Understanding Prescription Drug Abuse, Addiction, and Treatment

More than 131 million people (66% of the population) in the United States use prescription drugs–primarily to improve their quality of life by treating a range of mental and physical health conditions.[1] However, when abused, some prescription drugs can be addictive.

In this article, you will learn:

  • What is considered prescription misuse
  • The most commonly abused prescription drugs and their risks
  • Signs of prescription drug addiction
  • What to expect during prescription drug rehab

What is Prescription Drug Abuse?

Prescription drugs are intended to be taken as prescribed. When prescribed by a licensed physician and dispensed by a pharmacy, they come with instructions regarding what dose to take and how often.

Prescription drug abuse or misuse involves using prescription medications in a way that goes against your doctor’s orders. Examples of prescription misuse include:

  • Taking larger doses than directed
  • Taking medication more frequently than prescribed
  • Mixing medications with alcohol or other drugs
  • Taking old prescriptions that you no longer need
  • Consuming medications that don’t belong to you
  • Changing the method of administration (i.e. crushing, snorting, injecting, or smoking medications that are supposed to be taken orally)

Using prescription drugs in any of these manners can increase the risk of adverse side effects, including physical dependence and addiction.

Commonly Abused Prescription Drugs and the Dangers

In 2021, an estimated 14.3 million people over the age of 12 reported abusing any type of prescription drug.[2] The most commonly misused prescription drugs are:


Opioids, also known as painkillers, are drugs that are prescribed to treat pain, either chronic or acute. They bind to opioid receptors in the brain to reduce the perception of pain. They also decrease activity in the central nervous system (CNS) and increase the activity of dopamine in the brain, a neurotransmitter that is associated with feelings of pleasure and reward.[3]

Some of the most widely abused prescription painkillers are:

  • Oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet, Roxicodone)
  • Hydrocodone (Vicodin, Norco, Lorcet)
  • Codeine
  • Morphine
  • Fentanyl (Duragesic, Actiq, Fentora)
  • Hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
  • Methadone
  • Tramadol (Ultram)
  • Meperidine (Demerol)

In 2021, about 8.7 million people misused prescription opioids, 5.0 million had an opioid use disorder, and 16,706 people died as a result of an overdose involving these drugs.[2]

Opioid painkillers are considered some of the most dangerous drugs to abuse because of their potential to cause physical dependence, addiction, and overdose. Potential dangers of opioid abuse include:

  • Painful withdrawal symptoms
  • Risk of respiratory depression and overdose
  • Gastrointestinal (GI) issues including constipation
  • Increased sensitivity to pain over time, known as opioid-induced hyperalgesia.
  • Negative effects on mental health, including depression and anxiety.

Central Nervous System (CNS) Depressants

CNS depressants slow down or suppress activity in the central nervous system (CNS). These drugs include sedatives, which as used to treat anxiety, sleep disorders, and seizures, or barbiturates and benzodiazepines, a class of drugs that are used to treat anxiety disorders and work by enhancing the inhibitory effects of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. This promotes relaxation and sleep.[4]

In 2021, about 4.9 million people misused tranquilizers or sedatives, and 3.9 million misused benzodiazepines. About 2.2 million had a substance use disorder and approximately 12,499 people died that year from an overdose involving benzodiazepines.[2]

Risks associated with sedative or benzodiazepine abuse include:

  • Development of tolerance and dependence, requiring higher doses for the same effect
  • Risk of overdose, particularly when combined with other central nervous system depressants like alcohol
  • Cognitive impairment, including memory and concentration problems
  • Increased risk of accidents and injuries due to impaired coordination and judgment
  • Potentially life-threatening withdrawal symptoms upon discontinuation, including rebound anxiety, insomnia, and seizures in severe cases


Stimulant drugs are used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), narcolepsy, and obesity. They include medications like:

  • Amphetamine/dextroamphetamine (Adderall)
  • Methamphetamine (Desoxyn)
  • Methylphenidate (Concerta, Ritalin)
  • Modafinil (Provigil)
  • Phentermine (Adipex, ionamin)
  • Dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine)

These drugs work by increasing activity in the CNS. They primarily work by increasing the levels of norepinephrine and dopamine in the brain.

Norepinephrine and dopamine are neurotransmitters involved in the regulation of attention, motivation, and pleasure. By enhancing the activity of these neurotransmitters, stimulants can improve focus, alertness, and cognitive function. They can also increase heart rate and blood pressure.[5]

An estimated 3.7 million people over the age of 12 misused prescription stimulants and 1.5 million were addicted to them in 2021.[2]

Like opioids and depressants, stimulants can have a range of negative consequences, such as:

  • Increased risk of heart problems, including irregular heartbeats, high blood pressure, and heart attacks
  • Development of tolerance, requiring higher doses to achieve the desired effects
  • Potential for addiction and dependence
  • Psychiatric effects such as anxiety, paranoia, and hallucinations
  • Disruption of sleep patterns and appetite which leads to weight loss and malnutrition

How Prescription Drug Addiction Develops

No one sets out with the goal of abusing or getting addicted to prescription medications. In many cases, prescription drug addiction begins when a person is prescribed medication by their doctor. They develop a tolerance, start taking more, and realize they enjoy the effects the drugs produce. Or, they experiment with a medication found in their parent’s medicine cabinets or try taking a pill with friends just to have fun, only to begin a cycle of repeated drug abuse that results in addiction.

