Addiction is a chronic and recurrent disease that infects the mind with the urge to engage in compulsive behaviors that are unhealthy for the individual. In 2009, a reported 23.5 million people aged 12 or older in the United States were in need of treatment for a drug or alcohol abuse problem, per the National Institute on Drug Abuse and only 2.6 million received specialty treatment. According to the White House, an approximate 1.2 million people were treated in emergency departments nationwide in 2009 for problems stemming from the use, misuse, or abuse of pharmaceutical drugs.

Addictive Properties of Prescriptions

Certain medications are addictive by nature whereas others are not. For example, Tylenol is not a psychically addictive medication. The base ingredient, acetaminophen, has no properties that allow for dependency to grow, and that’s really what addiction is all about — a chemical and physical dependency on a drug. Once this dependency develops, the user feels like he cannot function without the substance. True to form, without the substance, withdrawal symptoms set in that make going without the substance seem unbearable. These symptoms vary from drug to drug and include:

  • Fatigue
  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea that may or may not be accompanied by vomiting
  • Irritability
  • Sweating
  • Diarrhea
  • Drug cravings
  • Respiratory depression
  • Coma
  • Death
  • Mood swings

Aside from withdrawal, a dependency on a prescription drug is suspect if the following signs are present:

  • Doctor shopping
  • Overspending on drugs
  • Tolerance to the medication that leads to the need for a larger dose for the drug to be effective or the user to achieve the same effect
  • Decreased contact and interaction with friends and family; pulling away from activities once enjoyed

Prescriptions With a Purpose

Prescription drugs are rapidly growing in popularity among the drug abuse community. While hard substances like heroin and cocaine may pose serious threat to a user’s health, the average person is actually less likely to encounter those substances in their lifetime than they are prescription drugs. Likewise, overdoses on prescription opioid pain relievers specifically are at fault for more lives lost every year than both cocaine and heroin combined — more than 16,000 deaths in 2010 just in America, per Medical News Today. Many prescription drug users developed addiction after habitually using a medication for a legitimate medical reason, such as insomnia or chronic pain.

Of course, certain individuals have even fewer options, such as the mentally ill. Among medications used to treat a variety of mental health disorders, anxiety medications — such as benzodiazepines — are the most addictive of the bunch. The Royal College of Psychiatrists states that about four out of 10 people who take benzodiazepines daily for at least six weeks will develop a dependency on these drugs.

These meds are used mainly in the treatment of anxiety disorders — the most common mental illnesses in America, where some 40 million adults are struggling to cope with them, per the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Around 20 percent of individuals living with anxiety disorders will stumble into the realm of substance abuse at some point in their lives, according to Everyday Health. People with ADHD are also at risk, with the stimulant medication Adderall being the source of the fastest-growing prescription drug addictions in recent years. Of course, none of this is terribly surprising given that around half of all people with serious mental health disorders also engage in substance abuse, per Helpguide.

The Most Addictive Prescription Drug Categories

Overall, the most addictive prescription drugs fall into the following categories:

Among opioid painkillers, drugs such as oxycodone, Demerol, and codeine are popularly prescribed and the most addictive. Xanax and Klonopin fit the bill among benzos, amphetamines and Ritalin among stimulants, and phenobarbital remains the most addictive barbiturate. In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention accounted for a startling 259 million prescriptions being doled out to patients for opioid pain relievers. Benzodiazepines come in at around half that amount, per a 2008 analysis on past-year prescriptions for the anxiety meds, totaling 112.8 million, per a Journal of Psychiatry publication. Over 18 million prescriptions were written for Adderall — a stimulant used in the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder — in 2010, per the Huffington Post. Of all barbiturates, sleeping pills are the most commonly prescribed, totaling around 19 million scripts annually, the Global Information Network About Drugs reports.

Alternatives to Addictive Medicine

Certainly, there are alternatives to using these highly addictive medications, such as:

  • OTC non-addictive medications
  • Herbal remedies to treat symptoms
  • Acupuncture
  • Exercise
  • Yoga
  • Meditation
  • Diet changes

The best way to prevent an addiction to prescription drugs is to heed the warning labels that come with any prescribed medications and avoid inappropriate use and misuse of any drugs at your disposal. Using a medication more often than prescribed or for purposes aside from what the prescription is intended to treat qualifies as misuse, as does using someone else’s prescription. For those who have a history of addiction, prescription drugs that have addictive potential should only be used when deemed medically necessary and under the strict supervision of a trained physician.

Getting Help

At The Recovery Village, support and compassion await you. Prescription drug addiction isn’t something you should battle on your own, and it can be dangerous to attempt to in cases where withdrawal could be life-threatening. Help is only a phone call away. Call us today.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.