Preventing Prescription Drug Addiction
Many people believe that drug addiction only involves taking illicit substances, but this is not the case. The potential of experiencing prescription drug addiction is a real issue, both in and out of recovery.
Even if a person doesn’t desire to take a prescription drug to get high, taking them for a prolonged period of time can lead to dependence and addiction.
Using certain addictive prescription medications can also lead to taking illicit substances. For example, a national report shared that an astonishing 80% of people addicted to heroin had first used prescription painkilling opioids.
Taking prescription drugs cannot only form an addiction of its own, it can also pull people in recovery back out and into active addiction.
If you’re considering taking prescription drugs, and you have a history of addiction, it's important to be aware of the effects and dangers that these drugs can have.
What are prescription drugs?
Prescription drugs are drugs that are prescribed by a doctor, consultant or psychiatrist. Most of these drugs are classified as Class C controlled drugs in the UK.
Benzodiazepines, opioid pain killers and stimulants are just a few of the drug classifications that these medications fall under.
Every year, people are prescribed addictive medications for legitimate reasons.
For example, someone may be prescribed opiates after an operation, or to manage back pain.
Neuropathic pain medications can also have addictive properties, as can some mental health medications.
Often, people will take these medications without having any kind of hidden agenda. They don’t necessarily seek to get high, and they aren’t aware of just how dangerous and addictive prescription medications can be.
All too often it is the case that addiction will only really reveal itself when a person tries to stop a substance - and subsequently finds they cannot.
What are addictive prescription drugs?
Opioids and opiate painkillers
Opioids are primarily used to relieve pain. They work by interacting with the opioid receptors in brain cells. When opioids attach to these receptors, they essentially block out the perception of pain and increase a sense of feeling good.
Doctors typically prescribe opioids post-surgery, for chronic pain, or to manage severe pain. Sometimes, doctors also prescribe opioids to treat coughs and diarrhoea. Even though there’s a lack of evidence around the long-term effectiveness of opioids, some medical professionals continue to prescribe them despite the serious risks they hold.
Research shows that as many as 1 in 4 people who receive long-term opioid therapy struggle with opioid addiction. This is a very high percentage to consider.
Examples of prescription opioids include:
Benzodiazepines are central nervous system depressants and are essentially sedative medications. When a benzodiazepine enters the body it impacts the neurotransmitter GABA. This neurotransmitter creates a sense of calm within the brain and body. When a benzodiazepine enters the body, it magnifies the effects of GABA, slowing down the central nervous system and creating feelings of calmness drowsiness, or sleepiness.
Psychiatrists and doctors typically prescribe benzodiazepines to treat anxiety, panic, insomnia, and sleeping difficulties. Benzodiazepines are also used to manage alcohol withdrawal symptoms, treat seizures, as sedation before operations, for muscle relaxation and to treat depression.
Even though prescribing benzodiazepines is notably controversial due to their harmful long-term effects, they continue to be prescribed today. Research indicates that 4.8 million people struggled with benzodiazepine abuse in 2019.
Benzodiazepines are incredibly dangerous when used alongside opioids, yet this is one of the most common methods of benzodiazepine misuse.
In 2017, there were nearly 12,000 overdose deaths involving benzodiazepines, with 85% of those deaths also involving opioids. It is not uncommon for these two types of medication to be prescribed alongside one another.
Examples of benzodiazepines include:
Prescription stimulants are believed to work by increasing the levels of neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain. These chemicals are meant to increase levels of concentration and focus. Primarily, stimulant drugs are used to treat attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. They can also be used to treat certain sleep disorders. Stimulant medications are often misused in order to act as a “study aid.”
Research shows that 4.9 million people over 12 years of age misuse prescription stimulants within the first 12 months of obtaining them. Abuse of this class of drugs can be commonplace in students and in those that work excessively long hours requiring high levels of concentration.
Examples of prescription stimulants include:
What does prescription drug addiction or misuse look like?
Prescription drug addiction is very similar to any other addiction especially when it comes to the signs, symptoms and causes.
It is helpful to recognise the ways in which prescription medications can be abused. Abuse of addictive drugs regularly leads to tolerance, dependence and eventually a full-blown addiction.
Common forms of prescription drug abuse include:
- Taking higher doses of the medication than is prescribed
- Taking medication that belongs to a friend or family member with the intention of getting high
- Mixing prescription drugs with other medications, alcohol or drugs
- Buying prescription medication from illicit sources such as the internet or from the streets
- Continuing to take a prescription medication once the original issue has been resolved
- Altering the prescribed route of administration
- Using more than one doctor in order to get multiple prescriptions
If you or a loved one are abusing a prescription drug it is important to seek help sooner rather than later. Drug misuse only tends to get worse the longer it is allowed to go on.
