While prescription drugs often have medical uses, abusing these drugs can lead to a number of dangerous side effects including dependence and addiction. Fortunately, the programs at Meta Addiction Treatment can help you retake control of your life and get on the path to recovery from prescription drug addiction.
Even though prescription drugs require a doctor’s approval, many medications have become easy to obtain without a prescription. This accessibility has led to a growing problem in the United States: prescription drug addiction. Although prescription drugs were designed to help relieve pain, manage health complications, and alleviate symptoms, misusing these medications can have dangerous effects.
Misusing and abusing prescription drugs can cause hallucinations, seizures, breathing problems, heart complications, tremors, irregular body temperature, extremely high or low blood pressure, or coma. Prescription drug abuse can also lead to addiction, which can negatively affect every aspect of an individual’s life. The good news is that professional rehabilitation programs can help individuals recover from prescription drug addiction.
What Are Prescription Drugs?
The term “prescription drugs” refers to any pharmaceutical medications that require a prescription from a licensed physician or doctor. Even though prescription drugs are stronger and more potent than over-the-counter medications, some prescription drugs are more powerful and more addictive than others. Opioids, for example, are some of the most addictive prescription drugs, but they aren’t the only misused prescription medication.
The most commonly misused medications fall into one of three categories:
- Opioids, or medications that help relieve pain.
- Depressants, or medications that help alleviate anxiety and manage sleep disorders.
- Stimulants, or medications that doctors prescribe to help attention and sleep-related disorders.
Although less common, some people also misuse antipsychotics. As the name suggests, antipsychotics are prescription drugs that doctors prescribe to treat psychological disorders such as schizophrenia, anorexia, bulimia nervosa, depression, and bipolar disorder.
Even though opioids, depressants, stimulants, and antipsychotics are all prescription drugs, each category of medication works and affects the body differently.
Understanding The Different Types of Prescription Drugs
Opioids are powerful pain-relieving drugs. Doctors use these drugs, which can be manufactured as tablets, capsules, or liquids, to help relieve acute and chronic pain. Some doctors use opioids to manage pain from sports or accident-related injuries, while others use opioids for pain that occurs after surgery. Opioids are also prescribed to help manage cancer-related pain.
Regardless of why they’re prescribed, all opioids work by binding with opioid receptors in the brain. When this happens, cells in the brain release signals that decrease the perception of pain. At the same time, opioids flood the brain with dopamine, a chemical messenger responsible for producing pleasurable feelings. By doing this, opioids relieve pain and help users feel relaxed. These euphoric effects can also cause users to temporarily feel “high.”
Some of the most commonly misused opioids include:
- Oxycodone (Percocet, Percodan, and OxyContin)
- Diphenoxylate (Lomotil)
- Hydrocodone (Lortab, Lorcet, Vicodin)
- Morphine (Avinza, Kadian and MS Contin)
- Fentanyl (Duragesic)
- Codeine (Tylenol with Codeine and Vopac)
- Hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
- Propoxyphene (Darvon)
- Methadone (Dolphine)
- Meperidine (Demerol)
Prescription stimulants “stimulate” the central nervous system. Because of this, these medications increase energy and alertness. That’s why doctors prescribe this type of medication to treat symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). When individuals with ADHD take stimulant medication, the amount of dopamine in their brains increases. Dopamine helps regulate attention and motivation. As dopamine levels increase, individuals can concentrate and focus better, which helps combat the hyperactive and impulsive behaviors associated with ADHD.
Doctors also prescribe stimulant medication to help treat narcolepsy, a chronic sleep disorder that causes severe daytime drowsiness, sleep paralysis, insomnia, and hallucinations. Stimulant medications work by boosting levels of norepinephrine, a brain chemical that energizes the body. This surge of norepinephrine helps combat symptoms of narcolepsy and promote wakefulness.
Even though most stimulants are pills, some come in liquid and skin patch forms. Stimulants can differ on how long they remain effective. Depending on the type of ailment they help to remedy, stimulants can be short, intermediate, or long-acting.
