Prescription Drug Addiction, Abuse and Treatment

Prescription Drug Addiction, Abuse and Treatment

Prescription drug addiction is a major problem affecting millions of individuals in North America growing the demand for drug rehab, but there is not much awareness about the magnitude of the problem. Due to the nation having a major problem with other illicit drugs (like cocaine, marijuana, cocaine), prescription drug abuse has not been a major priority for both the health and legal professionals.

The non-medical use or abuse of prescription drugs is escalating and has become a major public health issue. Every single day, there are reports of deaths being reported from accidental overdose of prescription drugs. In most cases, the individual was abusing multiple prescription drugs.

Even though many of these prescription drugs have beneficial uses in clinical medicine, for some unknown reason(s), the abuse of a wide variety of prescription drugs will soon surpass smoking as the number one health problem in America. Hundreds of internet sites sell these drugs without a prescription. These drugs may relieve anxiety and pain, but when abused they can be lethal and just as addictive as other illicit drugs like cocaine.

The abuse of prescription drugs has increased exponentially over the past 2 decades and is just below marijuana, which is the most abused substance in North America. The prescription drug abuse has created problems at all levels of society and presents a major challenge to law enforcement, health professionals and families of those involved. Today there needs to be a legitimate strong willed approach to control the abuse of these drugs, because the problem will soon be out of control with devastating consequences to society.

Extent of Use

Data from the National Drug Threat Survey organization reveals that prescription drugs are illegally perted and heavily abused in most states.

Data from the pharmaceutical agencies indicate that at least 50 million Americans report the use of at least one psychotherapeutic drug (tranquilizer, sedative, pain killer, stimulants) at some point in their lifetimes. Approximately 7 million Americans over the age of 12 report recent (past month) use of psychotherapeutic drugs for non-medical purposes.

Drug Availability

Obtaining prescription drugs for abuse is not difficult and there are various means of obtaining the drugs. This includes:

  • Multiple Doctor shopping
  • Forged prescriptions
  • Via Illegal online pharmacies
  • Theft and burglary (from hospitals, residences, pharmacies)
  • Obtaining prescription from family and friends
  • Over prescribing by physicians
  • Unscrupulous physicians selling drugs

Prescription drug abuse is occurring at epidemic proportions in almost every state. Numerous government studies reveal that the majority of internet sites selling prescription drugs do not even require a formal doctor’s prescription. The drugs are bought directly from the pharmacy and there are never any questions asked and no IDs are required for purchase.

Commonly Abused Drugs

The four classes of prescription drugs that are most commonly abused are:

  1. Opioids, prescribed to treat pain,—(codeine, oxycodone, oxycontin, Percocet, morphine, Lortab, Vicodin
  2. Central nervous system (CNS) depressants -used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders (barbiturates, Valium, Xanax, clonazepam).
  3. CNS stimulants, treat the sleep disorder narcolepsy, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and obesity—(dextroamphetamine, Ritalin, Phentermine).
  4. Non opioid pain killers (vioxx, oxycodone, oxycontin, Lortab, Vicodin

Abusers of prescription drugs tend to combine other prescription drugs for abuse. This leads to more adverse effects and the risk of overdose is common.

Symptoms of Drug Use

Because there are numerous prescription drugs that are abused, it is impossible to mention all the symptoms, but some features are common to all prescription drugs. These features include:

  • Alterations in mood
  • Erratic behavior
  • Mental cloudiness
  • Confusion
  • Inability/excess sleep
  • Anxiety
  • Hyperactive, increased alertness
  • Suicidal tendencies
  • Alterations in physical outlook

Medical Problem

Just like illicit drugs, prescription drugs also have numerous side effects and toxicity from these drugs is common. On a daily basis, individuals are admitted to Emergency Rooms with overdose from the drugs, some of these overdoses are intentional, some not.

The majority of medical emergencies are related more to overdose. Once managed in the hospital, these individuals are stabilized and treated but the addiction problem is not catered to.

Like all individuals who abuse illicit drugs, individuals who abuse prescription drugs also deny that they have a problem. The majority of these individuals have premorbid conditions which are obvious but the prescription drug problem is hidden. The majority of these individuals may have social, emotional problems, stress, depression, anxiety, financial woes or familial problems.

