Prescription Drug Addiction

A person can become addicted to prescription drugs – whether used for a medical condition for which the drugs have been prescribed, or used for nonmedical purposes (to get high).

Prescription drug addiction occurs often among the young and old – for very different reasons. Young people may feel the need to experiment, to go along with the crowd (peer pressure), want to numb out or lose their inhibitions. They may try prescription drugs because they’re easier to get (readily available in their parents’ medicine cabinets or in the homes of friends), cheaper to buy (friends often sell or trade among themselves), and don’t subject them to buying illegal drugs off the street in questionable areas. Elderly individuals may suffer from cognitive impairment as a result of age-related medical conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease, or may double-up doses or take them in the wrong sequence, take medications in conjunction with alcohol or other medications, causing side effects.

No one, however, chooses to become addicted to prescription drugs. Addiction can follow as a result of an accident, injury, or surgery. Here’s how it happens. Many times patients are prescribed medications following surgery to help alleviate pain and to promote the healing process. When used for a certain period of time, the effect (numbing of pain, for example) wears off with the result that the person needs to take more of the medication and more often in order to achieve the desired effect. This is called tolerance. As the individual takes the prescription drug for longer periods of time, and in increasing amounts and frequency, dependence or addiction occurs.

Commonly Abused Classes of Prescription Medications

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) lists the classes of medications that are most commonly abused. These include:

  • Opioids or pain relievers – Examples include: hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxycodone (OxyContin), propoxyphene (Darvon), hydromorphone (Dilaudid), meperidine (Demerol), and diphenoxylate (Lomotil).
  • Central Nervous System Depressants (CNS) – for anxiety and sleep disorders. Examples include: barbiturates, such as pentobarbital sodium (Nembutal), and benzodiazepines such as diazepam (Valium) and alprazolam (Xanax).
  • Stimulants – for ADHD and narcolepsy. Examples include: dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine), methylphenidate (Ritalin and Concerta), and amphetamines (Adderall).

Many of the commonly abused prescription medications are classified as Schedule II Controlled Substances under Federal and state guidelines, monitored and enforced by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). A Schedule II controlled substance has a high potential for abuse, has currently accepted medical use for treatment in the United States or has currently accepted medical use with severe restrictions, and abuse of the substance may lead to severe psychological or physical dependence.

Prevalence of Prescription Drug Addiction

The 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), found that 15.2 million Americans aged 12 or older had taken a prescription pain reliever, tranquilizer, stimulant, or sedative at least once during the year prior to being surveyed.

In 2008, according to the same study, 1.7 million Americans aged 12 or older were classified with dependence upon or abuse of pain relievers. Those who sought treatment for substance abuse in 2008 included 601,000 for abuse of pain relievers, 336,000 for stimulants, and 326,000 for tranquilizers.

Drug addiction is a progressive and deadly disease.

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