Unlike stimulants, depressants slow down activity in the brain. They do this by encouraging the production of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a chemical that suppresses activity in the brain. As GABA levels increase, the brain calms down. That’s why doctors prescribe depressants to help treat:
- Anxiety and panic disorders
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Insomnia and sleep disorders
The most commonly prescribed depressants include:
- Benzodiazepines, which have sedative, muscle-relaxing, and anticonvulsant effects. Some of the most popular benzodiazepines include Valium, Xanax, Halcion, and ProSom. These medications are best suited for short-term use. When taken regularly, they can lead to dependence, tolerance, and addiction.
- Non-benzodiazepine sleep medications such as Lunesta, Sonata, and Ambien have a lower risk of dependence, but can still be misused.
- Barbiturates are prescribed less often because they have a higher risk of overdose. Some of the most common types of this medication include Luminal Sodium, Mebrarl, and Nembutal.
How Are Prescription Drugs Abused?
Prescription drugs can be highly effective. Unfortunately, these medications can also be misused. Some of the most common ways people misuse prescription drugs include:
- Taking someone else’s medication. Even when people have medical reasons such as to relieve pain, stay awake, or fall asleep, taking someone else’s prescribed medication is still considered misuse.
- Taking medication in a non-prescribed way. This can include taking more than the prescribed dose, taking the medication more often than prescribed, or crushing prescribed pills into a powder to snort or inject the drug.
- Taking the prescribed medication to get “high.” Even though they have legal medical use, opioids, stimulants, and depressants can be used to get “high.”
- Borrowing or stealing medication from a family member or friend. Prescription medication has one intended user: the individual whose name is on the prescription. When anyone else uses, borrows, or takes the prescribed medication, they are misusing the drug, which can lead to adverse effects, dependence, tolerance, and addiction.
- Refilling a prescription without a doctor’s order. Doctors prescribe many prescription drugs for short-term use. When individuals refill drugs without a doctor’s order, they are more likely to experience unwanted side effects of the medication. They can also increase their chances of becoming dependent on the drug.
- Mixing prescribed medications with alcohol or recreational drugs. Almost all prescription drugs have detailed warning labels that explain the risks that can happen when individuals mix these types of medication with other substances. When individuals ignore those risks and mix prescription drugs with alcohol, cocaine, marijuana, or other substances, they increase their risk of adverse and dangerous effects.
Even though misusing prescription drugs doesn’t always cause immediate adverse effects, this type of behavior is unsafe and can ultimately lead to dependence, addiction, and overdose.
Why is Prescription Drug Abuse So Dangerous?
Despite what most people might think, prescription drugs do have some risks. That’s why doctors need to approve these medications before individuals take them. Before approving and writing a prescription, doctors, dentists, psychiatrists, and other medical personnel carefully consider the benefits and risks to each individual. This process takes into account several different factors, including:
- The individual’s weight and size
- How long the individual has been prescribed the medication
- Other medications the individual may be taking
- Medical conditions that can interfere with the potential prescription
When individuals misuse prescription drugs, they disregard these carefully considered factors. Doing this can have devastating effects. In fact, when prescription drugs are misused, they can be just as dangerous as illegal recreational drugs. Here’s why.
- When an individual takes prescription drugs in larger doses or in ways that change the way the drug works in the body and brain, their risk of overdose increases.
- Misusing prescription drugs can overload an individual’s system and in turn, increase their risk of seizures or coma. System overload can also lead to death.
- Crushing and inhaling prescription pills that normally work over the course of hours can suddenly and severely impact the central nervous system, increasing the risk of addiction and overdose.
- Misusing prescription drugs can lead to severe side effects that can encourage individuals to self-medicate their symptoms which can lead to dependence, addiction, and overdose.
In addition to these general risks, there are specific dangers associated with each type of prescription drug misuse.
Dangers of Misusing Prescription Opioids
Misusing opioids, for example, can cause:
- Sudden and unexpected mood swings
- Decreased cognitive function
- Difficulty breathing
The risk for these effects increases when individuals mix opioids with alcohol, antihistamines, and prescription depressants.
