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Prescription Drug Abuse

While you might associate substance use disorder (drug addiction) with illicit drugs like heroin or cocaine, prescription drug abuse remains a pressing concern in the U.S.

SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) reports that 3.5 million people misused prescription psychotherapeutics in 2020.

While the opioid epidemic has been most prominently reported and declared a public health emergency, many people also misuse and abuse benzodiazepines, sleep aids, and other prescription medications.

Table of Contents

What is Prescription Drug Abuse?

Prescription drug abuse is defined as using any prescription medication for reasons other than prescribed. This includes: 

  • Using a prescription intended for someone else.
  • Taking more of a prescription medication than prescribed.
  • Using a delivery method other than intended (snorting tablets to snort or inject, for instance).
  • Taken more frequent doses of a prescription medication than prescribed.
  • Using a prescription medication for recreational purposes. 

There are many adverse effects of abusing prescription drugs that differ according to the medication, including addiction in the form of substance use disorder. 

Now for some facts about prescription drug abuse.

Article at a Glance:

Statistics

The following prescription drug abuse statistics are taken from SAMHSA’s NSDUH  2020 (National Survey on Drug Use and Health) and from NCDAS (National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics). 

  • 2.7 million over-12 in the United States satisfied the criteria for opioid use disorder in 2020.
  • 3.5 million people misused prescription medications.
  • 14% of all substance use disorders are opioid use disorders. OUD includes addiction to both prescription opioids and illicit drugs like heroin.
  • From January 1, 2020, CMS (Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services) finalized the inclusion of Medicare coverage for treatment programs delivering MAT for opioid addiction.
  • From 2019 to 2020, past-year opioid use declined by 8%.
  • Almost 9.5 million over-12s misuse opioids at least once in a given year.
  • Hydrocodone is the most prescribed opioid painkiller, with over 5 million people in the U.S. misusing this medication.
  • If you take opioids for longer than three months, this increases the risk of addiction by a factor of 15.
  • Over 50% of those using an illegal pain medication obtained the medication from a friend or family member.
  • At the peak of the opioid crisis in 2012, physicians dispensed over 255 million prescriptions for painkillers. By 2018, the number of prescriptions declined substantially.

How does the abuse of prescription medications lead to prescription drug addiction, then?

How Does Prescription Drug Abuse Lead to Addiction?

Any misuse of prescription medications can cause tolerance and physical dependence to form. Prescription drug misuse and abuse can also lead to addiction in the form of substance use disorder (opioid use disorder or stimulant use disorder, for example). 

All routinely abused prescription medications activate the reward center in your brain. Sustained use causes structural and functional changes to the brain, potentially triggering dependence and addiction. 

If you use prescription medications long-term, tolerance builds. To achieve the same effects, you’ll need to use more of the medication, or you’ll need to increase the frequency of doses. Over time, this can create physical dependency on the medication. By this stage, you will need to continue taking the medication to avoid experiencing unpleasant withdrawal symptoms, starting a vicious cycle. 

When left unchecked, this can lead to addiction, a chronic and relapsing condition characterized by compulsive substance use despite adverse outcomes.

What Are 3 Warning Signs of Prescription Drug Abuse

The main warning signs of prescription drug abuse can be categorized as follows:

  1. Behavioral changes
  2. Issues with interpersonal relationships
  3. Financial problems

1. Behavioral Changes

Any abuse of prescription drugs can lead to the following behaviors: 

  • Irritability
  • Mood swings
  • Neglecting personal and professional responsibilities
  • Seeking early prescription refills
  • Seeing several doctors for the same condition
  • Disruption to regular routines
  • Frequent bathroom visits
  • Regularly changing work schedules

2. Issues with interpersonal relationships

Any substance abuse can cause an individual to isolate themselves or to lash out at their loved ones. 

If your relationship with a loved one is strained, this could be an indicator of substance abuse.

3. Financial Problems

Prescription medications are expensive. As tolerance builds and more of the medication is required, costs can spiral. 

If you notice someone close to you in financial trouble, this may be a red flag for prescription drug abuse.

The Effects of Abusing These Drugs

The effects of abusing prescription medications varies according to the substance in question. Three of the most abused classes of prescription medications include: 

  1. Opioids
  2. Benzodiazepines
  3. Barbiturates (sedative-hypnotics)

1. Opioids

Painkillers are the second most abused substance in the US according to SAMHSA. 

