A report produced by Trust for America’s Health suggests that prescription drugs, not heroin or cocaine, are responsible for the majority of overdose deaths in this country. While almost any prescription drug could be a target of abuse, just three classes of drugs are often implicated by experts when they’re asked to explain the prescription drug abuse issue: painkillers, benzodiazepines, and amphetamines. These drugs can be deadly, but education can keep the problem from striking, and if it does, treatment can help it to abate.
Pulled muscles, surgical incisions, broken bones and cracked teeth can all cause an intense amount of pain that makes concentration difficult. Sometimes, pain can be so intense that it makes life seem as though it’s not worth living. Anyone who has pain like this has a right to appropriate pain control, and prescription drugs can provide that relief. Often, however, these drugs contain elements that trigger the brain’s pleasure pathways.
Prescription painkillers like Vicodin and OxyContin contain an opioid ingredient that’s similar in structure to heroin. This ingredient latches to receptors in the brain and triggers a series of chemical reactions that boost a feeling of confidence, happiness, and relaxation. The brain remembers this sensation, and in time, brain cells may call out for the drugs even when the signal of pain is no longer present. People can quickly escalate their use, taking remarkably high doses on an unusual schedule, all in a desperate quest to get high.
These drugs are also quite dangerous when they’re abused, however, as they can slow breathing rates and heart rates. People can overdose on the pills in no time at all, with no advanced warning that the doses they’re taking are dangerous. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have called prescription painkiller abuse an “epidemic,” due to the high death rates that are attributed to this particular substance.
While prescription painkillers often hog the spotlight in stories about drug abuse, there are other drugs that are also moving up in popularity. For example, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration suggests that the number of people admitting to an addiction to benzodiazepines has tripled between the years of 1998 and 2008.
Many people don’t immediately recognize the word “benzodiazepine,” but they might recognize the brand names of these drugs, including:
These medications have a sedating effect, so they can be wonderful therapies for people with insomnia or anxiety disorders. But they also tend to work on the same pleasure pathways in the brain used by addictive drugs, spiking the presence of chemicals the brain uses to signal pleasure. By taking benzodiazepines, people might inadvertently get high, and they might also become addicted to the pleasure each pill can bring.
The sedating effects of benzodiazepines can also lead to death, as these drugs can cause people to become so sleepy and so uncoordinated that they simply drop into a heap. They may seem as though they’re sleeping, but breathing rates might be much too slow to support life.
Most people are aware of the dangers of illegal amphetamine drugs sold by dealers, especially after watching a few episodes of Breaking Bad, but there are prescription drugs that work in much the same way, and they cause the same level of damage seen with notorious illicit drugs. Amphetamine-like medications are commonly prescribed to people who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and among them, Ritalin is the most popular. For people with ADHD, these drugs provide a focusing effect that allows them to pay attention to the world around them without feeling the need to interrupt or otherwise cause a disruption. For people who don’t have ADHD, however, the drugs can do something much different.
Research conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse suggests that Ritalin has a chemical effect similar to cocaine. Both drugs cause the brain to pump out signals of pleasure at doses never seen in an unadulterated brain, and the user of the drugs interprets the sensation as a rush or a high. People who abuse Ritalin tend to augment the experience by crushing pills, mixing the pills with water and injecting the solution. This boosts chemical changes even more.
Amphetamines don’t cause sedation, so people who abuse Ritalin aren’t at risk for falling asleep without waking up. Instead, these drugs tend to work directly on vital systems in the body, and abuse can lead to rapid heart rates, high body temperatures, and seizures. Some people do irreparable harm to their bodies through the course of their addictions.
Many people with real mental health and physical concerns take medications for months or even years, and they never adjust their doses without discussing the issue with their doctors. Even so, these people might feel ill or out of sorts when they’re not taking their drugs, and they may become concerned that their physical symptoms point to an addiction issue.
While a physical need for drugs is common for people who have addictions, it’s the psychological need to use and abuse drugs that often characterizes a true addiction. People like this don’t discuss their doses with their doctors, and they don’t follow the rules. They take the drugs on their own terms, for their own purposes, and they feel an emotional and psychological need for the substances that can’t be explained away. They’re driven on an emotional level, and that’s the key to an addiction problem.
Those who aren’t sure that their drug use fits within the realm of acceptable should discuss the problem with their doctors before abandoning the drugs altogether. Many of these medications, particularly those used to combat a mental illness, can leave damage behind, and the doses must be tapered instead of using a cold turkey quitting process. A consulting doctor should always be involved with these issues.
One of the best ways to deal with a prescription drug abuse problem is to prevent the issue from ever cropping up. Often, that means getting rid of high-value drugs that are no longer needed in order to control a medical condition. Also, leaving drugs open and accessible in the family medicine cabinet is an open invitation for people to dabble and experiment, and this can quickly lead to an addiction issue.
Many communities have drug take-back programs that allow people to dispose of their unwanted medications for free. But if this option isn’t available, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration suggests that people can follow these steps in order to dispose of their drugs in household trash bins:
- Mix whole pills or medical liquids with used coffee grounds or kitty litter.
- Pour the mixture into a plastic bag, and seal the bag securely.
- Throw the bag in with household garbage.
- Scrape the label from the pill bottle, and cut it into small pieces.
- Recycle the pill bottle.
It’s also vital to store used medications in a cabinet that locks. Children and curious relatives could quickly nab pills that aren’t protected by a lock, leaving someone who has a medical condition without the therapies that could provide vital help. Counting pills and ensuring that none are missing is also an excellent way to spot a pilfering issue.
But if the person who has the prescription is abusing the drug, the issue is trickier. In general, if the medication doesn’t seem to be working or the patient is tempted to tinker with dosages or timetables, a doctor’s help might be needed. Switching from one medication to another might help to thwart an addiction that’s just coming to life, and discussing the issue openly can help medical experts steer their patients to therapies that could keep the problem from progressing.
The Trust for America’s Health suggests that the abuse of prescription drugs costs this country over $53 billion each year. Recovery can’t take place until people who have these addiction issues speak up and ask for help. Those who do may find that healing is closer to home than they ever thought possible.
Addiction treatment programs for prescription drug abuse are tailored and customized, based on the drugs the person used and the length of time that the addiction has progressed unchecked. All of these medications work just a little bit differently within the human body, leaving different kinds of damage behind, so customized care is the best way to address all the specific concerns that the drugs can cause. Therapy can also help people to understand why they were compelled to abuse their medications, and what they might need to change in the future in order to keep the problem from recurring.
At Michael’s House, we offer customized treatment programs for people who have addictions. We also provide integrated care for people who have mental health issues in addition to addiction concerns. If you’d like to know more about our programs, just call 760.548.4032. Our admissions coordinators are on hand and are happy to answer your questions.