Prescription Drug Addiction
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Prescription Drug Addiction

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Prescription drug addiction is the compulsive seeking and overuse—despite harmful consequences—of prescription drugs. Addiction can sometimes be difficult to diagnose since patients with chronic pain often do need frequent pain medication, and physical dependence can occur with many drugs taken as prescribed. A drug-addicted body however, requires the drug regularly to avoid withdrawal symptoms (such as nausea, vomiting, and sweating) and to feel good.

Misuse of prescription drugs involves using a medication for a purpose other than which it was prescribed (eg, taking pain medication to aid sleep or ease anxiety, rather than to treat pain). Physical dependence happens with many drugs, even non-addictive drugs, such as corticosteroids and beta-blockers, and is noticeable after a medication is stopped suddenly. Addiction is a much more severe physical dependence and brain disease, marked by an out-of-control need and craving, affecting relationships, and impacting social obligations (eg, work and school).

The most commonly abused prescription drugs are opioids (used to treat pain: includes morphine, codeine, and oxycodone), central nervous system (CNS) depressants (used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders; includes barbiturates and benzodiazepines), and stimulants (used to treat narcolepsy and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; includes dextroamphetamine and methylphenidate).


The reasons people become addicted to prescription drugs, and begin to take them in a harmful and non-prescribed manner, are largely unknown, although there is evidence that genetic (hereditary) factors may play a part. Anxiety, depression, loneliness, and a history of alcoholism, are often associated with addiction. Peer pressure and personality traits can also play a role.

Researchers do know that the addicting drug causes changes in brain pathways and alters the way people feel about reward and a sense of well-being.

Brain Pathways

Brain nerve pathways

© 2008 Nucleus Medical Art, Inc.

Risk Factors

A risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease or condition.

The following factors increase your chance of developing a prescription drug addiction. If you are taking prescription medications and have any of these risk factors, tell your doctor:

  • Not following directions when taking prescription medications (beginning to misuse)
  • Family or personal history of substance abuse
  • Age: older than 65 or younger than 26
  • Gender: female


The symptoms below are associated with prescription drug addiction. If you experience any one of them, see your physician.

  • Rapid increase in the amount of medication needed
  • Moving from one doctor to another for additional prescriptions
  • Craving the medication
  • Inability to stop or limit medication use
  • Withdrawal symptoms associated with stopping the medication (eg, anxiety, sweating, nausea and vomiting, goose bumps on the skin, dilated pupils)
  • Using significant effort to acquire the medication
  • Medication use that interferes with activities
  • Compulsive use of the medication despite adverse effects


Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam. He or she will ask you specific questions about your prescription medication use, such as how long you have been using the medication and how often you use it.


Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Addictions can be treated effectively through detoxification and psychosocial counseling. Treatment will depend on the type of drug you use and your specific needs.

Treatment options include the following:


Detoxification involves managing the symptoms of withdrawal while the abused medication leaves your system. Tapering slowly off the drug and keeping your blood pressure and heart rhythms under control are of important, since the symptoms of withdrawal can be life-threatening. Other medications are often introduced to counteract the effects of addiction and withdrawal symptoms. This should be done under the supervision of a physician in a hospital or other outpatient detoxification setting. It is then followed by other therapies or medications to avoid relapse.

Behavioral Therapies

Behavioral therapies can help people who are addicted to prescription drugs stop using the drug, learn to function without it, handle cravings, and avoid situations in which relapse is likely. Behavioral therapy may include individual, group, or family counseling.


Beyond addiction, medications to treat underlying issues, such as depression or anxiety, may be needed to lead a full and productive life and avoid relapse.


To reduce your chance of developing a prescription drug addiction, take the following steps:

  • Carefully follow directions.
  • Be aware of potential interactions with other drugs.
  • Talk with your doctor before changing a dosing regimen.
  • Never use another person's prescription.
  • Tell your doctor all the medications, including over-the-counter medications and dietary and herbal supplements, you are taking.


National Institute on Drug Abuse

Partnership for a Drug-free America


Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse

Health Canada


Addiction to pain medication. Mayo Clinic website. Available at: Accessed May 22, 2008.

Drug addiction. Mayo Clinic website. Available at: Accessed May 22, 2008.

Pain pill addiction: what’s the risk? Mayo Clinic website. Available at: Accessed May 22, 2008.

Prescription drugs: abuse and addiction. National Institute on Drug Abuse website. Available at: Accessed May 22, 2008.

Last reviewed May 2008 by Theodor B. Rais, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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