribed.
    • Taking it more frequently than prescribed.
    • Changing the route of administration (e.g., crushing and snorting a pill meant to be swallowed).

The 3 most commonly abused types of prescription drugs are:1,2,3

  • Opioids. In 2015, of the 6.4 million people abusing prescription drugs, 3.8 million were abusing opioids.Prescription opioids are prescribed for their ability to attach to the brain’s opioid receptors and reduce the perception of pain. When misused, they can bring on a feeling of euphoria (intense pleasure), which can perpetuate continued abuse. Examples of opioids include:
    • Vicodin.
    • OxyContin.
    • Morphine.
    • Fentanyl.
  • Sedatives. As a broad class, sedatives comprise several distinct types of medication. However, many of these drugs similarly decrease excitation throughout the central nervous system (CNS), including the brain, creating a relaxing or sleep-inducing effect. Sedatives are commonly prescribed to reduce anxiety or, in some cases, to alleviate insomnia. Examples of sedating or hypnotic medications include:
    • Benzodiazepines (e.g., Xanax, Ativan, Valium, and Klonopin).
    • Sleep medications (e.g., Ambien, Lunesta, Sonata).
    • Barbiturates (e.g., Luminal (phenobarbital) and Fioricet (butalbital)).
  • Stimulants. Stimulants boost alertness, attention, and energy. Stimulants are mainly prescribed for the management of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy. Examples of stimulants include:
    • Adderall.
    • Dexedrine.
    • Ritalin.
    • Concerta.

Several adverse consequences may arise from misusing prescription medications like those listed above, including:2,3 

  • Changes in thoughts, feelings, behavior, and judgment.
  • Unpleasant/dangerous physical side effects.
  • Overdose and death.
  • Long-term health problems.
  • Contraction of infectious diseases.

Myth: If a Doctor Prescribed It, I Can’t Get Addicted

  • Despite a common belief that prescription medications are safe because they are legal and come from a doctor, just like many illicit drugs, they can lead to the development of tolerance, dependence, and addiction.2,3
  • Some degree of tolerance and dependence are to be expected, even with someone taking medications as prescribed; however, these processes, should they go unchecked, are fundamental components of addiction development.
  • In a process called tolerance, the individual will need to take the prescription medication more often and at higher doses to maintain its effect.2,3 Over time, the brain begins to require the medication’s presence to feel and function well. At this point, the person is physically dependent on the medication and will experience uncomfortable or dangerous withdrawal symptoms when use ends.2,3
  • man looking at prescription pills on table
  • Dependence is a physical reliance on the drug. While it is often confused with addiction, it is not an entirely equivalent phenomenon. However, it is very often present in addicted individuals.
  • Addiction (clinically diagnosed as a “substance use disorder”) is characterized by an intense focus on getting and using drugs, even when negative consequences are likely to occur (or are already occurring).2,3
  • Many psychoactive drugs, whether they are prescribed, used as directed, or abused, can create certain changes in the brain.2,3 Additionally, many of these drugs interact with systems in the brain related to pleasure and rewarding feelings.2 Once the brain has changed in this manner, it can be extremely difficult to quit using. 

The idea that a prescription drug isn’t dangerous or addictive because it is legal and came from a medical professional is simply wrong.

When asked to think of an “addict,” many people picture an individual using illegal drugs like crack or heroin and living on the street, but in reality, there is an epidemic of prescription drug addiction in the U.S., and many people have become addicted to drugs they were given for a medical need.

In some cases, due to their pharmacological purity and potency, prescription drugs can be even more addictive than illegal drugs. There is also a risk that prescription drug users will move on to illegal drugs (e.g., an oxycodone user might begin taking heroin because of cost and availability). The bottom line is: the idea that a prescription drug isn’t dangerous or addictive because it is legal and came from a medical professional is simply wrong.

Can Treatment Help?

Addiction and physical dependence are serious issues, but they are manageable, especially with a professional, comprehensive treatment approach.4 Depending on your needs and how much support you have, a wide variety of effective substance abuse treatment options are available that can help you to:4,5

  • Understand and address the reasons behind your prescription drug abuse.
  • End your substance use.
  • Maintain a drug-free lifestyle.

people in circle of support groupSubstance abuse treatment is conducted as either inpatient/residential or outpatient programs. The various options differ based on therapeutic intensity, treatment location or setting, and program duration and may include some combination of the following elements:4,5 

  • Detoxification—focuses on addressing safety and comfort during the withdrawal period.
  • Behavioral therapy—builds coping skills and prevents relapse through the use of individual, group, and family sessions.
  • Medication—treats withdrawal symptoms, cravings, and accompanying mental health symptoms.
  • Support groups—build a sense of community and provide ongoing support in recovery through regular meetings with peers.

Each treatment plan will be unique to the individual.4 To learn more about treatment recommendations to manage addiction and dependence for a specific drug, click on any of drugs listed above.


Sources

  1. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2016). Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens. (2017). Prescription Drugs.
  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). Misuse of Prescription Drugs.
  4. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2012). Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition).
  5. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). Drug Facts: Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction.
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