Prescription Drug Abuse

Despite being prescribed by doctors, not all medications are safe for everyone and the rising number of prescriptions has led to an increase in prescription drug misuse. In 2015, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) discovered that nearly 19 million Americans aged 12 and up misused prescription drugs with around 1 percent suffering from a prescription drug use disorder. Addiction, a key part of drug use disorder, impacts the brain and behaviour, diminishing control over drug usage. While illicit drugs like cocaine or heroin are commonly associated with addiction, prescription medications can also lead to dependence. Individuals may find themselves compulsively using these drugs, despite adverse effects.

Certain prescription medications, particularly those that flood the brain’s reward system with dopamine, are more likely to cause addiction. This dopamine surge produces a “high” that encourages repeated use, potentially leading to dependency or a need to consume higher doses to achieve the same effect. Understanding which prescription drugs are commonly misused is the first step towards addressing and preventing addiction.

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Prescription drug abuse refers to the deliberate exploitation of medication. Prescription Drug Abuse refers to the misuse or excessive use of prescription medications, including painkillers, anti-anxiety drugs, stimulants and sedatives. These medications, prescribed by healthcare professionals, are intended to help manage specific conditions or symptoms. However, when taken beyond their prescribed dosage or without a valid medical reason, they can become highly addictive and detrimental to your health.

Identifying problematic prescription drug misuse can be challenging, as displaying side effects alone does not necessarily indicate misuse. However, misusing prescription drugs can lead to a substance use disorder (SUD), akin to drug addiction. Doctors diagnose a person with addiction is based on specific criteria with at least two of them required for a diagnosis.

These criteria include taking a substance in higher doses or for longer than intended, unsuccessful attempts to cut down or stop usage, devoting a significant amount of time to obtaining or recovering from the substance, experiencing cravings, impaired performance at school or work due to substance use, persistent substance-related problems in relationships, giving up important activities because of substance use, continued use despite risking harm, using despite declining physical or mental health, developing tolerance and experiencing withdrawal symptoms relieved only by taking more of the substance. Notably, the last two criteria do not apply to individuals under medical supervision for prescription medication use.


Opioids and Central Nervous System (CNS) depressants, including substances like Oxycodone, Codeine, Fentanyl and Meperidine, are commonly prescribed for pain and other medical conditions but carry a high risk of misuse and addiction. Opioids produce euphoric effects and are associated with a range of misuse symptoms such as euphoria, drowsiness and confusion with certain drugs like Fentanyl being significantly more potent and involved in a large number of overdose deaths. CNS depressants, including barbiturates and benzodiazepines like Alprazolam (Xanax), Clonazepam (Klonopin) and Diazepam (Valium), are prescribed to treat anxiety, panic disorders and seizures but are often misused for their calming effects. Misuse of these drugs can lead to additional health issues, including memory problems, loss of coordination and in severe cases, overdose deaths, especially when combined with opioids.

Withdrawal from both opioids and CNS depressants presents significant challenges with symptoms ranging from drug cravings and agitation to trouble sleeping and nausea. The misuse of these medications points to the need for careful prescription and monitoring, as well as the potential for severe health implications, including dependency and fatal overdoses. The increasing rate of overdose deaths involving the combination of benzodiazepines and opioids highlights the critical dangers of polydrug use and the importance of awareness and education in preventing prescription drug addiction.


Stimulants, designed to enhance brain activity, are often prescribed for conditions such as ADHD and narcolepsy to boost alertness and energy. However, the misuse of stimulants, including amphetamines like Adderall and methylphenidate (Ritalin), is a growing concern. This misuse can lead to a range of symptoms including euphoria, aggressiveness, paranoia, rapid heart rate and changes in behaviour. Amphetamines are particularly appealing for their ability to increase energy and focus, attracting users like sleep-deprived truck drivers and college students. For instance, a study by the University of Michigan revealed that 9% of college students admitted to misusing Adderall. Similarly with over 13 million prescriptions filled in 2012 alone, methylphenidate is misused for comparable reasons.

Individuals addicted to stimulants may face withdrawal symptoms such as cravings, anxiety, depression and fatigue when trying to cease use. This points to the importance of careful management and monitoring of these medications to address stimulant dependency effectively.

Why Do People Get Addicted to Prescription Drugs?

The pathway to prescription drug addiction is complex and multifactorial, without a singular cause at its root. Genetics certainly play a central role; there’s often a familial pattern where addiction runs in families, though the exact genetic markers remain unidentified. The influence of brain chemistry cannot be understated either; some individuals may inherently lack certain neurotransmitters that evoke pleasure, leading them to compensate through prescription drugs. The environment in which one is raised also significantly impacts one’s propensity towards drug abuse, especially if addiction is a visible part of their upbringing, thereby normalising drug misuse as a coping mechanism for life’s challenges. Early exposure to substance abuse markedly increases the likelihood of developing addictive behaviors later in life. Further to that psychological aspects are deeply intertwined with prescription drug addiction. Many grappling with this issue are concurrently dealing with untreated or undiagnosed mental health disorders, seeking relief in medication misuse. This intricate web of genetic, biochemical, environmental and psychological factors highlights the complexity of addressing and understanding prescription drug addiction.

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