Dangers of Misusing Prescription Stimulants
Misusing stimulant drugs can cause:
- Heart failure
- Extremely high body temperatures
- Irregular heartbeat
Dangers of Misusing Prescription Depressants
Misusing depressants can lead to:
- Slurred speech
- Poor concentration
- Shallow, labored breathing
- Lack of coordination
Mixing prescription depressants with painkillers, over-the-counter cold and allergy medicines, or alcohol can dramatically decrease an individual’s heartbeat and breathing. Deciding to reduce the dosage or quit prescription depressants without professional guidance can lead to seizures.
Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of prescription drug misuse is that it can pave the way to addiction.
What Causes Prescription Drug Addiction?
When individuals become addicted to prescription drugs, their brain has been tricked into thinking that they can’t live without the medication in their brain and body. Their lives become preoccupied with satisfying irresistible cravings and they compulsively use prescription drugs despite repeated, harmful consequences. As devastating as addiction is, it doesn’t happen overnight. The truth is addiction happens in stages.
Regular use is the norm for prescription drugs. The prescription itself instructs individuals to use the medication given to them on a regular, controlled basis. That usage can vary and can look differently based on an individual’s weight, medical history, and specific needs. Some common prescription instructions include:
- Take 1 tablet by mouth twice daily
- Take 1 capsule by mouth three times daily for 10 days until all taken
- Take 1 tablet by mouth 4 times daily
- Take 1 tablet by mouth every 8 hours as needed
- Take 1 to 2 tablets by mouth every 4 hours as needed
Even though most individuals at this stage are simply following their doctor’s orders, having a regular pattern of use can be problematic for highly addictive drugs. The good news is addiction doesn’t typically happen at this stage. Unfortunately, regular use can cause some people to begin to misuse prescription drugs.
Prescription Drug Misuse
Prescription opioids are meant to be taken a certain way at certain times. When individuals start taking prescription medications for reasons outside of the medical guidelines they’ve been given, they start misusing the substances. This behavior can trigger unintended effects on the brain which can be extremely dangerous.
Misusing opioids, for example, floods the brain with dopamine. As time passes, the brain becomes accustomed to opioids producing dopamine and stops releasing the chemical messenger on its own. When this happens, individuals might experience depression, poor concentration, tremors, short-term memory loss, a lack of motivation, and an inability to feel pleasure. The brain, relying on opioids as a primary source of dopamine, compels individuals to take more of the substance. Misusing stimulants can have similar negative effects.
Misusing prescription depressants overwhelms the brain with GABA. When the brain starts to rely on prescription drugs as the main source of GABA, the natural production of the GABA decreases dramatically. When this happens, individuals can experience extremely low levels of GABA which can cause anxiety, chronic stress, difficulty concentrating, memory problems, muscle pain, headaches, and insomnia. Even though taking more depressants can temporarily increase GABA levels, doing this can also pave the way for the next stage of addiction: abuse.
Prescription Drug Abuse
Individuals start abusing prescription drugs when they use medications to get “high.” At this point, individuals aren’t trying to treat a specific ailment (which generally happens with misuse). Instead, they are mainly looking to experience euphoric effects. Abusing prescription drugs can lead to severe adverse effects.
Abusing opioids, for example, can cause:
- Slowed breathing
Using prescription stimulants for euphoric effects can lead to:
- Decreased appetite
- Increased heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature
- Erratic and sometimes violent behavior
- Panic and psychosis
- Disturbed sleep patterns
- Convulsions and seizures
Abusing depressant drugs can cause:
- Slow pulse
- Labored breathing
- Confusion and disorientation
- Difficulty concentrating
- Sleepiness and fatigue
- Difficulty urinating
Abusing prescription drugs can also lead to increased tolerance, dependence, and addiction.
When individuals regularly use, misuse, or abuse a prescription drug, the brain becomes accustomed to the substance. When this happens, the substance doesn’t produce the same effects it once did. Individuals have to take a higher dose of the prescribed drug to achieve the same effects they felt when they first used it. At this stage, doctors can increase the dosage, change the regimen, or prescribe a different medication. But rather than consulting a doctor, many people decide to take more prescription drugs on their own. Unfortunately, this often causes individuals to become physically and psychologically dependent on the prescribed drug.
When individuals become dependent on prescription medications, they need a constant supply of the substance to feel “normal.” They feel this way because their brains and bodies have started to rely on prescription drugs as a baseline. When this happens, the brain considers the prescribed substance a physical and psychological need. If the individual abruptly stops taking or lessens the amount of prescription drugs they use, the body will react negatively.
