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Prescription Drug Addiction

prescription drugsPrescription drug addiction is a growing problem in the United States. Recent surveys suggest that the number of individuals abusing drugs prescribed by a doctor is greater than those using any kind of illegal drug, with the exception of marijuana. And while prescription (also known as Rx) drugs are intended to treat illness or to help manage pain following an injury or surgery, when used in the wrong way or in excess, the consequences can be extremely serious.

What Is Prescription Drug Abuse and Why are They Abused?

Prescription drug abuse is the use of any prescription medication for a purpose other than for which it was prescribed, for the feelings or experience that result from the medication. Use of a medication without a prescription can also be considered prescription drug abuse.

Prescription drugs can be as addictive as illicit drugs, and people who begin to use prescription medication recreationally may develop a dependency. Occasionally, individuals who began taking drugs for legitimate medical purposes may also develop addictions. Although physicians may do their best to prevent addiction and drug-seeking behavior, it does happen. Former First Lady Betty Ford and actress Jamie Lee Curtis are two famous examples of individuals who developed painkiller addictions following surgery and legitimate prescriptions.

Many people believe prescription drugs to be benign, and do not understand the risk for addiction or complications. As a result, many people who would never consider using illicit drugs are still at risk for prescription drug addiction.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that over 52 million people in the U.S. over the age of 12 have used prescription drugs for non-medical reasons. Many prescription drugs help treat symptoms of psychological and medical conditions. They may also cause painful or uncomfortable side effects, and they are highly addictive.

Why Do People Abuse Prescription Drugs?

Certain types of medications are commonly abused by people looking to achieve a certain state of mind. These may include feelings of:

  • Elation or “being high”
  • Relaxation
  • Freedom from anxiety

Because of how these drugs work on the brain, this misuse of prescription drugs can lead to drug dependency and addiction.

What Kinds of Prescription Drugs are Abused?

The most commonly abused Rx drugs are stimulants, opioids, and central nervous system (CNS) depressants. Stimulants are medications used to treat conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), opioids are used for pain treatment, and depressants are generally prescribed to treat sleep or anxiety disorders.

Stimulant Abuse

Stimulants animate the circulatory and respiratory systems of the human body, increasing heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration. This stimulation has the result of increasing energy and alertness, and helping the brain to focus. Stimulants are most frequently used to treat ADHD or narcolepsy, although in the past they have been used to treat everything from obesity to asthma.

When the abuse and addiction potential of stimulants became apparent, doctors began to prescribe them for a more limited range of disorders. Even so, stimulant abuse has become as significant a problem as the short-term physical and cognitive benefits of stimulants became common knowledge.

When no medical condition is present, stimulant use can lead to feelings of euphoria due to an increase in dopamine. Stimulants have also become popular with athletes, students, academics, doctors, and other individuals to take advantage of the increase in energy and focus that the drugs can produce.

Stimulant medications are the opposite of CNS depressants. They act to stimulate the central nervous system, making people feel more “up.” They’re prescribed for just a few disorders because of their potential for prescription drug abuse. These medical conditions may include:

  • ADHD
  • Narcolepsy
  • Depression (less common)


Amphetamines are one class of stimulants that include drugs like:

  • Adderall
  • Biphetamine
  • Dexedrine


The second class of stimulants are methylphenidates. These drugs include medications like:

  • Concerta
  • Ritalin

Risks of stimulant abuse

Stimulants are prone to abuse and addiction because they make people feel more energetic. They also cause people to be alert. Drug abusers use them to stay awake and feel exhilarated. Stimulants are commonly abused by people who need to stay up for long hours, like truck drivers. Students have been known to misuse them as study aids to keep awake and alert.

Stimulant abuse puts people at risk for several adverse effects including:

  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • Weight loss
  • Seizures
  • Insomnia
  • Heart attack and stroke
  • Tremor
  • Irritability
  • Anxiousness
  • Delirium
  • Hallucinations
  • Paranoia
  • Panic attacks
  • Aggressive behaviors
  • Digestive problems
  • Loss of appetite
  • Drug dependency
  • Drug withdrawal

Any potentially addictive drug can lead to painful withdrawal symptoms if you stop taking the drug. Addiction can also lead to financial and legal complications as dependents are compelled to pursue their drug at all costs. In addition, stimulant abuse can lead to hostility, paranoia, psychosis, elevated body temperature, or an irregular heartbeat. Nonmedical use of stimulants can even lead to seizures or cardiovascular failure.

