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Prescription Drug Addiction

Millions of Americans are addicted to prescription drugs. Many of these addicts are average citizens, with no prior history of drug abuse, who became “hooked” after first using the drugs for legitimate medical reasons. Now, having escalated their drug usage, they cannot stop. The destructive course of addiction rips at the thread of family fabric.

Most people who take prescription medications take them responsibly; however, the nonmedical use or abuse of prescription drugs remains a serious public health concern. Certain prescription drugs - opioids, central nervous system (CNS) depressants, and stimulants - when abused, can alter the brain's activity and lead to dependence and possibly addiction.

The inability to stop using prescription drugs is a characteristic of addiction. Although most people would stop using a prescription drug if they knew it had destructive consequences, an addicted person cannot. After prolonged use of an addictive substance, the brain virtually becomes “re-wired.” Accordingly, addicts are not simply weak-willed; they have differences in the way their brain reacts to drugs than do most people. Once started, they often cannot stop without help.

Common Symptoms of Prescription Drug Addiction:

  • Relief from anxiety
  • Changes in mood—from a sense of well being to belligerence
  • False feelings of self-confidence
  • Increased sensitivity to sights and sounds, including hallucinations
  • Altered activity levels—such as sleeping for 12-14 hours or frenzied activity lasting for hours
  • Unpleasant or painful symptoms when substance is withdrawn

Who is at risk for Prescription Drug Addiction?
The risk for prescription drug addiction is greatest among women, the elderly, and adolescents.

The following are also considered risk factors for prescription drug addiction:

  • Medical condition that requires pain medication
  • Family history of addiction
  • Excess alcohol consumption
  • Fatigue or overwork
  • Poverty
  • Depression, dependency, or poor self-concept, obesity

Women are two to three times more likely to be prescribed drugs such as sedatives; they are about two times more likely to become addicted. Seniors take more drugs than the rest of the population, increasing their odds of becoming addicted. Finally, recent national studies show that the sharpest increase of users of prescription drugs for non-medical purposes occur in the 12 to 17 and 18 to 25 age groups.

An estimated 9 million people aged 12 and older used prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons in 1999; more than a quarter of that number reported using prescription drugs nonmedically for the first time in the previous year.

Somewhere at this very moment, a mother agonizes as her adult son, intoxicated on tranquilizers, destroys yet another family gathering. Elsewhere, a young man is writing out his own sedative prescription on a pad he's stolen from a doctor's office. And somewhere within the walls of a respected hospital, a nurse is shooting Demerol into her own veins, while her patient unknowingly gets an injection of saline solution. The case scenarios go on and on. Legions of Americans are abusing or becoming addicted to prescription drugs.

Although prescription drug abuse affects many Americans, some trends of concern can be seen among older adults, adolescents, and women. In addition, health care professionals - including physicians, nurses, pharmacists, dentists, anesthesiologists, and veterinarians - may be at increased risk of prescription drug abuse because of ease of access, as well as their ability to self-prescribe drugs. In spite of this increased risk, recent surveys and research in the early 1990s indicate that health care providers probably suffer from substance abuse, including alcohol and drugs, at a rate similar to rates in society as a whole, in the range of 8 to 12 percent.

Chances are you, or someone you know, is struggling with prescription drug addiction. Maybe it’s your spouse, a relative, a friend, or a casual acquaintance. Maybe it’s you. Maybe you’re not even sure if the drug use has shifted from therapeutic to abusive.

Prescription drug addiction may be defined as a pattern of compulsive drug use characterized by a continued craving for drugs and the need to use these drugs for psychological effects or mood alterations. Many prescription drug abusers find that they need to use drugs to feel “normal.” The user exhibits drug seeking behavior and is often preoccupied with using and obtaining the drugs of choice. These substances may be obtained through legal or illegal channels.

Although many prescription drugs can be abused or misused, there are three classes of prescription drugs that are most commonly abused:

Opioids, which are most often prescribed to treat pain;
CNS depressants, which are used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders;
Stimulants, which are prescribed to treat the sleep disorder narcolepsy, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and obesity.

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