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How do we treat prescription drug addiction?

Regular misuse and abuse of prescription drugs will inevitably lead to dependence on the substance. Physical dependence can occur even during normal use of the drug, but abuse leads to further knock-on effects like interpersonal issues, financial struggle, mental health issues [or exacerbation of existing issues], physical problems and high risk of accidental death. This is where treatment programs can assist.

Prescription drug abuse, specifically, occurs when drugs available on prescription with legitimate medical use are misused in ways not overseen by a medical professional. This often leads to the development of prescription drug abuse. This can include:

  • Using someone else’s prescription from curiosity or to self-medicate
  • Attempts to handle mental health issues by the patient
  • Patients seeking to stimulate themselves so they can work better or longer
  • Fear of doses ‘not working’ and taking larger doses.

Physical tolerance soon builds up, and dependency can occur. More pills are needed to achieve the same effects as the body adapts to the drug’s effects. This physical dependence can be weaned off, but where psychological dependence and cravings occur, abuse follows. Prescription drug abuse also occurs when patients find themselves doing the following:

  • Using the drug only for the high it creates
  • Taking larger or more frequent doses
  • Altering extended release drugs to act faster [dissolving, injecting, snorting or crushing]
  • Combining prescription meds with other substances to amplify effect [alcohol and weed]

We are seeing epidemic-like growth of prescription drug abuse. This is partially attributed to over-prescription of certain medications by doctors with their heart in the right places- why should patients suffer through pain unnecessarily- not precisely informing patients that these drugs do not need to be taken past the end of pain and finishing courses, or taking ‘as needed’ and ending up symptomatically addicted by the end of the run. This, and handing out painkillers without ample investigation of the patient’s pain levels and aftercare, create an environment where abuse occurs easily.

What drugs are typically abused?

The most commonly abused prescription drugs fall in several categories:

  • Depressants [Benzodiazepines, Barbiturates and Hypnotics]
  • Opioid Painkillers
  • Stimulants

These are also the most addictive prescription drugs available. We explore each of these categories of drug in greater depth on the site, so please click through.


How is abuse being handled?

Several steps have been taken in recent years to encourage less prescription medication abuse:

  • Closing of ‘pill mills’ where drugs are handed out without care or investigation
  • Greater education of general practitioners prescribing pain medications
  • Patient education
  • Closing of unscrupulous pain clinics.
  • Prescription drug monitoring to allow physicians to check for duplicate scripts

What are the risks of prescription drug abuse?

Long term use of prescription drugs, especially addiction, makes for larger doses being needed to feel the same effects. There’s many issues that can stem from this misuse:

  • Physical issues will vary according to the drug, but can include heart issues, stroke risk, seizure and coma risks, kidney and liver damage, damage to pregnancies, miscarriage or premature birth.
  • Mental health issues. Prescription drug abuse will often exacerbate underlying mental illness, or even develop issues itself. These include erratic behaviour, paranoia, hostility and psychosis.
  • Addiction. Of course, ongoing and repetitive use often leads to chronic addiction disorders which can have impact on family, financial status, relationships and career.
  • Overdose. The higher the dose taken with ‘less’ effect over time, the higher the risk of overdose. Concomitant risk of medical emergency or accidental death occurs as well.

These issues are often exacerbated by combining with other drugs or alcohol, increasing the risk of side effects, medical emergencies and the blunting of the needed effects of the medication. It may otherwise intensify effects [this often happens with opiates and benzos]. Multiple use of substances makes it much more difficult to gauge what will happen within the body and what damage might be done. Should you have legitimate reason to take multiple drugs together, it is always advised to double check the interaction list with your pharmacy, especially if the scripts come from different specialists or doctors.

How long will the drug stay in my system?

Prescription drugs will stay in your system doe a length of time effected by:

  • The drug itself
  • Other drugs used
  • Metabolism and weight of individual
  • Underlying medical issues.

Extended release tablets generally clear the system around about the time of the next suggested pill dose.

How do I quit prescription drugs I am abusing?

You will likely need to get medical assistance with safely withdrawing from prescription drug abuse. Most require a slow step down to allow physical tolerance to pass, and quitting cold turkey can be very dangerous. Addiction that features psychological dependence/craving will need to have this addressed by a comprehensive treatment program. Look for rehab schedules that promote medical detox, co-occurring treatment of mental issues, personalised treatment plans, family education and aftercare support.

How do I explain my addiction to loved one?

Honesty is truly the best policy here. Many may not understand that addiction is a chronic condition, and you may face criticism, but stand firm and stay on track with your plan to seek help. You can always enlist the assistance of a specially trained counsellor or even members of a 12 step program to give you support and help you stick to your plans.

Can they give me medication to make this easier?

Some prescription medicine abuse treatment programs will use pharmaceutical interventions to help minimise withdrawal symptoms. There are also some ‘step down’ drugs like Methadone [used in handling prescription opiate abuse] which can be appropriate. However, these drugs themselves carry serious side effects and can only be used under correct medical supervision.

Can I recover from prescription drug abuse?

Yes. Many addicts who enlist the help of professional drug treatment centres return to a meaningful, sober life. Relapse, however, can strike with alarming frequency [see the stats here at the Irish Medical Journal]. The more dedicated to your Partial hospitalization treatment program you are, the greater your chances of remaining sober. Remember that addiction is a disease, and relapse can be its major symptom. Relapse happens. Seek help and get back on the path. Aftercare support and relapse prevention therapy will help you stay on track. You can do it.