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Article Summary

Prescription Drug Addiction

Prescription drug addiction is not about bad drugs or even bad people. It involves a complex web of factors including the power of drug abuse, drug addiction, and often the difficulty both patients and doctors have discussing the topic. A recent survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse at Columbia University indicated that approximately 50% of primary care physicians have difficulty speaking with their patients about substance abuse (FDA Consumer Magazine, Sept.- Oct., 2001).

There is also a delicate balance of curbing criminal activity related to prescription drug addiction while making sure that people with legitimate health needs can still access care, says Alan I. Leshner, Ph.D., director of NIDA. "We recognize the very real issue that millions of lives are improved because of prescription drugs--the same drugs that are sometimes abused," he says.

Some people experiment with prescription drugs because they think they will help them have more fun, lose weight, fit in, and even study more effectively. Prescription drugs can be easier to get than street drugs. Many times addicts will steal prescription drugs from family members or friends. Prescription drugs are also sold on the street like other illegal drugs. A 2006 National Survey on Drug Use and Health showed that among all youths aged 12 to 17, 6% had tried prescription drugs for recreational use in the last month.

Most patients take medicine responsibly, but approximately 9 million Americans used prescription drugs for non-medical purposes in 1999 according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Misusing prescription drugs for non medical purposes is illegal.  Misuse includes using prescription drugs for recreation and for psychic effects--to get high, to have fun, to get a lift, or to calm down.

Prescription drug addiction is no different from alcoholism or an addiction to any other substance. However, no one is prescribed alcohol or cocaine for medical purposes. People who suffer from chronic pain are in a very difficult position. Painkillers do help relieve pain. For people who suffer from constant and chronic pain, narcotics may be necessary provide them quality of life. The downside is becoming the possibility of becoming physically dependent on the drugs and risking addiction.

Drugs have three basic effects on the body

  • stimulation or a feeling of being “high” or energized
  • depression or a feeling of being calm or even sleepy
  • distortion of the senses

When any chemical enters the brain, it is absorbed into the brain through receptor sites. When the body is getting a drug from an outside source the brain stops making some of its own chemicals. These chemicals include dopamine and endorphins which the body normally makes naturally. The brain then becomes dependent on the outside source of drugs. As the brain adapts to the drug’s presence, the individual using the drugs must take more and more of most addicting drugs to try to reach the same feelings that they got when they first started using the drugs. However, they almost never achieve that initial feeling again.

Two most commonly abused prescription drugs are opioids and benzodiazepines. Opioids are generally used to control pain. Benzodiazepines, or tranquilizers, are used to manage anxiety. These drugs are prescribed for short-term use such as acute pain and anxiety that is in reaction to a specific event. They may also be prescribed for chronic pain or generalized anxiety.

Common Symptoms of Prescription Drug Addiction

  • Changes in mood—from a sense of well being to belligerence
  • False feelings of self-confidence
  • Increased sensitivity to sights and sounds, including hallucinations
  • Altered activity levels—such as sleeping for 12-14 hours or frenzied activity lasting for hours
  • Unpleasant or painful symptoms when the medication is withdrawn

Pharmacists play a key role in preventing prescription drug addiction by providing clear information and advice about how to take a medication appropriately, about the effects the medication may have, and about any possible drug interactions. Pharmacists can help prevent prescription fraud or diversion by looking for false or altered prescription forms. Many pharmacies have developed "hotlines" to alert other pharmacies in the region when a fraud is detected.

Years of research have shown us that addiction to both prescription drugs and illegal drugs are the same when it comes to treatment and recovery. However, no single type of treatment is appropriate for all individuals addicted to prescription drugs. Treatment must take into account the type of drug used and the needs of the individual.

The two main categories of prescription drug addiction treatment are behavioral and pharmacological. Behavioral treatments teach people how to function without drugs, how to handle cravings, how to avoid drugs and situations that could lead to drug use, how to prevent relapse, and how to handle relapse should it occur. When delivered effectively, behavioral treatments - such as individual counseling, group or family counseling, contingency management, and cognitive-behavioral therapies - also can help patients improve their personal relationships and ability to function at work and in the community. If you are struggling with prescription drug addiction, you probably feel ashamed and isolated. Understand that these feelings are part of addiction. And most importantly, you are not alone.

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