Is it possible that you or someone you love is addicted to prescription drugs? Most of us take prescription drugs only for the reason the doctor intended. Nevertheless, an estimated 48 million people (aged 12 and older), according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, have used prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons in their lifetime. That figure represents approximately 20% of the U.S. population.
In recent years, there has been a dramatic increase in prescription drug misuse or abuse. This increase has led to a corresponding increase in ER visits because of accidental overdoses as well as admissions to drug treatment programs for drug addictions.
Addiction is a chronic, often relapsing brain disease. It causes compulsive drug seeking and use despite harmful consequences to the addicted person as well as the people around that person. The abuse of drugs -- even prescription drugs -- leads to changes in the structure and function of the brain.
For most people, the initial decision to take prescription drugs is voluntary. Over a period of time, however, changes in the brain caused by repeated drug abuse affect a person's self control and ability to make sound decisions. While this is going on, the person continues to experience intense impulses to take more drugs.
Which Prescription Drugs Are Commonly Abused?
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the three classes of prescription drugs that are often abused include:
Opioids used to treat pain
Central nervous system (CNS) depressants, such as benzodiazepines (e.g., Xanax, Valium, Ativan, Klonopin), used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders
Stimulants, such as Adderall or Ritalin, used to treat attention deficit disorder and narcolepsy (a sleep disorder)
How Do Opioids Work on the Brain and Body?
Since the early 1990s, doctors' prescriptions for opioid medications -- such as codeine and morphine -- have greatly increased. That increase can be attributed to an aging population and a greater prevalence of chronic pain. Other drugs in this class include oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), meperidine (Demerol), and hydromorphone (Dilaudid).
When they're taken as prescribed, opioids and other painkillers manage pain quite effectively. They can improve quality of life for people with chronic pain. In fact, using opioids for the short-term or under a doctor's cautious supervision rarely leads to addiction or dependence. However, when used long-term, opioids may lead to drug abuse with physical dependence and/or addiction. Opioids can also be life threatening. When they are taken with substances that depress the central nervous system -- including alcohol, barbiturates, or benzodiazepines such as Xanax or Valium -- there is a greatly increased risk of respiratory depression, even death.
Opioids induce a euphoric feeling that's usually mild. However, opioids such as OxyContin are sometimes inappropriately snorted or injected to increase the euphoric effects.