Prescription drug addiction is very real. It’s disconcerting hearing that people who are on medications become addicted to the very pill that was once helping them. Or the fact that there are others who illegally obtain prescriptions to get high, relieve pain, and dull emotional stress. Prescription drug abuse is a serious disease that can have long-lasting repercussions physically and mentally, and many who cannot quite find themselves in hospitals, rehab facilities, or unfortunately end their life. The gradual process that happens from use to abuse with prescription drugs is insidious and oftentimes subtle in nature. A harmless pain pill given to a patient recovering from a broken bone may lead to addiction, long after the bone has healed. Most often there are other underlying factors to cause the normal user to become addicted, such as financial stress, trauma, latent addictive behaviors, head injury, emotional stress, or a combination of reasons which trigger the patient to return to medication and help them through the challenges. Prescription drug abuse is steadily on the rise, seeing an increase in older adults due to pain issues. According to national statistics, there are over 50 million Americans who have used prescription drugs for non-medical reasons.

Prescription Can Lead to Addiction

There are more and people living with a disease and chronic pain which benefit from prescription drugs to keep them from suffering and sometimes saving their lives. Asthma, diabetes, cancer, heart conditions, HIV, high blood pressure, are just a few illnesses which without drugs, many people would not survive. Chronic pain, depression, anxiety, mental illness- all would cause undue suffering without the ability to have access to prescription drugs. However, once prescribed pain relievers from an injury or illness, it may be difficult to cease taking them, even when the patient has healed. Thousands of people around the world have grown dependent on painkillers and mood stabilizers and have gone to great lengths to procure them. Dependence on drugs happens when our brain becomes accustomed to operating at a certain level that cannot function without the use of the substance. The neuropathways have been rewired to seek out the chemical need for the substance, which causes reactionary responses, rather than willpower or intellectualizing the problem. The addict knows they should stop but cannot do so without significant treatment because of the brain’s pleasure-seeking chemicals it creates. There are different categories that define drug dependence, often starting with casual using, advanced user, and then full-blown addiction. When someone reaches a tolerance level, this is often the first sign that they will continue down the road of addiction, until they “hit bottom.” This downward spiral of addiction can be explained in levels:

  1. Tolerance has begun: a person uses increased amounts of the substance to feel the same effects that the small doses used to feel. A grown tolerance has started and many people “chase the high” by using more amount and more frequent.
  2. Continued use even with bad consequences: people can go to jail, lose their jobs, lose relationships and even overdose and still return to using.
  3. Obsessive-compulsive intensive use: nothing matters to the addict who will go to any length in order to use the substance. They don’t care about anyone or anything except to use.

Commonly Abused Prescription Drugs There are three categories of prescription drugs which are most often abused. These are:

  • Opioids, which are used to treat pain.
  • Stimulants which treat attention deficits and disorders.
  • Depressants that help with anxiety, stress and sleep disorders which work on the central nervous system.


Painkilling prescription drugs have been around for over 100 years and have steadily risen from needed use to abuse and addiction- partially due to human longevity has increased and given more patients chronic or specific pain that needs the attention of a pain reliever. In addition, when heroin or morphine cannot be found, many addicts turn to other painkillers such as:

  • Vicodin
  • Norco
  • Methadone
  • Percocet
  • OxyContin
  • Fentanyl

To understand how and why different prescription drugs work on the system, may assist in how to treat certain addictions and realize the risks involved. There can be side-effects and withdrawals which need different treatments and approaches to abstaining from use. Some of the more commonly abused prescription drugs are explained:

Vicodin & Norco

These drugs are designed specifically to treat pain levels from moderate to severe. The medication contains hydrocodone and acetaminophen.  Hydrocodone is in the narcotics class while acetaminophen a mild pain reliever (over-the-counter Tylenol.) Vicodin and Norco are widely used and popular in the US for patients involved with medical issues, surgeries, and accidents which resulted in physical damages to the body. Vicodin and Norco are taken orally by prescription and has subtle changes to the user when ingested unless of course, the amounts increase past medical orders.  To speed up the chemical brain changes, abusers of this narcotic class will crush the pills into a powder, subsequently snorting it, or create a mixture for intravenous drug use. This can lead to serious problems as narcotics enter the brain at a much faster rate. Sometimes the users mix Vicodin or Norco with other prescriptions, which can end in overdose and death from toxifying the brain of narcotics. While not addictive, an abundance of acetaminophen can result in severe liver damage, causing internal organ shut-down and death.

OxyContin (Oxycodone)

This prescription drug was created to specifically treat moderate-to-severe pain, such as with cancer patients. There is no mixture with acetaminophen and acts as a complete and pure narcotic, helping people keep serious conditions under a certain amount of control and significant pain reduction. There are extended-release capsules that work up to twelve hours of pain reduction. OxyContin can be a life-saver for patients who require significant pain reduction from chronic illness. Drug seekers will abuse OxyContin by mixing the drug or using it purely by nasal snorting injections. Because of the 100% narcotic substance, OxyContin can affect the brain chemistry quickly.


