Prescription Drug Abuse: Signs, Symptoms & Rehab Treatment Near Me
Prescription medication can be very helpful for treating various conditions. However, some prescriptions are more likely to be misused than others. Prescription drug misuse occurs when an individual takes a medication in a way that is different from the way it was prescribed. That might refer to upping the dose, taking another person’s medication, or using the prescription to get high.1
In 2020, there were more than 16 million Americans aged 12 or older who misused prescription medications.2 Unfortunately, prescription drug misuse can cause potentially dangerous effects.
What are Prescription Drugs?
Prescription drugs are medications that are prescribed to treat physical or mental health conditions. When taken as directed, these medications can help individuals feel better. However, misusing prescription drugs may come with a variety of harmful effects, including addiction, medical or mental health problems, or overdose.1
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Prescription Drug Statistics
Statistics show that prescription drug misuse is a significant concern in the United States. Some of the most concerning facts, include:1-5
- In 2020, 9.3 million (3.3%) people misused prescription opioid painkillers, 6.2 million (2.2%) people misused central nervous system (CNS) depressants (medications often prescribed for anxiety or to help individuals sleep), and 5.1 million (1.8%) people misused prescription stimulants (commonly used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)).
- Research indicates that individuals aged 18 to 25 tend to be the most likely to misuse prescription drugs.
- In 2020, there were nearly 16,500 overdose deaths that involved prescription opioids, and almost 12,300 overdose deaths that involved benzodiazepines, drugs such as Xanax, Ambien, and Valium.
- Studies show that between 21% to 29% of individuals prescribed opioids for chronic pain misuse them.
- About 80% of people who use heroin first misused prescription opioids.
- A 2020 study found that students in 8th, 10th, and 12th grade misuse prescription stimulants, such as Adderall, most, followed by tranquilizers, and then opioids.
- Most people who misused prescription stimulants at some point in their lives started in college.
Prescription Drug Types
The prescription drugs that are most likely to be misused include opioids, CNS depressants (like sedatives, for instance), and stimulants.1
To treat serious and/or chronic pain, doctors may prescribe opioids, also known as painkillers.1 Opioids bind to specific receptors in the brain and disrupt the pain signals transmitted between the body and the brain, dulling the perception of painful stimuli.3 Opioids also increase the activity of dopamine, a brain-signaling molecule with an important role in reward and reinforcing behaviors.6
Side effects of prescription painkillers can include:8,10
- Difficulty paying attention or remembering things.
- Moving less or more slowly.
- Nausea or vomiting.
- Scratching at the skin.
- Slowed breathing.
- Tiny pupils.
CNS depressants include sedative-hypnotic drugs such as barbiturates and benzodiazepines, as well as what’s commonly called the “Z-drugs”, which are used to treat insomnia.1 Doctors and healthcare professionals prescribe CNS depressants to treat anxiety, sleep disorders, seizures, and muscle spasms.1,8 Most depressant drugs work by interacting with gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors or otherwise enhancing the effects of GABA transmission. GABA is a neurotransmitter that serves as a signal to increase inhibition and decrease excitation in the brain and body. This can, in turn, reduce feelings of anxiety as well as promote sleep and sedation.8
Individuals who begin taking CNS depressants may experience sleepiness and incoordination in the first few days. Other side effects from use and misuse may include:10-11
- The inability to concentrate.
- Uncontrollable eye movements.
- Issues remembering.
Physicians prescribe stimulants to treat ADHD, narcolepsy, and obesity.2,8 Stimulants change certain types of brain signaling via their ability to influence the level of activity across a few different neurotransmitter systems, including norepinephrine and dopamine. Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter involved in mediating things like the body’s “fight-or-flight” response and plays a role in certain physiological processes, such as heart rate and breathing. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with reward, motivation and reinforcing behaviors.12
Side effects of taking prescription stimulants may include:8,10
- Bloodshot eyes.
- Chills or sweating.
- Increased blood pressure, body temperature, and heart rate.
- Dilated pupils.
- Loss of appetite.
- Moving more than usual.
- Nausea or vomiting.
- Sleeping less than usual.
- Slowed breathing.
- Uncontrollable muscle movements.
- Weight loss.
Behavioral Symptoms of Prescription Drug Abuse
Problematic prescription drug misuse can be difficult to spot. Just because a person is displaying side effects for a medication does not mean they are misusing it. A person who misuses prescription drugs is at risk of developing a substance use disorder (SUD), which is the clinical term for a drug addiction. Below are the criteria doctors use to diagnose a person with a SUD. A person must display at least two of these criteria to be diagnosed:13
- An individual takes the substance in greater doses or for longer than they intended.
- The person wants to cut down or stop using the substance but are unable to do so.
- They spend a good deal of their time getting, using, or recovering from the substance.
- The individual craves the substance.
- The person is unable to complete tasks at school or work as a result of the substance use.
- They continue to use the substance even when it causes problems within their relationships.
