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Substance Abuse and Addiction Health Center

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Prescription Drug Abuse: Who Gets Addicted?

By Amanda Gardner
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Joseph Goldberg, MD

Jason first became addicted to prescription pills when he was a teen, after a doctor prescribed a powerful drug to treat his migraine headaches.

"It took care of the migraine, but I found myself taking [the painkillers] even when I didn't have the migraine, because I just enjoyed that euphoric numbness," he says. He’s asked us not to use his last name.

Before too long, he says he was popping 45 prescription pills a day, mostly hydrocodone, a strong painkiller. But he also abused tranquilizers like alprazolam and diazepam.

He says his addiction became so overwhelming that he hit rock bottom: He stole pain medication from his mother, who was dying of bone cancer. "She would cry at me because she was in so much pain, but I had taken her medication,” he says.

That’s what it took for Jason to get help. He’s been in recovery for 11 years.

His path to addiction isn’t unusual. It often starts with a medication prescribed for a medical reason.

"The person had an injury or operation, they got a prescription,” says Peter R. Martin, MD, professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at Vanderbilt University. “They basically liked it and kept on doing it.”

That leads them to become dependent on the drug, needing more and more to get the same effect. “The next step is to go from doctor to doctor to try to get medicine when the original doctor says no,” Martin says.

Jason recalls visiting several doctors in one day to get enough pills to fuel his habit -- a practice called "doctor shopping."

Who Could Be at Risk?

It's hard to know how many people in the U.S. are hooked on prescription drugs. That’s because only overdoses can be easily tracked. But based on those numbers, experts think that more than 8 and half million Americans abuse such meds. And they often start young. About 8% of high-school seniors said they used the painkiller hydrocodone for nonmedical reasons during the past year.

There’s no way to know who will become addicted. Some people use prescription pain pills -- and even misuse them for a short time -- but don’t become hooked.

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