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Prescription drug abuse is one of the most talked about issues among medical professionals and addiction treatment specialists. Today, more and more individuals are abusing prescription drugs than ever before. During 2011, the National Institute on Drug Abuse estimated that 52 million individuals in the United States over the age of 12 have used prescription drugs non-medically in their lifetime. When an individual abuses a prescription drug they are taking the medication for reasons other than prescribed, using it in ways other than intended, consuming more than the amount prescribed, or taking the medication without a personal prescription from a physician. Statistics show that prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications are the most commonly abused substances following marijuana and alcohol by American's 14 years and older.
Why has prescription drug abuse become an epidemic in the United States and around the world? The reason is because many of these substances have mind-altering (psychoactive) properties. Some individuals misuse medications to relax, feel sedated or numb the list goes on... others, use prescription drugs to help them improve their academic performance, maintain alertness, lose weight, etc. While these medications provide the desired effect, nearly all prescription drugs that are commonly abused are highly addictive and require medical treatment to come off of.
Prescription drugs are produced in a standardized and regulated method; creating a false sense of safety when they are abused. Users are accustomed to taking prescription medications throughout their life with no ill or traumatic effects. For many, taking their own prescription medication in a way other than prescribed, or taking a friend's medication doesn't feel like "prescription drug abuse". They feel as though they can anticipate the drugs effects, and besides - the same medication is sold in pharmacies across the country. What could be the harm? Unfortunately, the misconception that prescription drugs are "safer" than street drugs has lead to an increase in addiction cases as well as prescription drug overdose and death rates. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention notes that each day, forty-four individuals die in the United States from prescription painkiller overdoses. While these substances are generally safe when taken as prescribed for the purpose intended, they can pose serious health risks and a number of adverse effects - including overdose when they are taken in combination with other drugs or alcohol.
There are specific types of prescription drugs that are commonly abused. These include: depressants, opioids and morphine derivatives, and stimulants. Depressants work on the user's central nervous system, their brain and spinal cord. These substances slow the user's brain function and have a sedative type effect on the user, making them feel calm and drowsy or reduce their tension and anxiety. Opioids and morphine derivatives are typically referred to as painkillers. They often contain opium or an opium-like substance used to relieve pain. Stimulants are typically abused because they increase the user's energy, alertness as well being an appetite suppressant.
Common depressants abused include: Pentobarbital sodium (Nembutal), Diazepam (Valium), and Alprazolam (Xanax). Top opioids and morphine derivatives misused are: Hydromorphone (Dilaudid), Fentanyl (Duragesic), Oxycodone (OxyContin), Hydrocodone (Vicodin), Oxymorphone (Opana), Meperidine (Demerol), Propoxyphene (Darvon), and Diphenoxylate (Lomotil). Leading stimulants misused by prescription drug abusers include: Dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine), Amphetamines (Adderall), and Methylphenidate (Ritalin and Concerta).
The spectrum of prescription drug abuse ranges from taking someone else's prescription to self-medicate, to taking a prescription medication in a way other than prescribed and eventually taking a medication to get high. As the individual begins to rely more and more on the prescription drug to "solve" their problem, they lose control over their ability to handle life substance-free. Prescription drugs can affect the user's brain in ways that are very similar to illicit drugs. This can be seen in people who abuse stimulants such as Adderall or Ritalin. When these prescription drugs are abused the effect they have on the user's neurotransmitter systems is no different than cocaine abuse. The same can be said for prescription opioid pain relievers like OxyContin. This medication works on the same cell receptors in the user's brain as heroin. When an individual abuses prescription depressants the effect of sedation and calmness takes affect in the same manner as club drugs like GHB and Rohypnol. When it's all said and done, the abuse of any of these classes of prescription drugs, directly or indirectly, causes the dopamine levels to increase in the user's brain creating an enjoyable feeling and stimulating the brain's reward pathway. When the individual routinely looks to prescription drugs to create these pleasurable experiences they will eventually descend into the downward spiral of prescription drug addiction.
More and more young people are turning to heroin after becoming dependent on prescription opioids. Prescription drugs such as OxyContin and Vicodin have similar effects to heroin when they are taken in larger doses, or in ways other than prescribed. Current research shows the abuse of these prescription opioids may be opening the door to heroin abuse in many young adults. A study conducted by the National Institute of Drug Abuse reports: Nearly 50% of people (surveyed) injecting heroin said they abused prescription drugs before beginning heroin use.
Side effects of opioids have lead to thousands of prescription drug overdose deaths. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that there were 22,767 deaths related to prescription drug overdose during 2013. Of these 22,767 deaths during 2013, 71.3% (16,235 deaths) involved opioid painkillers and 6,973 deaths (30.6%) involved benzodiazepines. Statistics show that most of the individuals who died of prescription drug overdose had a combination of both opioid painkillers and benzodiazepines in their bodies. The side effects of opioids create drowsiness, constipation and depressed breathing in larger doses. This last effect is especially dangerous when opioid prescription drugs are taken ways other than prescribed or in combination with other substances such as drugs or alcohol. Scientists are studying the long-term effects of slowed breathing brought on by prescription opioid abuse. When a person suffers from depressed respiration it can affect the amount of oxygen that reaches their brain; creating a condition called hypoxia. This condition can potentially have short and long term psychological and neurological effects on the individual, such as causing a coma and/or permanent brain damage.
Treatment for prescription drug abuse is very similar to the rehabilitation process for other addictive substances. A successful recovery from prescription drug addiction involves incorporating several components such as detoxification, addiction counseling and relapse prevention. Medical detox is often necessary to help prescription drug abusers safely withdrawal. The process usually involves the individual gradually stepping down their prescription drug dosage, as well as incorporating any medications that help transition them off the substances they have been dependent upon. The use of addiction counseling and various therapy methods are critical in changing the individual's behavior and developing new ways of managing life's daily stressors. Behavioral treatments benefit the recovering individual by helping them stop their current use of prescription medications, while teaching them effective strategies to function successfully without drugs. They include ways of handling cravings, how to control being in a situation where drugs are present, and what to do if a relapse should occur. The various forms of behavioral treatments include individual counseling, group or family counseling, contingency management and cognitive behavioral therapies. Through treatment of prescription drug abuse and addiction, the program participant also improves their personal relationships with their family, workplace/school environment and community as a whole while overcoming their addiction.