- The individual gives up important work, social, and recreational activities because of the substance use.
- The person uses the substance repeatedly even though it puts them in danger.
- They continue to use when their physical or mental health declines as a result of the substance use.
- The individual requires more of the substance to get the desired effect. In other words, they’ve built a tolerance to the substance.
- The person experiences withdrawal symptoms when not taking the substance, and they can only relieve their symptoms by taking more of the substance.
The last two criterion are not considered to be met for individuals taking prescription medications under medical supervision.
Other Consequences and Dangers
Misusing prescription drugs can lead to serious health consequences, including prescription drug addiction, drug overdose and even death.1 Misusing them may also impair judgement and make individuals more likely to take risks, such as having unprotected sex, which can lead to sexually transmitted diseases.13 Taking sedatives or opioids can impair thinking, judgement, and reaction time, which can lead to vehicle crashes.14 When taken at higher doses or in a different manner than intended—like a pill that’s crushed and snorted rather than swallowed, for example—prescription drugs can introduce or amplify uncomfortable to dangerous side effects.15 Additionally, abusing prescription drugs can lead to a SUD.1
Risk Factors of Prescription Drug Abuse
Prescription drugs like opioids, depressants, and stimulants, can cause physical dependence and addiction. Dependence can occur even at therapeutic levels, however, they are all generally safe when taken as prescribed. This includes following the doctor’s instructions regarding the dose, frequency, and duration.8 In addition, the drugs should be ingested or administered in the proper form, rather than crushing them and then snorting, injecting them, or using them in some other manner.8 Mixing prescription medications with other drugs or alcohol can lead to serious side effects, and in some instances, can be fatal. Therefore, it’s important to discuss potentially dangerous interactions with your doctor, healthcare provider, or pharmacist.8
Research has revealed some factors that may increase an individual’s risk of becoming addicted to prescription drugs, including:18-20
- An individual’s gender. Studies indicate that women tend to be more likely than men to misuse prescription drugs—using them to self-treat other problems or taking higher doses to relieve pain, for example.
- High doses. The higher the dose, the greater the risk of misuse.
- Certain physical health problems. Individuals with chronic fatigue and headaches may be at a greater risk of misusing prescriptions.
- Certain mental health disorders. People with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other mental health problems may be more prone to misuse prescription medicines.
- Individuals with acute and chronic pain. Research shows that individuals who experience chronic pain are more likely to use prescription drugs in higher doses or for longer than intended.
- People who experience euphoric feelings after taking the drug. Individuals who experience heightened physiological reactions, such as euphoria are at a greater risk.
- Those with a history of substance misuse. Studies suggest that a link exists between previously struggling with substance use and misusing prescription medications.
- A person’s age. Older adults (those 65 and older who may take several prescriptions) and younger adults (those 18-25) are both at a higher risk of misusing prescription drugs.
- Taking medications for a prolonged duration. Taking prescription opioids and benzodiazepines for an extended period creates a significant risk for dependence, which can lead to addiction.
Prescription Drug Rehab Treatment
If you or a loved one are struggling with prescription drug abuse, help is available in a variety of ways. Effective treatment considers the type of drug used and the unique needs of the individual and may draw on a variety of components, including: 1,9,11,21-22
- Detox. Detoxification allows you to rid your body of substances, including experiencing withdrawal symptoms, while being monitored by medical and mental healthcare staff around the clock. Medically managed drug detoxification ensures your safety and keeps you as comfortable as possible.
- Inpatient treatment. Inpatient rehab involves staying at a facility while receiving intensive individual and group counseling, psychiatric care, education, and, possibly, medication to help you understand and resolve issues that lead to prescription drug misuse and develop alternative coping strategies.
- Outpatient treatment. Outpatient treatment offers services, therapies, and treatment that looks similar (even identical) to inpatient care but allows you the ability to participate in your normal routine. Treatment occurs during regularly scheduled, clinic-based appointments and is provided in group and individual sessions. Medication may be provided as needed as well.
- Behavioral Therapy. Many addiction treatment programs use a form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help you change how you think and behave. Therapy may be part of a formal treatment program or be used as aftercare or continuing care. Behavioral therapy techniques can help you develop healthy coping skills, learn how to lower your risk of relapse, strengthen your relationships, and increase your ability to function within the community. This can occur in group, individual, and/or family sessions.
- Medication. Medication may be used as part of the treatment plan for prescription opioid use. It involves using FDA-approved prescription medication to manage cravings and reduce the risk of relapse. Medications may also be prescribed for people with co-occurring medical conditions or other reasons as well.
If you are unable to stop using prescription drugs, have experienced negative consequences to your physical, mental, or social functioning; experience withdrawal symptoms if you try to stop; or find that a significant amount of your time is focused on prescription drugs, it may be a good idea to seek treatment.10
Most health insurance programs offer some level of coverage for SUD treatment. However, the coverage varies widely depending on the insurance plan. Verify your insurance coverage with our form below.