Prescription medications can be powerful aids in healthcare. They can help manage things like blood pressure or improve liver function, but they’re also powerful enough to be available only with a doctor’s prescription. All drugs have side effects, but certain classes of prescription medication have one potentially deadly pitfall — addiction. Yet, prescription medications are a normal part of life for a huge number of people. Nearly 46% of the U.S. population has taken at least one prescription drug within the last month.
Over the past few decades, America has witnessed a prescription opioid epidemic that has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands. But it’s not just opioids that are dangerous. Other prescriptions have the potential to lead legitimate users down the path of addiction, and learning how multiple medications can be addictive is the first step in protecting yourself from prescription addictions.
The Most Commonly Abused Prescription Drugs
The variety of prescriptions people misuse is wide, and it includes several classes of medication. These are the most commonly abused prescription drugs that can lead to addiction, and some of them may surprise you.
1. Opioid Painkillers
Prescription opioids are the medication most people associate with addiction, and for good reason. The problem is so widespread that more than 130 people die every day after overdosing on an opioid. These deaths are not all due to misuse of a prescription, but prescription opioid use is a known factor in the development of addiction to illicit opioids like heroin and morphine. These are the most common prescription opioids on the market:
- Hydrocodone (Vicodin®)
- Oxycodone (OxyContin®)
- Oxymorphone (Darvon®)
- Hydromorphone (Dialudid®)
- Meperidine (Demerol®)
- Diphenoxylate (Lomotil®)
- Morphine sulfate
Not many people realize that the painkiller they are taking is closely related to some of the most dangerous street drugs in production. These key statistics from the latest research show just how dangerous opioids can be:
- Between 21 and 29% of patients misuse their opioid prescriptions.
- In 8 and 12% of patients, misuse becomes an opioid use disorder (OUD).
- Around 4 to 6% of patients who misuse their opioid prescriptions make the transition to heroin.
- About 80% of people who use heroin started by abusing prescription opioids first.
This astonishing picture of prescription painkillers as highly addictive shows just how perilous they can be even when they were prescribed for good reason in the beginning.
How Opioids Work
All opioid drugs, both prescription and illicit, are derived from the same source — the opium poppy plant. That means heroin binds to the same receptors in the brain and body as your OxyContin does. The main difference is how strongly heroin binds, and how pronounced the effects are.
When opioids bind to receptors, action doesn’t just happen in your brain. These receptors are present in the spinal cord, gut, and other areas in the body. The reaction that happens when opioids bind to receptors blocks pain signals from the body before they can get to the brain. This leads to powerful pain relief, but that pain relief comes with a significant side of euphoria, allowing people to get high.
When people think of stimulants, they often think of street drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine. However, stimulants can be procured with a prescription as well. Drugs like Ritalin®, Adderall®, and Concerta® are prescribed to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children and adults alike. Due to the unique brain chemistry of ADHD, taking prescribed stimulants helps them focus.
Unfortunately, people without their own prescriptions also take stimulants. Stimulant abuse is the second most common type of illicit drug use in colleges, where students use them as “study drugs” to help them stay awake longer and cram for tests. Some people who abuse stimulants find they enjoy the rush of energy and liken it to a type of high. Chronic stimulant abuse has serious physical side effects, including:
- Problems sleeping
- Reduced appetite and weight loss
- Increased blood pressure
- Stomachaches and nausea
- Moodiness and irritability
- Nervousness and paranoia
Despite these side effects appearing even when taking stimulants at prescribed levels, some people continue to take more and more of the medication until they lapse into addiction.
How Stimulants Work
Stimulants, both prescription and illicit, work on the central nervous system. They increase the amounts of dopamine and norepinephrine, two important neurotransmitters in the brain. Increases in these chemicals block feelings of fatigue and improve concentration. Prescription stimulants, as opposed to drugs like meth, are formulated to produce only a moderate increase in these chemicals so people with ADHD can function. But if someone starts taking more than their prescription dictates, they can get addicted to the euphoria that comes with a rush of energy.
Benzodiazepines are some of the most prescribed drugs in America, and the problem is getting worse. From 2003 to 2015, the percentage of outpatient medical visits leading to the prescription of a benzodiazepine doubled, and about half of the prescriptions were written by primary care doctors. This drug class includes medications you’ve almost certainly heard of, such as:
- Alprazolam (Xanax®)
- Chlorazepoxide (Librium®)
- Clonazepam (Klonopin®)
- Diazepam (Valium®)
- Lorazepam (Ativan®)
Benzodiazepines are prescribed to treat anxiety, panic, and issues with sleeping like insomnia. They can also be used to treat seizures. This drug class comes with many side effects, the most common of which are:
If someone chronically abuses or is addicted to benzodiazepines, the symptom list gets longer and more severe, with side effects like:
- Feelings of depression
- Loss of orientation
- Disturbed sleep
- Irritability and aggression
- Impaired memory
By the time most people have realized the disturbing effects of long-term use, they are already addicted.