Opioid painkillers are highly addictive and are very open to abuse. Many people in the US became dependent on opioid painkillers like Oxycontin after pharmaceutical companies encouraged doctors and pharmacies to prescribe them to patients complaining of pain. 

When taken as directed, opioid painkillers typically help to manage pain safely and effectively. If you take this medication short-term as directed by your physician, opioid use disorder seldom manifests. 

Long-term use of opioids or prescription abuse, by contrast, easily leads to increased tolerance and physical dependence. This can happen within a month or two. If you attempt to stop using opioids, this can cause unpleasant withdrawal symptoms to present. 

In the event of developing opioid use disorder, professional treatment is required, typically MAT (medication-assisted treatment) and psychotherapy. 

If you abuse opioids, this heightens the risk for overdose. Even a single large dose can cause potentially life-threatening respiratory depression. Risks are amplified further if opioids are used in combination with sedatives or alcohol or sedatives. 

Abusing prescription opioids can also be a risk factor for heroin use. Nearly one-third of U.S. citizens using drugs for the first time began by using prescription painkillers.

2. Benzodiazepines

Benzodiazepines are typically prescribed for the symptoms of anxiety, panic attacks, and insomnia. 

This class of drugs includes: 

  • Alprazolam (Xanax)
  • Clonazepam (Klonopin)
  • Diazepam (Valium) 

Benzodiazepines are highly addictive. Dependence easily builds if you use a higher dosage over time. It can be hazardous to abruptly discontinue use, sending the CNS (central nervous system) into shock. 

Due to the natural process of tolerance to benzos building over time, you will need more benzodiazepines or more frequent doses to reach the same rewarding effects. When benzo abuse stops or is significantly moderated, intensely unpleasant withdrawal symptoms manifest. Benzodiazepine withdrawal can be dangerous and potentially life-threatening. 

It is advisable to undergo a medical detox for benzodiazepine withdrawal.

3. Barbiturates (sedative-hypnotics)

Barbiturates are sedative-hypnotics prescribed to treat seizures, sleep problems, and anxiety. 

This class of medication is not as common since the introduction of benzodiazepines as a safer alternative. 

Popular barbiturates include: 

  • Phenobarbital (Solfoton)
  • Pentobarbital (Nembutal)
  • Secobarbital (Seconal) 

Barbiturates can be dangerous if abused as they can cause trouble breathing, especially if taken with alcohol. This can be fatal if untreated. 

This medication is intensely addictive and stopping the use of barbiturates suddenly can have lethal consequences. 

If you or a loved one would benefit from prescription drug addiction treatment, we have a variety of suitable programs here at California Detox.

Prescription Drug Addiction Rehab Center at California Detox

However you started misusing or abusing prescription medications, it is never too late to stop and reclaim your life. We offer the following treatment programs to help you overcome addiction and mental health conditions: 

  • OPs (outpatient programs)
  • IOPs (intensive outpatient programs)
  • PHPs (partial hospitalization programs)
  • Residential rehab 

If you also suffer from a co-occurring mental health condition like depression or anxiety, research shows that integrated dual diagnosis treatment delivers the most favorable outcomes. Our dual diagnosis program allows you to address both of these interlocking issues simultaneously.

From a medical detox offering clinical and emotional care throughout detox through to structured programs at all levels on ASAM’s continuum of care, build the firmest foundation for recovery here at California Detox. 

Our programming draws from the following evidence-based therapies and interventions: 

  • Psychotherapy
  • Counseling
  • MAT (medication-assisted treatment)
  • Family therapy

Reach out to admissions today to start moving towards a life free of prescription medications. Call 949.567.8790 to discuss your treatment options.

FAQs

According to NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse), the most commonly abused prescription medications are:

 

  1. Depressants (barbiturates, benzodiazepines, sleep aids)
  2. Opioids and derivatives of morphine (prescription opioid painkillers, codeine, morphine, methadone, fentanyl)

Stimulants (amphetamine and methylphenidate)

The core reason for the increase in prescription drug abuse is the easy availability of these medications. Over two decades, the number of prescriptions for opioid painkillers increased significantly, from 76 million in 1991 to 210 million in 2010. In the same period, there was an even more dramatic increase, from 4 million to 45 million prescriptions.

Sources

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