When are prescription drugs appropriate to take?
Prescription drugs should be prescribed for two reasons - short-term pain relief and as a helping mechanism to stabilise a person whilst they undergo treatment.
Because prescription pill addiction can form in a matter of weeks or months, it is vital for a patient to have full disclosure with their prescriber. In instances where addiction or substance abuse has been or is an issue, safer alternatives should be considered wherever possible.
In some instances, often with regard to mental health and anxiety, drugs are prescribed with the intention of helping a person ground themselves. This is so they can effectively work through the underlying issues that are contributing to their condition.
It is important to note that any medication can only do so much, it cannot change a person's mindset, nor can it ‘cure’ certain ailments. At best, these medications can be used as a temporary crutch to help a person through an acute period of pain, whether that pain be physical or mental.
In order for these medications to work efficiently, physical or psychological therapy should be undertaken at the same time.
When to seek healthier alternatives to prescription medication
For many people, addictive prescription drugs can be taken safely, provided they are taken as a short-term measure and taken as instructed. For others, especial those that suffer from addiction, certain drugs can be a definite no, no.
If you are in recovery from addiction and need to take addictive prescription drugs, please ensure your doctor has the full picture. If you have a sponsor or follow a particular recovery programme, honesty and transparency are vital. It will also serve you well to keep an open mind regarding healthier alternatives to addictive prescription drugs.
What happens if I don’t take them as prescribed?
If you are prescribed an addictive prescription medication and choose to divert from the prescribed directions, you will be at a much higher risk of developing an addiction.
Abusing prescription drugs, whether it is by mixing them with alcohol or other drugs, or by taking them in higher doses, also puts you are greater risk of unintentional overdose, injury and death.
Once any addictive drug is taken continuously, tolerance and dependence can form within a matter of weeks and months. Becoming tolerant of a drug means that it will no longer have the same effect it did when you first started to take it. This may mean that the pain relief becomes insufficient, that you suffer rebound anxiety or insomnia, or that your mental health starts to deteriorate.
When drug tolerance happens, you may well be tempted to take more than is prescribed in order to gain some kind of relief. This then becomes a downward spiral as the body and brain continually adapt to function with higher and higher levels of intoxication.
Dependence on prescription drugs is a very scary place. Once dependent, taking any less of the medication than your body has become accustomed to will result in drug withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms, at best are extremely uncomfortable and at worse can become life-threatening.
It is at this point you may well be compelled to cross the line and start to abuse your prescription medication. You may well seek out additional tablets through illicit means or start to introduce different substances to increase the effects of the medication.
The effects of prescription drug addiction
Once addicted to prescribed medication, you will likely have to take it just to feel normal. As the amounts of the substance increase, so do the consequences. You may find that your mental, physical, social or occupational health and well-being start to suffer as a direct result of your drug taking.
The downward spiral of addiction can be extremely difficult to break without the correct help and intervention.
Especially with prescription drugs, the decline in well-being can be slow and insidious. It is easy to justify a prescription drug addiction when all the medications are prescribed. This is why it is often helpful to take a step back from the situation and ask yourself honestly - Are these tablets really helping? Or, are they causing you to feel mentally, emotionally, physically or spiritually unwell?
Taking prescription drugs in recovery
Even with all of the potential risks involved, many in recovery are on numerous prescription drugs.
Unfortunately, this can taint their ability to feel truly happy and content. These substances can act as a replacement for a substance that was previously being taken. It can serve the same purpose as their substance of choice, whether that was helping them to escape or to feel high.
Prescription drugs can inhibit a person's ability to experience true emotions, as they may reach for them whenever facing something uncomfortable inside.
Personal growth is a huge and vital part of recovery. Part of this growth issuing able to feel the full range of emotions, good and bad. This ability becomes compromised when taking certain addictive prescription drugs over any prolonged period of time.
Developing a prescription drug addiction has many effects, not only emotionally and mentally, but also physically. Below are some of the effects that prescription drugs can have.
Effects of prescription opioids:
Prescription opioids can have significant side effects, even when they are taken as prescribed.
Opioid side effects include but aren’t limited to:
- Slowed breathing rate
- Lower blood pressure
- Tolerance of the medication
- Dependence on the medication
- Withdrawal symptoms when trying to stop use
- Decreased sex drive
- Increased sensitivity to pain with higher doses
- Nausea and vomiting
Effects of prescription benzodiazepines
Prescription benzodiazepines can cause a number of side effects, even though they’re prescribed to many in recovery in order to help manage anxiety or sleep.