How Benzodiazepines Work
Benzodiazepines are psychoactive drugs that enhance the effects of a particular neurotransmitter called GABA-A. This activity results in a sedative, hypnotic effect that calms the nervous system. This effect reduces activity in areas of the brain responsible for rational thought, memory, and emotions — but also the areas that control essential functions like breathing.
Use of benzodiazepines can be safe in the short term, but if taken for more than a few weeks, the risk of abuse and addiction sharply increases.
How Are These Doctor-Prescribed Medications So Addictive?
Make no mistake — prescription medications are meant to be powerful. They are formulated with enough strength to treat severe cases of different conditions. Opioid painkillers might be prescribed to someone for pain after spinal surgery, and someone with a history of severe panic attacks might be prescribed benzodiazepines for intermittent use. When taken as prescribed by a conscientious doctor, these medications can do a lot of good for patients. However, the positive effects are due to chemical changes that also affect the way your brain processes rewards.
Everything we do as humans is driven in part by our brain’s reward system. The brain processes all types of pleasure, from the minor enjoyment of a good meal to the euphoria of psychoactive drugs, in the same way. Whenever we experience pleasure, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released in a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens.
Drugs, including the prescriptions we’ve discussed, trigger a flood of dopamine much larger than any natural activity can produce. The brain remembers the quick and easy production of pleasure and begins to connect the drug use to satisfaction in ways that reinforce the desire to use the substance again and again.
Over time and with consistent use of a drug, the brain starts to adapt to its presence in ways that make the drug less effective and less pleasurable. “Tolerance” describes the phenomenon of having to take more and more of a drug to feel the same effect as you did when you first started taking the drug. With opioids, this is particularly dangerous because tolerance diminishes the pain-relief effect of the drug as well as the euphoria. This leads to patients compulsively taking more and more opioids just to stave off unbearable pain, rather than for any real sense of pleasure.
Can Anyone Become Addicted to Medicine Prescribed by a Doctor?
Absolutely. People trust their doctors to provide the best treatment solutions for them, but that doesn’t always happen. Whether the doctor was simply careless and didn’t properly explain the dangers of addiction, or the patient mistakenly feels they can fudge the prescription numbers a little bit, anyone from any background can make the mistakes that lead to prescription addiction. These are three of the leading factors that may put a person at greater risk for addiction to their prescriptions.
1. Chronic Pain
Pain can’t simply be ignored. It can infiltrate every moment of a person’s life, making even the basics like making a meal or brushing your teeth feel like a torturous slog. When this pain is temporary, like in the aftermath of an accident or surgery, opioid painkillers can offer a respite until the person is healthy and relatively pain-free again.
If the pain becomes chronic, however, tolerance will develop and the person’s initial dosage will no longer alleviate the pain sufficiently. The person may start taking just a little bit more to get the same pain relief effects and continue upping their own dosage to stay ahead of the pain. But once the brain gets used to the presence of opioids, taking them away results in serious withdrawal symptoms. Eventually, opioid consumption becomes focused on avoiding withdrawal rather than actually alleviating pain.
2. Mental Health Problems
Depression and anxiety are the most common mental health issues affecting Americans of all ages today. More than 18% of the population experiences anxiety every year, while almost 7% struggle with depressive episodes. If someone is prescribed an opioid, benzodiazepine, or stimulant for other purposes, they might inadvertently find that the effects seem to dull the symptoms of their mental health disorder.
For example, someone prescribed a benzodiazepine to curb insomnia might find that the euphoric effects temporarily alleviate depressive symptoms. Even if this connection is unconscious, it can be enough to drive someone to misuse their medication and go on to become addicted.
You can be genetically prone to addiction without even knowing it. Genetics account for between 40 and 60% of addiction risk. Even if someone has no pre-existing mental health conditions and isn’t dealing with chronic pain, they may have one of many genes that increase the risk of developing an addiction.
You don’t need to have any of these factors in your life for addiction to prescription medications to develop. The fact is that these drugs were formulated to be powerful, and rampant addiction has been an unintended consequence of their ability to influence the body and brain.
Am I Addicted to Prescription Drugs?
If you’re worried about your relationship with your prescriptions, it’s important to evaluate whether you might be falling into addiction. When diagnosing a substance use disorder, medical and psychological professionals turn to the 11 criteria laid out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5):
- Using the substance in ways that are dangerous to yourself or others.
- Experiencing social or interpersonal conflicts caused by the use of the substance.
- Failing to fulfill expectations of responsibility at work, home, or school due to substance use.
- Experiencing symptoms of withdrawal when ceasing use of the substance.
- Building up a tolerance to the effects of the substance.
- Using greater amounts of the substance for extended periods.
- Trying to quit or cut back unsuccessfully.
- Spending increasing time using the substance.
- Experiencing physical or psychological problems due to substance use.
- Giving up activities in favor of using the substance.
