Prescription drug abuse is a growing national epidemic – with an alarming rise in fatal overdoses due to opioid painkillers and other pharmaceuticals.
Every day, an estimated 114 Americans die from drug overdoses, and 61 of those deaths (53%) are related to prescription medications, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
New research suggests that the abuse of prescription opioid drugs is also a gateway to heroin use for many people (since heroin is often a cheaper, more accessible opioid).
“There is a growing awareness that the non-medical use of prescription opioids can have many dangerous consequences,” says Robert Lubran, Director of the Division of Pharmacologic Therapies for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Center for Substance Abuse Treatment.
The health risks increase when opioids are combined with alcohol and other drugs, such as benzodiazepines, Lubran says. “That is why it is imperative that people use these drugs only as prescribed, properly store them and dispose of any remaining medication when it is no longer needed,” he says. “People who feel that they may have a problem with the medication – including developing a dependency on it – should seek immediate medical treatment.”
Tougher Restrictions on Painkillers
To combat rampant abuse of prescription drugs, the U.S. government is placing tighter regulations on potentially addictive medications.
New regulations that began in October, 2014 prevent doctors from calling in a prescription for the most widely used painkiller in America – hydrocodone mixed with acetaminophen. Patients must see their doctor to obtain a new prescription every 90 days, and must bring a physical prescription to the pharmacy. These changes are part of a new U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency rule that re-classifies hydrocodone products from Schedule III to the more restrictive Schedule II category.
There is also a move toward more electronic prescribing of controlled substances, to deter “doctor shopping,” forged prescriptions and other forms of abuse.
An Urgent Problem
The illegal sale and use of prescriptions has reached an all-time high, and the CDC has labeled prescription drug abuse an “epidemic.” The relative ease at which prescriptions can be obtained, and misconceptions that prescription drugs are less harmful or addictive than other drugs, contribute to the crisis.
- In 2012, there were 41,502 fatal drug overdoses in the United States – a 146% increase since 1999. Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of injury death in the United States – responsible for more deaths of people ages 25-64 than motor vehicle accidents.
- Prescription drugs accounted for more than half of unintentional drug overdoses in 2012 (22,114 of the total 41,502 deaths were due to pharmaceutical abuse).
- The majority of prescription drug overdoses (72%) involve opioid pain relievers such as oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin) and methadone.
- Another 30% of prescription drug overdoses are due to benzodiazepines such as the commonly prescribed Valium and Xanax (some deaths include a combination of drugs).
- Prescription drug misuse and abuse resulted in 1.4 million emergency room visits in 2012.
Commonly Abused Prescriptions
While prescription drugs improve the quality of life for many people in chronic pain – or those recovering from surgery, accidents or illness – diversion is common. An estimated one in 20 Americans use legally-prescribed medications for non-medical or recreational use, the CDC reports.
Three kinds of prescription drugs are typically abused:
Opioids for pain relief
These powerful narcotics include hydrocodone (brand name Vicodin), oxycodone (Oxycontin), morphine, fentanyl, codeine, methadone, hydrocodone/acetaminophen combinations (Lortab) and other medications.
Some of these drugs are among the most lethal pain relievers, such as fentanyl – which is 80-100 times stronger than morphine. Methadone is often used to treat opioid addiction, but can be abused and has properties that mute pain, as well.
When abused, opioids can slow breathing, result in dangerously low blood pressure, and prompt comas. Opioid pain relievers are prominent in overdose deaths and emergency room visits, and account for more fatal overdoses than heroin and cocaine combined, according to the CDC.
Central Nervous System Depressants
This class of legally prescribed drugs includes sleep and anxiety medications such as barbiturates (Seconal, Nembutal, Mebaral) and benzodiazepines or “benzos” (Ativan, Valium, Klonopin, Xanax, among others).
While depressants can help the user sleep, or calm down during a panic attack, these medications can be addictive. They can cause slurred speech, dizziness, confusion and loss of memory – and heart and lung distress, especially during withdrawal or when used in conjunction with alcohol.
Stimulants include amphetamines and methylphenidate that are prescribed to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obesity and narcolepsy. These include medications such as Adderall, Concerta, Ritalin and Dexedrine.
Abuse of stimulants may reduce appetite and cause a spike in heart rate and blood pressure. Even more serious, stimulant abuse can prompt heart attack, seizures and stroke. Lasting effects include a possibility for tremors, delirium, paranoia, hallucinations, loss of coordination and other problems.
Are You at Risk for Addiction?
If you find yourself increasingly dependent on prescription drugs, and ingest more than the doctor intended, you may have a problem. The abuse of prescription drugs takes many forms, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA):
Self-medicating with a drug that has been prescribed for someone else
People often unknowingly contribute to drug addiction by sharing their unused pain relievers with others. The 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health reports that 71 percent of people ages 12+ who abused prescription pain relievers got them from a friend or relative (for free, or they purchased or stole others’ prescriptions).
Taking a drug in a higher quantity than prescribed
Using a drug in another manner than prescribed
This includes crushing tablets to snort or inject the powder, amplifying the effects of the drug.
Taking a prescription drug for recreational purposes (to get high) or for a purpose not intended by a doctor
College students often abuse stimulants such as Adderall to boost alertness.
If you or someone you care about has a problem with prescription drug dependence, help is available. Today, there are many evidence-based treatment programs that begin with detoxification and use a combination of medications and behavior therapy to treat addiction.
For example, medications such as Naltrexone, Methadone and Buprenorphine are often effective in helping people overcome opioid dependence. These agents suppress withdrawal symptoms, block the euphoric effects of opiates and relieve cravings. Multiple research studies are being funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) to identify promising treatments for stimulant addiction.
An effective treatment program should be customized to the needs of the whole person, addressing all medical and mental health issues. A strong “aftercare” component, with relapse prevention strategies, is also essential to maintain treatment gains and achieve lasting recovery. Aftercare may include options such as sober living communities and outpatient counseling.
Typically, at least 90 days of rehabilitation treatment are needed to overcome drug addiction, according to NIDA studies. Talk with your physician about a rehabilitation program, or call our experienced counselors at drugrehab.org:
We provide free, confidential referrals to treatment programs and rehab clinics nationwide. Our goal is to help you find the best treatment option for your unique needs – whether you require intensive inpatient rehab or need help for a dual diagnosis.
Here are some additional resources to support your recovery from prescription drug dependence:
MUTUAL AID/SUPPORT GROUPS
These websites provide an extensive list of mutual aid organizations, 12-step programs and other support resources for people with addiction:
http://na.org/ (Narcotics Anonymous)
http://www.banoxycontin.com is a website where people can sign a petition online to aid in the banning of Oxycontin.
1-800-NCA-CALL (800-622-2255) 24-hour helpline sponsored by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.
1-800-662-HELP (4357) 24-hour National Drug and Alcohol Abuse Hotline offering information and referral services to people seeking treatment and other assistance; sponsored by the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (CSAT)
Reviews questions to ask when searching for a rehabilitation program. A free publication from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
Free Family Support & Involvement Guide from DrugRehab.org. Includes information on how to support a loved one in rehab, what to look for in a treatment program, what to do if a loved one resists treatment, etc.