The effects of benzodiazepines include:
- Slurred speech
- Slowed breathing
- Uncoordinated walking
- A lack of orientation
- Sleep issues
- Memory issues
Effects of prescription stimulants
Prescription stimulants can have significant short-term and long-term side effects.
The effects of prescription stimulants include:
- Increased alertness
- Reduced appetite
- High body temperature
- Increased heart rate
- High blood pressure
- Irregular heartbeat
- Heart failure
Who is at risk of prescription drug addiction?
Some people are more likely to develop a prescription drug addiction than others It is worth considering your own risk factors before taking any addictive prescription drug.
At the very least, these risk factors should be discussed with your prescriber.
Risk factors for prescription drug addiction include:
- If you have ever suffered from an addiction or substance use disorder (SUD) - including alcohol
- You have a history of addiction or mental illness in you, or in your family. If you have a current mental health illness that has not been diagnosed or adequately treated
- Your environment - Are you suffering from stress or pressure in any areas of your life?
- How much do you know about addictive prescription drugs and the risks involved
- Your support network - Will you have support in place to monitor your prescription drug use and to help you when you need to stop?
Being in recovery from addiction naturally places you at higher risk of prescription drug addiction. Wherever possible it is best to avoid addictive prescription drugs.
If there is a real need to take them, in instances of severe and short-lived pain, then the following tips will help you to take them safely.
Preventing addiction to prescription drugs
There are steps you can take to prevent developing an addiction to prescription drugs:
1. Be clear and transparent with your doctor
Make sure your doctor clearly understands not only your current symptoms and condition but also aware of your history of addiction. Let your doctor know if you are taking any other medications or using drugs and alcohol.
2. Check in with your doctor
Touch base with your doctor regularly to discuss the medication’s effectiveness or lack thereof. You can also discuss whether the dose is correct, and when to taper off the medication.
3. Follow directions
Be sure to follow the directions you were given. This includes taking the medication at the designated time, and at the instructed dosage. If you find yourself wanting to take more of the medication, this is an indication that you may be developing a dependence, or you may be seeking relief that the medication isn’t giving you. If this happens, be sure to tell your doctor.
4. Don’t use someone else’s medication
If you’re struggling with anxiety, sleeplessness, or pain, don’t use a friend’s medication, even f they’re struggling with the same thing. Everyone has different needs and different predispositions. Your safes option is to go to the doctor.
5. Educate yourself
Before taking any medication, educate yourself on its intended effects and its potential side effects. Do additional research regarding its addictive potential, and ask your doctor any questions you may have. Be sure to be very transparent with your doctor, so that you can get prescribed options that don’t have the potential for addiction.
6. Explore alternatives
In order to avoid the potential risk of developing dependence and addiction to prescription drugs altogether, the safest option is to explore alternatives to these medications. This can mean taking medications that are non-addictive and don’t fall into the categories of opioids, benzodiazepines, or stimulants. This can also mean exploring alternative forms of healing, such as acupuncture, massage, talk therapy, exercise, physical therapy, anti-inflammatory diets, Ayurvedic medicine, herbal remedies, or naturopathy, just to name a few. There are many options to explore that lay outside of prescription drugs.
A final word on the dangers of prescription drugs
As previously mentioned, many people take prescription drugs thinking it’s going to be okay.
They may feel it's safe to do since it's being prescribed by a professional.
They may not even realise they’ve developed a dependence until they try to stop the medication.
In recovery, the priority is fostering mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual wellness.
If taking prescription drugs has the power to compromise this, it’s important to be mindful of any intentions behind seeking them. Always remember to be transparent with your doctor, sponsor, counsellor or any other person you are working with on your recovery. They can help you to explore the many safer alternatives you have at your disposal.
You can find help and support from like-minded others as well as free recovery tools by accessing our Recoverlution Community, which is completely free to join and use as you wish
Author - Thurga
- CDC Prescription opioids: https://www.cdc.gov/opioids/basics/prescribed.html#:~:text=Prescription%20opioids%20can%20be%20used,health%20conditions%20such%20as%20cancer
- Benzodiazepine Misuse: An Epidemic Within a Pandemic: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8294026/
- Prescription drug abuse: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/prescription-drug-abuse/symptoms-causes/syc-20376813
- Prescription Opioids and Heroin Research Report
- Prescription Drug Abuse Statistics: https://drugabusestatistics.org/prescription-drug-abuse-statistics/