- Experiencing marked cravings for the substance.
If you’ve met two of these criteria within the last 12 months, you can be diagnosed with a substance use disorder. Meeting two or three indicates a mild disorder, four or five is considered moderate, and six or more points to a severe substance use disorder.
The Warning Signs of Prescription Drug Abuse
Before addiction comes abuse. There are two closely-related terms to be familiar with — misuse and abuse. Misuse is the use of a medication outside of legal or medical guidelines. Misuse starts becoming abuse when it impairs certain aspects of your life such as by causing health problems or preventing you from carrying out daily activities.
Drug abuse usually causes changes in behavior that indicate you are on the path to addiction. These behaviors are hallmarks of addiction to prescriptions:
- Asking for refills early and frequently.
- Claiming to lose prescriptions to get replacements.
- Crushing or breaking pills for easier consumption.
- Stealing medications from friends or family members.
- Visiting multiple doctors, also known as “doctor shopping.”
- Forging prescriptions.
- Attempting to order prescriptions online.
In short, drug abuse causes a person to become consumed with finding and taking prescription drugs either to achieve some sort of high or stave off the effects of withdrawal. If you are the one struggling with substance abuse, you will start to feel like you’re not yourself. Moodiness and isolation are hallmarks of drug abuse, and if you find yourself spending more time alone or avoiding your friends and family because you’re abusing your prescription or recovering from the effects of taking too much medication, you are likely well on the path to addiction.
A variety of physical effects are associated with taking too many different medications. They may be difficult to identify in yourself if you are experiencing intoxication, but they can often easily be seen in others.
Signs of Opioid Abuse
With the abuse of opioids, symptoms to look for include:
- Nodding off
- Disorientation in familiar surroundings
- Digestive problems, especially constipation
- Depressed breathing
- Shortness of breath
Signs of Stimulant Abuse
People abusing stimulants are often unnaturally alert and energetic. Other signs include:
- Irritability or agitation
- Elevated body temperatures and sweats
- Hostility and paranoia
- Persistent insomnia
- Inexplicable weight loss
Signs of Benzodiazepine Abuse
As sedative drugs, benzodiazepines produce visible drowsiness and intoxication as a result of abuse. Other signs include:
- Confusion about time or immediate surroundings
- Impaired coordination
- Unusual, erratic mannerisms
- Impaired decision-making
- Poor judgment
- Impaired memory
When these signs occur in conjunction with any of the DSM-5 criteria, the individual is abusing medications and is well on the way to a debilitating addiction. The earlier you or someone you care about decide to get treatment, the better the outcome. It’s never too late to get the help you need.
Getting Help for Prescription Drug Addiction
The process of becoming physically and psychologically dependent on prescription medication can take anywhere from a few weeks to several years, but it’s a frightening experience no matter your circumstances. People struggling with substance abuse are often confused, worried, and afraid to seek out the help they need to combat their addiction. Many people also don’t realize that there is an effective treatment for addiction to prescription drugs.
The most important thing to do is to choose a facility that can facilitate or coordinate a medical detoxification. This step is necessary to get the medications out of your system without experiencing the most painful symptoms of withdrawal. The process of medical detox includes three main steps to help you get clean before beginning treatment.
- Evaluation: Medical professionals will test to see what types of medication you take and how concentrated it is in your system. They use this information to formulate a treatment plan specific to you.
- Monitoring: Your doctor will monitor your condition and administer any medical interventions necessary to keep your vitals in a healthy range and minimize symptoms from withdrawal to keep you as comfortable as possible.
- Transition: At the end of your detox, you may start to feel cravings. At this point, you will begin to transition to the rehab program and begin the work needed to continue through the rest of the treatment.
Another decision to make with thorough consideration is selecting a reputable rehabilitation center that offers inpatient treatment. Inpatient treatment is recommended for those that are currently struggling with addiction to prescription drugs, as it offers the structure and support of a drug-free environment that many people need to make recovery work.
Find Peace at Tranquil Shores
Addiction to prescription medications can bring your life to a grinding halt, no matter who you are. No one starts out looking to become addicted, especially to medications they were prescribed by a doctor for a legitimate purpose. Recovering from an addiction to prescription pills is a challenge, and everyone needs help to overcome it. At Tranquil Shores, we understand the unique difficulties associated with prescription addiction, and we are here to help.
Successful addiction treatment relies on addressing the whole individual and getting to the root cause. The Integrative Treatment model addresses the ways addiction affects every aspect of your life. This highly-effective approach is driven by evidence-based techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to uncover the issues that led to addiction and change your behavior.
If you’re done letting substance abuse dictate your life, contact Tranquil Shores today. We firmly believe in treating you with the compassion you deserve while offering you access to essential treatment methods to help you start your treatment off on the right foot. To learn more about our programs and what you can expect during the admissions process, call Tranquil Shores at (727) 888-6623. Don’t wait another day to find out how Tranquil Shores can help you reclaim your life.