Typically, this adverse reaction includes symptoms of withdrawal. Even though general signs of withdrawal often include nausea, headaches, vomiting, and cravings, each type of prescription drug has different signs of withdrawal.
Signs of opioid withdrawal can include:
- Increased body temperature
- Racing heart
- Muscle and bone pain
- High blood pressure
Most individuals experiencing stimulant withdrawal have a dysphoric mood which makes them feel unhappy. They may also experience:
- Jittery reactions
- Dulled senses
- Slowed speech
- Loss of interest
- Slow heart rate
- Insomnia or hypersomnia
- Body aches
- Unpleasant dreams
Some common symptoms associated with depressant withdrawal include:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Heart palpitations
- Muscle pain and stiffness
- Panic attacks
- Vision and hearing changes
In this stage, individuals no longer take prescription drugs to feel “high,” but to keep their bodies from experiencing withdrawal symptoms. Even though dependence isn’t the same as full-blown addiction, this stage can easily lead to addiction if individuals don’t seek professional help.
Prescription Drug Addiction
Individuals who don’t seek help at the dependence stage usually become addicted to prescription drugs. Generally, their addiction will cause them to compulsively use prescription drugs despite negative consequences. Their time and energy will be primarily focused on obtaining and taking prescription drugs. Their personality might change and they will most likely behave in ways they would not have previously.
One of the most telltale signs of addiction is the inability to stop using a substance. Once addiction develops, individuals may have a desire to quit abusing prescription drugs, but without professional help, they will continue to misuse the medication. This happens because addiction changes the brain and hijacks individuals’ reward systems. That’s why many individuals struggling with addiction neglect their hygiene and basic needs. They might:
- Skip meals
- Avoid sleep
- Neglect showing up to work
- Ignore their day-to-day responsibilities
The good news is that being able to recognize the signs and symptoms of addiction can help individuals get the professional treatment they need to overcome and recover from prescription drug addiction.
Signs and Symptoms of Prescription Drug Abuse
Even though most people attempt to hide addictive behaviors, there are several signs and symptoms that indicate an addiction to prescription drugs. Some of the most common include:
- Hostile behavior
- Taking higher doses than prescribed
- Mood swings based on the availability of prescription medications
- Irritability when medication isn’t available
- “Doctor shopping” or visiting multiple doctors to obtain more prescriptions
- Repeatedly “losing” multiple prescriptions to obtain others
- Lying about the amount of medication taken
- Ordering prescriptions from internet pharmacies
- Crushing or breaking pills
- Stashing medication in multiple locations around the house
- Stealing or forging prescriptions
Signs and symptoms can also vary depending upon the substance abused.
Opioid Addiction Signs and Symptoms
These symptoms, which can be mood-based, physical, psychological, and behavioral, include:
- Lack of motivation
- Depressed mood
- Weight loss
- Itchy skin
- Joint and muscle pain
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loss of concentration or interest
- Confusion or disorientation
- Distorted perception of reality
- Slurred speech
- Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
Stimulant Addiction Signs and Symptoms
Symptoms of stimulant addiction can include:
- Suppressed appetite
- Decreased need for sleep
- Weight loss
- Impulsive behavior
- Irregular heartbeat
- High blood pressure
- Trouble sleeping
- High body temperature
Depressant Addiction Signs and Symptoms
Some warning signs associated with an addiction to depressant medication can include:
- Excessive sleepiness
- Involuntary rapid eye movements
- Confusion about time, date, and place
- Impaired memory
- Poor concentration
- Slow speech
- Walking unsteadily
- Slow, labored breathing
Some of the most devastating effects of prescription drug addiction are the changes that occur in the brain and body.
How Prescription Drugs Affect The Brain
Our brain manages all the thought processes, signals, and instructions that allow us to function on a daily basis. That’s why prescription medication often affects how our brains function. Cough medicine, for example, works by relaxing the cough reflex. Since this reflex is regulated by the brain, chemicals in cough medicine impact the brain in order to produce the desired effect. Prescription drugs work the same way. This means that prescription drugs can — and do — affect the brain.