Opioid Abuse

Opioids are a class of drugs that are generally prescribed to treat pain. Examples of opioids are hydrocodone (best-known by the brand name Vicodin), oxycodone, and morphine. Opioids are commonly prescribed to alleviate severe pain connected with surgery, but generally not prescribed for less severe long-term pain management because of the potential for addiction.

In addiction to pain relief, some people experience feelings of euphoria from taking opioid medications. Some attempt to intensify those feelings or pain relief by increasing their intake, or by snorting or injecting the drug. These behaviors greatly increase an individual’s risk of an overdose. If opioids are used incorrectly with other medications, they may also trigger potentially fatal respiratory depression.

Opioid painkillers are one of the most addictive prescription medications. Opioids are derived from, or found naturally in, the opium poppy. This class of medications includes codeine and morphine. Both of these are natural compounds as are the drugs from which they’re made. Prescription opioids include:

  • Morphine
  • Codeine
  • Fentanyl
  • Oxycodone
  • Hydrocodone
  • Oxymorphone
  • Hydromorphone
  • Meperidine
  • Propoxyphene

Some of the prescription painkiller brand names are:

  • Percocet
  • Dilaudid
  • Darvocet
  • Demerol
  • Lorcet

Opioids can produce a feeling of being high. It’s believed the roots of opioid addiction reach back for quite some time. Centuries ago, people abused opium for a euphoric feeling.  Opium is a mixture of compounds that come directly from the opium poppy. Prescription opioids provide the same effect. This pleasant sensation can quickly lead to drug dependence and opioid addiction.

Risks of opioid abuse include:

  • Slowed breathing
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Weakness
  • Dry mouth
  • Itchiness
  • Sweating
  • Constipation
  • Low blood pressure
  • Unconsciousness
  • Coma
  • Opioid withdrawal
  • Opioid use disorder
  • Death

All opioids have the potential for overdose. Fentanyl is much stronger than morphine and has a higher risk of overdose. It’s often given to terminal patients to ease severe pain. Methadone is used to treat heroin addicts. It’s also more susceptible to overdose.

CNS Depressant Abuse

As the name suggests, CNS depressants depress the nervous system, leading to a slowing of brain activity. These medications are useful for treating anxiety and sleep disorders, and the most common types of drugs in this category are benzodiazepines, non-benzodiazepine sleep aids, and barbiturates. CNS depressants are also commonly referred to as tranquilizers or sedatives for their effects on the nervous system.

Barbiturates and benzodiazepines can cause drowsiness and lack of physical coordination when patients first begin to take them. The body also grows accustomed to the effects of these medications over time, necessitating higher and higher doses in order to achieve the same results. As a result, physical dependency is a real risk. Rebound effects or withdrawal from these medications, particularly barbiturates, can be very serious and potentially even life-threatening.

Benzodiazepines (Benzos)

This class of depressants includes drugs like Valium and Xanax. They’re often used for anxiety and panic attacks. Benzos are usually not prescribed over the long-term because of the potential for addiction and abuse.


Barbiturates are another type of  CNS depressant. Barbituates include drugs like Mebaral and Nembutal. They’re used less commonly than benzodiazepines because they carry a greater risk of drug misuse and overdose. Medical professionals use them for surgeries. They’re also used to treat seizure disorders.

Sleeping medications

Sleeping pills that are not benzodiazepines is another class of depressants. These include medications like Lunesta, Ambien and Sonata. They cause fewer side effects than benzodiazepines and are less addictive.

Depressant drugs produce intoxicating effects that may lead to prescription drug abuse. These include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Less anxiety
  • Overall feeling of well-being
  • Lower inhibitions

Sleeping pills can also make people uncoordinated, dizzy and confused. They lower people’s blood pressure and slow their breathing. Sleeping pills can be very dangerous when combined with alcohol.

Risks of depressant drug abuse:

People with anxiety disorders may begin abusing depressants for the initial relief they provide. Over time they develop a physical and psychological dependence on depressants. Abusing depressants may cause:

  • Slurred speech
  • Slower brain activity
  • Blurry vision
  • Weakness
  • Poor muscle control
  • Headaches
  • Poor decision-making
  • Slowed breathing
  • Depressant overdose
  • Drug dependency
  • Withdrawal symptoms

If you (or someone you love) have/has developed an addiction to prescription drugs, or are uncertain if you have, it is imperative that you seek professional help immediately.

Posted on August 12th, 2012
Posted in Abused Drugs

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