Statistics on prescription drug abuse are startling: deaths from drug overdose in the United States have tripled since 1990. The bulk of deaths caused by drug overdose have been from prescription drugs. The misuse of prescription medication is and will be at the forefront of public health concerns.
Why does prescription drug abuse occur and who ends up addicted are important points to consider when examining this issue. Anna Lembke, MD, is an addiction expert at the Stanford School of Medicine and spoke about the development of prescription drug addiction. Lembke brings to attention the fact that most people who end up addicted to prescription medication weren't just "looking for a buzz."
Doctors who prescribe medication are also just trying to help patients who are suffering from chronic pain or other ailments. The issue with prescription drugs is when people continue taking them habitually. Lembke says, "The problem with... prescription opioids is that they actually do work for pain initially... But for most people, after you take them every day for let's say a month or more, [you] build up tolerance where they stop working so then you need more of the same drug to get the same effect and it escalates on like that."
Building up a tolerance is what leads to drug abuse in the first place. Once a tolerance for a drug has been created, the person requires more and more of that painkiller to feel its effect. If the individual cannot get more of the medication, symptoms of withdrawal can occur. Withdrawal symptoms are highly unpleasant and can make the individual extremely sick. If there is a physical dependence on prescription drugs, the individual must undergo medically-managed detox to safely withdrawal from the substance.
The journey from taking prescription drugs to prescription drug abuse is indirect, that's why many become addicted. "I really think the process is insidious, both for the patients who become addicted and the doctors who prescribe them. It happens in a subtle journey – when all of the sudden [patients are] using them not just for pain but also maybe to relax themselves, to lift their mood, to be able to go out to a party if they're feeling anxious, and the doctors continue to prescribe them because they started out working, the patients were happy [and] their function improved. The dose is escalating, but they want to keep the patient happy for all kinds of reasons," says Lembke.
The take home message is: prescription drug addiction can happen to anyone — men, women, the young and elderly, are susceptible.