How Opioid Addiction Can Affect The Brain
Prescription opioids activate receptors in the brain that encourage the release of dopamine. This interaction causes temporary feelings of euphoria, elation, and intense pleasure. When individuals become addicted to prescription painkillers, opioids start to harm the brain.
Some short-term neurological effects of opioids include:
- Mood changes
- Impaired memory, judgment, and attention
In addition to these short-term effects, long-term opioid addiction can damage the parts of the brain that govern behavior, judgment, organization, and reasoning. Opioid addiction can also slow your breathing down so much that your body doesn’t get the oxygen it needs. When this happens, individuals can experience permanent brain damage.
How Stimulant Addiction Can Affect The Brain
Prescription stimulants increase dopamine and norepinephrine levels in the brain. Dopamine helps regulate how individuals perceive and experience pleasure, while norepinephrine increases focus and boosts energy levels. At first, abusing prescription stimulants gives individuals a euphoric rush. But being addicted to these types of medications can have a negative impact on the brain.
Research shows that prescription stimulant addiction can cause:
- Poor judgment
- Reduction in inhibition
- Impulsive behavior
- Difficulty forming rational thoughts
- Inability to engage in flexible thinking
How Depressant Addiction Can Affect The Brain
Depressant medication helps to slow down activity in the central nervous system. Although these medications are very effective at increasing relaxation, relieving anxiety, and managing sleep disorders, addiction to these medications can have short and long-term adverse effects on the brain.
When individuals become addicted to prescription depressants, the brain can experience:
- Memory and attention problems
- Impaired coordination
Sadly, the brain isn’t the only part of the body negatively impacted by prescription drugs. Addiction also impairs the body.
How Prescription Drugs Affect The Body
Even though prescription drugs have been legally approved for medical use, using these drugs compulsively can harm the body. Prescription drugs can be especially damaging to the heart, liver, and immune system.
Prescription Drugs and The Heart
Prescription drug abuse and addiction can cause severe cardiovascular effects that can be life-threatening. Excessive drug use can cause abnormal heart rates, dangerously high or low blood pressure, vein damage, and other cardiovascular problems. These seemingly minor effects can lead to heart attacks, heart failure, and collapsed veins.
Prescription Drugs and The Liver
Excessive use of prescription drugs can also damage the liver since it is the organ responsible for digesting substances individuals put into their bodies. When individuals consume prescription drugs, the substances come in direct contact with the liver. High amounts of prescription drugs cause the liver to work excessively, which in turn can cause the organ to break down and not function properly. All of this can lead to liver damage and drug-induced liver disease.
Prescription Drugs and The Immune System
When individuals develop an addiction to prescription drugs, their priorities can change. Many individuals living with addiction don’t get adequate rest or eat balanced meals. This lowers their immune system. Whether individuals abuse painkillers, stimulants, depressants, or any other kind of prescription medicine, fatigue, sleeplessness, inactivity, dehydration, and other common effects of drug addiction can harm their immune system and put them at risk of developing other illnesses.
In addition to these effects, different types of prescription drugs can affect the body in different ways.
Being addicted to opioids, for example, can cause:
- Widened blood vessels which can prevent the heart and brain from getting the oxygen they need to function properly.
- Constipation, bowel perforations, and inflamed abdominal tissue which can be life-threatening
- Difficulty breathing, which can lead to respiratory arrest, a fatal condition that develops when there isn’t enough oxygen in the blood.
- Thin bones and bone loss. Individuals addicted to opioids have a higher risk of developing fractures and broken bones.
Being addicted to prescription stimulants can:
- Prematurely age the heart. A study examined the arteries of 700 people in their 30s and 40s. The study revealed that people who abused stimulants have cardiovascular systems and arteries with a higher level of aging than tobacco smokers and methadone users.
- Weaken the kidneys. Once stimulants make their way through the body, they are processed by the kidneys. When individuals misuse prescription stimulants, the kidneys become overworked and overwhelmed. This allows toxins to build up in the body and bloodstream. When this happens alongside an increased heart rate and constricted blood vessels, the risk of kidney failure increases.