Fentanyl is the active ingredient in brand name painkillers such as Fentora, Duragesic, and Actiq. Fentanyl is prescribed by medical professionals when other narcotic painkillers have ceased to be effective. Fentanyl is prescribed for patients with severe pain issues, who may have grown a tolerance for Vicodin or OxyContin. Unlike the other painkillers, Fentanyl is transmitted into the body via a shot or patch. A common abuse of this medication is to scrape the patch and inject or swallow the gel that is inside. Needless to say, any transdermal medication which has a high narcotic level has severe consequences when abused.  It is highly addictive and widely abused, being 50 times more potent than heroin. Though the medication has been around since the 1960’s, this synthetic opioid has caused thousands of reported deaths in the US over the last few years, popularized after music star Prince, died of an accidental overdose.



Adderall is a popular central nervous system stimulant that is used to treat Attention Deficit Disorder, specifically with the subcategory of Hyperactivity. (The current DSM does not differentiate from ADD and ADHD anymore). The most active ingredient of the drug is amphetamine, commonly referred to as “speed.” It reacts on the brain as a cognitive enhancer and gives a feeling of increased energy for people who are not diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. Because many people, especially adolescents and young adults are diagnosed with ADD, some drug seeking clients in treatment centers make false claims that they have to ADD to get the desired prescription.


Ritalin was at one time the only medication prescribed for young people who were “hyperactive.” It contains amphetamine and is orally ingested in tablet form of varying milligrams from 5-20mg’s. The effects of Ritalin are an intense focus and euphoric feeling, often used by people who need to study or stay awake for long periods of time such as college students or truckers. Because of its properties of increased energy, Ritalin has also been abused by people who want to lose weight where dieting has failed. Ritalin is often not seen as abuse but rather justified by the user, who sees it as a necessary component to get through a challenge which requires long hours of intense focus.



Xanax is prescribed for people who have been diagnosed with panic disorder. It is a fast-acting, highly addictive medication which relives the patient from panic attacks but can also send an undiagnosed addict into a fast state of chemical brain change. The active ingredient is alprazolam.  Xanax is reportedly ten times more potent than Valium, another popular benzodiazepine, or “benzo.” People can take too many benzo’s and mix with other drugs or alcohol, resulting on accidental overdose.


Another fast-acting depressant that is used to treat a myriad of anxiety disorders is the widely popular, Valium. The active ingredient in this medication is a benzodiazepine, diazepam. When mixing with other substances such as stimulants, pain killers, and alcohol, the mixed high has often led to accidental overdose before the person realizes they have ingested too much.

Lorazepam (Ativan)

Lorazepam may be prescribed for clients going through detox who are experiencing moderate to severe anxiety and who have also a difficulty sleeping. However, it will be closely monitored by the medical staff due to its’ fast-acting changes that it delivers. Somewhat controversial, many facilities do not feel the need to prescribe Ativan unless other medications do not work. Ativan is a medication that has a high street value, making it a drug that is sold to buy other illicit drugs. Ativan on its own can be addictive.

Clonazepam (Klonopin)

Klonopin is a benzodiazepine medication prescribed for people with moderate to severe anxiety and prone to panic attacks. It is also a fast-acting drug which produces chemical changes in a shot time for the user. It has a powerful ingredient that has caused undiagnosed users to visit the emergency rooms suffering from a myriad of health issues. Mixed with opioids, Klonopin has caused coma, respiratory ailments, hallucinations, rapid mood swings, and death.

Treatment for Prescription Abuse

People have a tendency to think that rehab is only for illegal drug users or alcoholics, not those who abuse pills. Addiction treatment centers are seeing more and more clients become aware that there is help for them. When a person is suffering from a prescription drug addiction, a treatment center is a life-saving option, in that there is a need to specialize in the withdrawal and detoxification levels. Medical staff must be involved, often on a more detailed monitored basis. The withdrawal period may be lengthy, and some central nervous system drugs cause seizures if abruptly ceased, while opioid withdrawals of any form can make a person quite ill. [su_note note_color=”#f4f4f3″]When in a treatment center for the detox of prescription drugs, the program will use a combination of techniques to help the client stabilize and sustain recovery. They will work with therapists, engage in group, be monitored by medical staff, and create a treatment plan that works for them to stay sober in transitioning back into their lives. Underlying issues, understanding addiction, and being mindful of behaviors will help the client learn how to reenter their professional and personal lives.[/su_note] Relapse with prescription drugs is common, being that painkillers and anti-anxiety medications are easily obtained by a medical doctor. There is a high percentage of people relapsing after leaving a treatment facility, which can be circumvented if the client realizes the magnitude of the addiction. Prescription addiction is just as severe as any other substance abuse, though many still view it as less so. A treatment center should provide the prescription drug user with an in-depth education of the addictive qualities of medication and be able to walk them through a relapse prevention program. Relapse prevention is key for any person suffering from addiction, as people can learn to identify triggers and impulses which lead them using. What’s Next? If you or someone you know may be addicted to prescription drugs, it’s best to get help right away. Talk to a doctor about their thoughts of enrollment in a treatment center which is medically staffed, so the best care can be taken in decreasing and ending the medication. Looking for treatment in a center that provides aftercare is imperative for the prescription drug user. A comprehensive program in a safe environment and learning to live drug free is obtainable. People can recover from prescription drugs and  can lead healthy and happy lives.