One of the great things about advancements in research and technology is the parallel advancements in the field of medical treatments for certain illnesses and diseases. However, some of these advancements are also proving to be the source of some of the greatest harm to individuals, specifically prescription medications. While these medications are designed, formulated and intended to treat a broad range of medical and psychological problems, there are two important facts to be considered: medications may do more to suppress or numb the undesirable sensations related to an issue than they do actually to address and resolve the problem, and medications are drugs – substances designed to create physiological changes in the body. Some medications have mind-altering properties and are therefore often abused, by both the individual for whom they were prescribed as well as by other persons for whom they weren’t intended.
Medical doctors often state that if the medications are only taken exactly as prescribed and if any adverse side effects or reactions are reported to the physician, there is little risk of abuse or addiction. While this may be true in certain cases, it could be compared to placing a plate of cookies before a group of children and expecting them not to touch them because you said so. In some cases, this statement has been proven completely false when individuals follow their doctor’s orders precisely and yet still fall into the trap of prescription medication addiction. The fact is that prescription and over-the-counter medications are the third-most commonly abused substances in America after marijuana and alcohol.
Commonly Abused Prescription Medications and Their Effects
Not all prescription and over-the-counter medications have mind-altering properties or a high risk of abuse or addiction. There are five primary classes of medications that are most commonly abused:
Opioid pain relievers
This class includes drugs like Vicodin and Oxycontin, which contain opium or opium-like substances to bind the opioid receptors in the brain and suppress the body’s ability to communicate pain. These drugs are sometimes illegally sold on the street and can be as dangerous and addictive as the opiate drug heroin. Opioid pain relievers can cause drowsiness, constipation, unconsciousness, nausea, coma, and depressed respiration. Furthermore, withdrawal from opioid pain relievers can cause restlessness, muscle and bone pain, insomnia, diarrhea, vomiting, cold flashes with goose bumps and more. Statistics from the National Institute on Drug Abuse indicate that more people die from a prescription opioid overdose than all other drugs combined, including cocaine and heroin.
Stimulants used in treating Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
This class includes medications like Adderall, Concerta, and Ritalin. These drugs are intended to increase the individual’s energy and alertness but are also known to have marked effects on the cardiovascular system. Stimulants can cause hyperthermia (an increase in body temperature), irregular heartbeat, exhaustion, apathy, depression, heart failure, seizures, hostility and feelings of paranoia.
Antidepressants used to treat depression
This class includes medications like Prozac, Paxil, Celexa, Zoloft, Effexor and Remeron. Antidepressants can cause insomnia, irritability, nervousness, anxiety, violent thoughts, and actions, agitation, suicidal thoughts or suicide, tremors, hostility, sweating, irregular heartbeat, aggression, criminal behavior, confusion, paranoia, hallucinations, psychosis and more. Withdrawal symptoms from antidepressants include suicidal thoughts, aggression, anxiety, depression, crying spells, insomnia, dizziness, vomiting, headaches, tremors, and electric sensations in the brain.
Anxiety-relieving central nervous system (CNS) depressants
This class includes medications like Valium and Xanax. Drugs in this class slow brain function to make an anxious individual feel calm and drowsy. CNS depressants can cause sleepiness, slowed pulse and breathing, lowered blood pressure, poor concentration, confusion, dizziness, slurred speech, fever, visual disturbances, depression, loss of memory, irritability, paranoia, suicidal thoughts, agitation, aggression, disorientation and a loss of coordination.
Over-the-Counter Cough and cold remedies containing dextromethorphan
This class includes a cough and cold medications like Robitussin. Dextromethorphan can cause impaired motor function, numbness, nausea, vomiting, increased heart rate, increased blood pressure and sometimes even brain damage caused by a lack of oxygen to the brain.
Abuse of Prescription Medication
Many individuals begin to misuse prescription medication because they are operating under the erroneous belief that an FDA-approved medication which is recommended by a medical professional cannot possibly cause them harm, and is certainly safer than illicit drugs. They may obtain and abuse prescription medication in the following ways:
Taking prescription medication that is prescribed for someone else – In some cases, a family member or friend will give some of their prescription drug to the individual, thinking it is safe and helpful to do so.
Taking higher doses of prescription medication than recommended – An individual taking a prescription painkiller may eventually discover that the medication fails to relieve their pain as it once did, and may “solve” this problem by taking a higher dose than recommended rather than contacting their doctor.
Taking prescription medication in a manner other than intended – Prescription medication is usually in tablet form and intended for oral use. In some cases, the tablet has a time release mechanism that can be destroyed if the tablet is crushed and snorted or injected. Snorting and injecting any drug can cause it to enter the bloodstream more quickly, and can thereby increase its effects on the individual.
Taking prescription medication for a purpose other than the one it was prescribed for – As with any other drug, prescription medication can produce euphoric and desirable effects when taken in sufficient quantity. One of the main reasons people abuse prescription drugs is to achieve a drug high.
Treatment for Prescription Addiction
Substance use always begins when the individual is seeking to suppress or avoid some problem in their life, and prescription medication use is no different. Whether the person was prescribed the medication to address a physical, mental or emotional problem or they began taking prescription medication for non-medical reasons, there is always an issue they avoided thoroughly addressing and resolving by turning to drugs. The prescription drug provides a temporary escape, and not only fails to address that initial problem but also creates scores of new physical, mental and emotional problems. In some cases, prescription medication abuse can lead to the use and ill-treatment of more dangerous illicit drugs as the individual seeks to achieve higher highs.
While many people may hope or desire to quit prescription medication abuse on their own, few succeed into lasting recovery without the assistance of a rehabilitation treatment program and trained, experienced rehabilitation professionals. One of the first, and most important, parts of successful prescription medication recovery is the detoxification period. In some cases, including with opioid pain relievers and antidepressants, this can be a challenging and dangerous process that should only be undertaken while supervised by a medical professional. Eliminating medication toxins from the body is a necessary first step to full recovery since it is these residual toxins that contribute to cravings for more of the drug.
Counseling is also an important part of prescription medication rehabilitation, as the individual must be brought to see for himself why he began to abuse the drug in the first place. In some cases, alternate solutions to physical, mental and emotional problems for which prescription drug had been used must be found and undertaken for the individual to make a clean break with past prescription use.
As the individual becomes more confident about their future and their ability to live it soberly, life skills education can help arm them with the tools they will need to overcome future life challenges and difficulties without returning to substance abuse.
Finally, an aftercare program can ensure that an individual receives the support they need to reintegrate successfully into society following rehabilitation treatment. Some aftercare programs provide valuable referrals to necessary resources, such as housing and employment programs, and many offer a support line for individuals who are experiencing difficulties in life and are afraid these may trigger a relapse. Aftercare can help the person continue to boost their self-confidence as they recognize help is still readily available to them.
Not all rehabilitation programs and facilities are the same, and the individual must choose for himself the facility and program that will work best to address his needs. With the proper rehabilitation program and support, a person can successfully recover from prescription medication abuse and addiction.
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