- Hyperthermia. When stimulants increase energy levels throughout the brain and body, individuals’ body temperatures begin to rise. As the heart pumps faster and an individual’s blood pressure continues to increase, the body continues to heat up. This is called hyperthermia and the condition can be fatal. If the body becomes dehydrated in addition, the kidneys can break down completely which can also be fatal.
Prescription depressants can cause:
- Permanent mood swings. Long-term use of prescription depressants has been known to increase anxiety over time. This is especially true when individuals abuse these types of medications. When individuals initially take the medication, they feel calm and relaxed. When the effects wear off, however, they can become restless and anxious. Abusing this medication keeps individuals trapped in this cycle, which can cause permanent mood swings.
- Mental health disorders. Ironically, taking too much depressant medication can also cause depression. As individuals become trapped in a cycle of unexpected mood swings, many of them begin to feel depressed because of how the addiction is affecting their life. Sometimes, individuals experience depressive symptoms because of the way excessive prescription drugs can slow down or depress brain function.
The good news is that an addiction to prescription drugs can be effectively treated.
Treatment For Prescription Drug Addiction
In order to recover from prescription drug addiction and move towards recovery, individuals must admit that they are unable to control their intake of the prescribed drug and that they need help to recover. This may sound easy, but drug abuse impairs judgment and many individuals grappling with addiction live in denial. If this is the case, professional intervention can help.
Intervention is a powerful tool that can be used to help addicts and their loved ones. During the intervention process, family, friends, and colleagues get together to try and convince individuals struggling with addiction that they need help. The goal is to help individuals stop denying what’s going on, make changes before things get worse, and seek professional treatment.
Here at Meta Addiction Treatment, we offer intervention services to families across the country. You do not need to be located in the Boston area to take advantage of our intervention services. Our interventions, which can be conducted over the phone, include a multi-step process that culminates in an in-depth, honest conversation with a loved one about their addiction and substance use. Successful interventions are generally followed by detoxification, behavioral therapy, and addiction treatment programs.
Prescription Drug Detox
Detoxification allows individuals to remove the prescription drugs that have accumulated in their body over time. As the body works to restabilize itself, individuals may experience symptoms of withdrawal. These symptoms can be mild or severe depending on an individual’s substance use history. Medications can be used to help ease withdrawal discomfort, overcome drug cravings, or treat an overdose.
Some medications commonly used to treat an addiction to prescription drugs include:
- Naltrexone, which helps reduce cravings by blocking the euphoric effects of opioids.
- Methadone, which helps relieve symptoms of withdrawal and reduces cravings.
- Buprenorphine, which helps treat severe withdrawal symptoms and shortens the length of detox by reducing the euphoric effects of heroin and decreasing cravings.
Once an individual has removed prescription drugs from their body, rehabilitation treatment begins. A key component of rehabilitation is behavioral therapy.
Alongside detoxification and clinical treatment, behavioral therapy is one of the most effective ways to treat prescription drug addiction because it helps individuals combat the emotional, social, and psychological challenges associated with addiction.
There are several types of behavioral therapies used to treat addiction, but here at Meta Addiction Treatment, we use:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). The core belief of CBT is pretty simple: what individuals think influences how they behave. That’s why CBT focuses on helping individuals identify and change destructive, disturbing, and harmful thought patterns. CBT can also help individuals understand and manage triggers, manage traumatic life experiences, and find healthy outlets for stress and anxiety.
- Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). Dialectical behavioral therapy helps people learn how to live in the moment, cope with stress, regulate emotions, and improve their relationships with others. In DBT, therapists help individuals bring about positive change by teaching them to accept the reality of their situation. This behavioral therapy can also help individuals reduce risky, dangerous, and unstable behavior, manage stress, regulate their emotions, and strengthen relationships with friends and family.
Helping Individuals Overcome Prescription Drug Addiction
The consequences of prescription drug addiction can be severe and life-threatening. But there’s hope. Intervention, detoxification, behavioral therapy, and other aspects of addiction treatment programs can help you regain control of your life. Here at Meta Addiction Treatment, we pride ourselves on providing real recovery options for real people. Our flexible, outpatient treatment programs can help you overcome addiction without uprooting every aspect of your life.
Let us help empower you to change your life for the better. Contact us today to speak to one of our recovery experts or to learn more about our treatment programs.