Prescription Drug Addiction and Abuse in the United States

Prescription Drug Addiction and Abuse in the United States

It starts out with a backache that just won’t go away. A year later, what was an occasional pill popping experience, ends up being an everyday excursion. When the individual’s primary physician stops filling prescriptions for what is now phantom back pain, the individual may begin ‘physician shopping’ hoping someone will write that next prescription.

Drugs may be obtained from friends, in the healthcare field or otherwise, and when all of these methods are exhausted, well, there’s always your local drug dealer. Prescription drug use can turn into illicit use just when the person least expects it.

What Are the Most Common Types of Prescription Drugs Abused?

Prescription drug use has become quite common and popular in the United States today. In this article we are looking at the drugs that are more commonly used today. Drug use in the U.S., having said that, has been an issue for quite some time. In 2001, approximately nine million Americans were using prescription drugs for reasons that were non-medical. In 2002 six million individuals used prescription drugs which was only second to use of marijuana as per FDA reporting. This numbers, though they may seem high are not surprising. Whether one is visiting the doctor on a routine visit, the hospital or emergency room, 70% of the time, a drug is prescribed by the physician contacted. What does this mean? Drugs are easier to come by than they should be. Below we discuss three types of drugs and their side effects. These have been identified as the more prevalent types of prescription drugs abused in the United States.


This includes drugs such as oxycontin, percodan, percocet, and morphine. These drugs work by attaching to opioid receptors. These receptors, found in the gastrointestinal tract, brain and spinal cord can block the perception of pain. Opioid use can cause a euphoric feeling by affecting the parts of the brain that mediate what is perceived as pleasure. What may initially just be a pleasant side effect of medication can turn into a rush an individual comes to need or desires.

Consequences of Opioid Use

The most serious side effect is symptoms of withdrawal which occurs when an individual becomes dependent of the rush opioids can provide. Some of the symptoms of withdrawal include:

  • Restlessness
  • Muscle and bone pain
  • Insomnia
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Cold flashes with goose bumps ("cold turkey")Involuntary leg movements

A large dose of opioids can cause respiratory depression which can lead to death.

Central Nervous System (CNS) Depressants

These are sedatives and tranquilizers that can slow down brain function. They work by affecting the neurotransmitter GABA. These facilitate communication between brain cells and slow down activity causing a calming effect. This is why these medications are used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders. The medications that are more commonly prescribed in this category include:

  1. Barbiturates: These are used to treat tension, sleep disorders and anxiety. Nembutal and Mebaral are examples of these medications.

  2. Benzodiazepines: Halcion and ProSom are usually used for short term treatment of sleep disorders. Valium, Librium, and Xanax are prescribed to treat anxiety, acute stress reactions, and panic attacks. Benzodiazepines are not prescribed for long-term use.

Consequence of CNS Depressant Use

When one initially begins the use of depressants they may feel uncoordinated, slow and out of sorts. As the individual becomes more dependent on the medication, larger doses will be needed to maintain the ‘high’ relaxed feeling. If use is stopped all at the same time, the brain can start moving at a very fast pace. Or it may seem so to the individual because the brain had been moving so slowly to begin with. This activity can lead to seizures as well as other harmful occurrences. Use of these medications should be tapered slowly.


These are used to treat ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and narcolepsy. These medications increase energy, alertness and attention. They can also elevate blood pressure, and increase heart rate and respirations. Though these medications have historically been used to treat asthma, respiratory problems, obesity and neurological disorders, it has become apparent that addiction can occur. For this reason, they are not used as frequently.

These medications work on monoamines, a type of neurotransmitter. These include norepinephrine and dopamine. Stimulants enhance the effects of these chemicals on the brain. Blood pressure and heart rate increase as well as other components of the body’s operating system including glucose and the opening up of the respiratory system. This feeling of speeding up, elicits a sense of euphoria for the drug user.

Consequences of Stimulant Use

The problem with speeding one’s body up is:

  1. One will become used to such a high
  2. When one comes off said high, a drop or extreme fatigue may be felt

Withdrawal from stimulants includes:

  • Feeling fatigue
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Depression
  • Sometimes paranoia or hostility

What’s worse is the possibility of lethally high blood pressure, body temperature or in some cases, the possibility of heart failure or seizures.

End Result?

Though drug abuse may not be advisable or legal, it does occur quite frequently. No matter what literature one reads, they all say the same thing. Prevention is necessary however, when one gets past the point of prevention to addiction, the best thing one can do is get his or her loved one help.

Though it depends on the level and extent of addiction, in patient counseling is perhaps the best, way to go as it will hopefully ensure long term recovery. If one is debating what to do about treatment, simply refer back to consequences of abuse for each substance. The end consequence of use of any of these substances, in the end, is death.

Rachel Hayon, MPH, RN

Works Cited
Meadows, Michelle. Prescription Drug Use and Abuse. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. FDA Consumer magazine September-October 2001.
Prescription Drug Abuse in the United States. Power point presentation. Accessed 1st of February 2009.
Prescription Drug Use. Accessed 30th of January 2009.
Prescription Drug Use in the United States Accessed 2nd of February 2009.

Topic Discussion

  1. Addict

    Recent police raids and after the fact reports, seem to indicate that the abuse of flunitrazepam are increasing domestically, especially in the southern and southwestern States. The two primary concerns of course are that each tablet costs only $5 and that it is increasing in popularity with young people by leaps and bounds.

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