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What makes Prescription Drugs so Addictive?

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Prescription drugs are usually strong medications, which is why they require a prescription in the first place. Every medication has some risk for harmful effects – sometimes serious ones.

Doctor talking with female patientDoctors consider the potential benefits and risks to each patient before prescribing medications and take into account a lot of different factors, including the individual’s weight, other drugs being taken, prescription history, and any other medical conditions. If misused, however, prescription drugs can be just as dangerous as illegal “street drugs.” Prescription medications are designed to treat specific conditions; however, they often affect the body in other ways – some of which can be painful and, in some cases, dangerous. These are called side effects.

While care should be taken with any prescribed medication, opioids (opiate-based drugs) are generally considered the most addictive prescription drugs on the market. Many people abuse these doctor-prescribed drugs by taking them for their mind-altering effects – not because they need relief from pain symptoms. Sadly, even people who take opioids to cope with legitimate severe or chronic pain may find themselves addicted to these potent chemicals.1

Early identification of prescription drug abuse and early intervention may prevent the problem from turning into an addiction.

Certain Drugs Press the Brain’s “Happiness” Buttons

In the human brain, neurotransmitters (such as dopamine) send messages by attaching to receptors on nearby cells. The actions of these neurotransmitters and receptors cause the effects produced by prescription drugs. While each class of prescription medications works somewhat differently in the brain, each of them are addictive:

  • Opioid pain medications – These chemicals bind to molecules on cells known as opioid receptors – the same receptors that respond to heroin. These receptors are found on nerve cells in many areas of the brain and body, especially in brain areas involved in the perception of pain and pleasure. This type of drug includes hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxycodone (OxyContin) and fentanyl (Duragesic).
  • Stimulants – Prescription drugs intended for treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) fall into this category. They include amphetamines (Adderall®) and methylphenidates (Ritalin and Concerta). These medications have an effect similar to that of cocaine, causing a buildup of the brain chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine.
  • Depressants – This category of prescribed medications makes a person feel calm and relaxed in the same way that the “club drugs” GHB and Rohypnol do. Central nervous system (CNS) depressants intended for relieving anxiety symptoms include diazepam (Valium) and alprazolam (Xanax).

When abused, all of these classes of drugs directly or indirectly cause a pleasurable increase in the amount of dopamine in the brain’s reward pathway. Repeatedly seeking to experience that feeling can lead to addiction.2

When Does Regular Use Turn into Addiction?

Neon brainMedications that affect the brain can change the way it works, especially when they are taken over an extended period of time or in escalating doses. They can change the reward system in the brain, making it harder for a person to feel good without the drug. Intense cravings for more drugs usually ensue. This is referred to as “physical dependence,” and it is a key element in the addiction cycle.

This dependence on a drug happens because the brain and body adapt to having that drug in its system for awhile. A person may need larger doses of the drug to get the same effects initially experienced. This is known as “tolerance.” When drug use is stopped, uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms can occur. When people continue to use a drug despite numerous negative consequences, addiction is established.

Carefully following a doctor’s instructions for taking a prescribed medication helps make dependence or addiction less likely, since the medication is prescribed in amounts and forms considered appropriate for that specific individual. However, dependence and addiction are still potential risks when taking certain types of prescription drugs. Patients must always carefully weigh the risks against the benefits of any prescribed medication, and patients should communicate any issues or concerns to their doctor.1

Certain Prescription Drugs Are Dangerous

One particularly addictive prescription drug is OxyContin. One of the reasons it stands apart as one of the more addictive prescription drugs is its potential for misuse or abuse. When individuals snort or inject this opioid, they are getting much more of the drug in one dose than the manufacturer intended. This intense “high”alters the brain, causing users to seek out more and more of the intense feeling that’s produced by the excessive dosage. And when you’re dealing with OxyContin, repeatedly seeking out and ingesting large doses can prove to be not only addictive but, in some cases, fatal due to overdose.3

Signs of Prescription Addiction

Signs of addiction to prescription drugs include:

  • Stealing, forging or selling prescriptions
  • Taking higher doses than prescribed
  • Excessive mood swings or hostility
  • Increase or decrease in sleep
  • Poor decision-making
  • Appearing to be high, unusually energetic or revved up, or sedated
  • Continually “losing” prescriptions, requiring more prescriptions to be written
  • Seeking prescriptions from more than one doctor (i.e., “doctor shopping”)4

Michael’s House can help users successfully battle prescription drug addiction through our unique, integrated approach to treating the whole person, rather than addressing only one glaring issue. You can contact us at your convenience 24/7 for more helpful information about prescription drugs, substance abuse, and how to begin treatment in any of a variety of options, including outpatient and inpatient care. Bring an end to the vicious cycle of drug addiction and begin finding your authentic self… starting today.


“Prescription Drugs.” NIDA for Teens, National Institute on Drug Abuse. 30 May 2017. Web. Accessed 5 June 2017.

“Prescription and Over-the-Counter Medications.” National Institute on Drug Abuse. November 2015. Web. Accessed 5 June 2017.

Volkow, Nora D., Ph.D. “America’s Addiction to Opioids: Heroin and Prescription Drug Abuse.” National Institute on Drug Abuse. 14 May 2014. Web. Accessed 4 June 2017.

4 “Prescription Drug Abuse.” Diseases and Conditions, Mayo Clinic. 19 September 2015. Web. Accessed 4 June 2017.