Prescription Drug Abuse: Who Gets Addicted?

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.

Continued

Some things raise your risk of prescription drug addiction. If, like Jason, you’ve already abused another substance, like alcohol or cocaine, you’re at higher risk.

If you have family members with addiction problems, your chances are higher, says Howard Forman, MD, a medical director at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. This may be because you've inherited genes that make you more likely to become addicted. 

People who’ve gone through childhood trauma, like physical or sexual abuse, losing a parent, or violence, can also have a higher risk. So might people who live in a place where prescription drug abuse is common.

Mental illness increases the odds, too. "If you give [oxycodone] to an anxious person they will be less anxious," Forman says. "After the pain has gone away... they [may have] become accustomed to a medication that is powerfully helping their distress. Now you have the makings of someone who could be 'hooked.'" People with mental health problems such as anxiety and depression are more likely to use painkillers on a long-term basis.

The availability of these drugs has given rise to addiction to them, and that can result in death. Today, more people now die from overdoses of prescription drugs than they do of illegal drugs like heroin or cocaine, says Jim Davis, of the New Mexico Department of Health.

"A lot of this is driven by availability, and basically there's a lot of effort right now going into trying to push that back down," he says. The number of prescriptions being written nationwide has jumped dramatically -- by as much as 400% in the last decade or so. By one estimate, 259 million prescriptions for painkillers were written in the U.S. in 2012.

"You don't want to interfere with legitimate treatment of legitimate pain," Davis adds. The question, he says, is how do doctors or loved ones know whether someone truly needs the pain meds or is misusing them?

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Joseph Goldberg, MD on April 02, 2015

Sources

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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Policy Impact: Prescription Painkiller Overdoses," "Vital Signs: Opioid Painkiller Prescribing."

Hall, AJ. Journal of the American Medical Association, December 10, 2008.

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Howard Forman, MD, medical director, addiction consult service, Montefiore Medical Center.

Jason, recovering drug addict, Texas.

Peter R. Martin, MD, professor of psychiatry and pharmacology, Vanderbilt University; director, Vanderbilt Addiction Center

National Institute on Drug Abuse: "Drug Facts: Prescription and Over-the-Counter Medications,"

"Popping Pills: Prescription Drug Abuse in America," "Prescription Drug Abuse: What is prescription drug abuse?" "Research Report Series: Prescription Drug Abuse," "Studies have shown that 40-60 percent of the predisposition to addiction can be attributed to genetics."

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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Addressing Prescription Drug Abuse in the United States: Current Activities and Future Opportunities.” September 2013.

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Wunsch, MJ et al. American Journal on Addictions, January-February 2009.

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