A gradual change in these individuals may give a hint to their problem of prescription drug abuse. These changes include:

  • A change in friends
  • Declining interest in health
  • Decreased interest in school
  • Isolation from family and old friends
  • Repeated lies, stealing
  • Withdraws from social activities

Health Effects

The health risks associated with prescription drug abuse vary depending on the agent. Each class of drugs has its own particular set of side effects but in general the majority of prescription drugs can cause the following side effects:

  • Opioids: (respiratory depression, low BP, nausea, vomiting)
  • Benzodiazepines: (sedation, coma, decreased respiration, lethargy, mental confusion)
  • Stimulants: (fever, fast heart rate, increased BP, seizures)

Reports from emergency rooms across the nation reveal that individuals abusing prescription drugs are increasing. Accidental overdoes and adverse reactions to the drugs have accounted for the majority of these cases. In many instances, it was discovered that the individuals had been abusing multiple drugs of different classes, thus compounding the toxicity and increasing the chance of an adverse reaction.

Prescription Drug Addiction Treatment

The major dilemma in treating prescription drug addiction is that it is a hidden disorder. No one admits to using drugs. Because the problem is not recognized by the individual, helping the person is difficult. It is essential to see a physician as a first step in the management of the disorder. After this step the primary care physicians may help with getting aid from organizations which can help with detoxification. The physician can also refer to a drug rehabilitation center; many government institutions offer free medical help to treat the addiction.

There is no single type of treatment that is appropriate for all individuals addicted to prescription drugs. Treatment takes into account the type of drug used and the needs of the individual. Successful treatment may incorporate several components, including detoxification, counseling, behavior management and the use of pharmacological therapies. Multiple sessions of treatment may be needed for the patient to make a full recovery. Narcotics Anonymous is a great source for helping people fight their addiction.

Most individuals have to be realistic and realize that the treatment is dependent and takes time. Relapse is common and it is essential to have the support of family and friends through the recovery phase.

Legal Problems

In the last few years, the DEA has become more aware of prescription drug fraud and new regulations and bills have been passed to prosecute doctors, pharmacists and others who deal in the selling of these drugs without proper authority. Almost all the states have addressed the prescription drug abuse by:

  • Keeping a check on the pharmacists and record of all drug prescription
  • Keeping a track of all patients who require prescription drugs
  • Employ tamper resistant prescription pads
  • Maintain records of all electronically prescribed drugs
  • Target internet pharmacies and doctors who work for them

Most states have developed strict prescription monitoring programs, which can help prevent and detect the persion and abuse of pharmaceutical controlled substances. Recent bills have made funds available to develop and enhance the strict enforcement of drug regulation in each state.

The proliferation of internet pharmacies has also been noticed by the Federal agencies who have now become very involved with prescription drug persion. Both the DEA and FDA work together on criminal investigations involving the illegal sale, use, and persion of controlled substances, including illegal sales over the Internet. Additionally, the FDA and U.S. Customs and Border Protection inspect all parcels being shipped to US customers. In the last 2 years, many pharmacies, doctors and others have been criminally prosecuted for the illegal distribution of these drugs.


  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse, Prescription Drugs: Abuse and Addiction, August 2005
  2. Office of National Drug Control Policy, Synthetic Drug Control Strategy: A Focus on Methamphetamine and Prescription Drug Abuse May 2006
  3. National Drug Intelligence Center, National Drug Threat Assessment 2007, October 2006
  4. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Results from the 2005 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: National Findings, September 2006
  5. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Nonmedical Users of Pain Relievers: Characteristics of Recent Initiates (PDF), 2006
  6. National Institute on Drug Abuse and University of Michigan, 2006 Monitoring the Future Drug Data Tables, December 2006
  7. National Institute on Drug Abuse and University of Michigan, 2006 Monitoring the Future Drug Data Tables, December 2006
  8. National Institute on Drug Abuse and University of Michigan, 2006 Monitoring the Future Drug Data Tables, December 2006
  9. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Drug Use and Dependence, State and Federal Prisoners, 2004, 2004, October 2006

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