Studies have found that an estimated 3-19% of people who take prescription pain medications for pain get addicted to them.[6] Unfortunately, prescription opioid addiction often progresses into addiction to illicit opioids. In fact, about 80% of people who are addicted to heroin were addicted to prescription opioids first.[7]

Certain risk factors can increase the potential for the development of addiction. These include:

  • Having certain mental health disorders like anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Suffering from chronic pain or other conditions for which prescription drugs are used to treat
  • Having a history of substance abuse
  • Having a family history of substance use disorders
  • Taking medications longer than directed or in higher doses
  • Gender–studies have found that women are more prone to prescription drug misuse than men
  • Age–Young adults aged 18-25 as well as older adults who are 65 years or older are at a higher risk of prescription drug misuse.

Signs of Prescription Drug Addiction

Prescription drug addiction can change the way a person thinks, feels, behaves, and interacts with the world around them. Common signs and symptoms include:

  • Taking medications in larger amounts or more often than prescribed
  • Visiting multiple doctors, sometimes in multiple states, to obtain more refills in a practice known as “doctor shopping”
  • Developing reduced sensitivity to the drug’s effects (tolerance), requiring higher doses to achieve the desired effects
  • Becoming physically dependent on the drugs to the point where withdrawal symptoms occur if you stop taking them
  • Having problems at work, school, or home as a result of one’s substance abuse or behaviors
  • Spending excess time and money on drugs
  • Neglecting responsibilities or activities that one used to enjoy
  • Isolating from friends and family
  • Making multiple failed attempts to quit using drugs and stay sober
  • Continuing to misuse prescription drugs despite their effects on one’s physical, mental, emotional, or social health

Misusing prescription drugs can lead to serious, life-altering consequences. If you or a family member are struggling, seek substance abuse treatment as soon as possible. Call Ascend Recovery Centers now to speak with a team member about your treatment options.

Prescription Drug Addiction Treatment

Addressing prescription drug addiction requires a comprehensive, whole-person approach. Treatment involves:

Medical Detox

Prescription drug rehab begins with medical detox. The detox process involves safely managing withdrawal symptoms under the supervision of medical professionals.

For CNS depressant withdrawal, individuals may be slowly tapered off the drugs until their withdrawal symptoms subside. However, for stimulant withdrawal, individuals may be given symptoms specific to managing their symptoms. Opioid withdrawal is the only drug withdrawal syndrome with medications approved specifically to treat it, including buprenorphine and methadone.

Withdrawal from prescription drugs can be serious and difficult to accomplish on your own. A supervised detox can improve the chances of success and prevent dangerous complications from occurring. By gradually tapering off the addictive substance and providing medications to alleviate discomfort, medical detox ensures a smoother transition to sobriety.

A Continuum of Care

Effective treatment for prescription drug addiction doesn’t end with detox; it’s a continuous process that requires ongoing support and guidance. A continuum of care offers a convenient transition from one level of treatment to another, ensuring individuals receive the appropriate level of care based on their evolving needs.

This may include inpatient residential treatment, partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), and outpatient programs (OPs). Clients step down to lower levels of care as their needs shift from intensive treatment to recovery management.

Behavioral Therapy

Behavioral therapy is an integral aspect of addiction treatment as it addresses the psychological factors behind substance abuse and promotes healthier coping mechanisms.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), motivational interviewing (MI), and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) are among the evidence-based approaches used to help individuals identify and change destructive thought patterns and behaviors associated with addiction. These therapies can also aid in treating underlying mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression, trauma, and PTSD.

By encouraging self-awareness and teaching practical skills to manage cravings and triggers, behavioral therapy enables individuals to regain control over their lives and make lasting changes.


Recovery from prescription drug addiction is a lifelong journey that extends beyond formal treatment programs. Aftercare services provide ongoing support and resources to help individuals maintain sobriety and prevent relapse in the long term.

Aftercare may include participation in support groups like Narcotics Anonymous (NA), individual counseling sessions, vocational training, and access to community resources. By staying connected to a supportive network and engaging in healthy activities, individuals can prevent a relapse.

Break Free From Addiction With Prescription Drug Rehab at Ascend Recovery Centers

At Ascend Recovery Centers, we provide an individualized addiction treatment experience for every client. With locations in Florida, North Carolina, and New Mexico, we’re making quality substance abuse treatment accessible to all who need it. To learn more about our treatment programs, verify your insurance, or get started with a confidential, risk-free assessment, please contact us today.


  1. Georgetown University Health Policy Institute: Prescription Drugs
  2. National Institutes on Drug Abuse (NIDA): What is the scope of prescription drug misuse in the United States?
  3. National Institutes on Drug Abuse (NIDA): The Brain’s Response to Opioids
  4. National Institutes of Health (NIH): Benzodiazepine interactions with GABA receptors
  5. National Institutes of Health (NIH): How Stimulants Affect the Brain and Behavior
  6. American Psychiatric Association (APA): Opioid Use Disorder
  7. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA): Prescription opioid use is a risk factor for heroin use

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