What is Prescription Drug Addiction?

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Are Prescription Drugs Addictive?

Drug addiction is clinically described as substance use disorder, typically associated with illicit drugs like cocaine, meth, or heroin. Prescription drug addiction is also a significant problem in the United States.

Just like alcohol, prescription drugs are legal but potentially damaging if not used as directed by a prescribing physician. Data from NSDUH 2020 (National Survey on Drug Use and Health) indicate that 3.6 million U.S. adults misused prescription drugs in the previous year. The most recent data from SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) published in NSDUH 2021 involves a methodological change, illustrating that 7.4 million U.S. adults used prescription medications in 2021.

If you feel that you are addicted to prescription drugs, this guide outlines the effects of prescription drug abuse and explores the issue of prescription drugs addiction. Discover what causes prescription drug abuse, learn about the most abused prescription medications, and find out how to get treatment for prescription drug abuse in Ohio.

What Are Prescription Drugs?

Prescription drugs are medications that are only available with a written prescription from a physician, nurse practitioner, or other licensed healthcare professional like a dentist. Prescription medications are typically indicated for the treatment of specific medical conditions and they are regulated by the DEA (U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration) and other government agencies.

Most prescription drugs are more potent than OTC medications drugs, which means that they may trigger more serious side effects and require ongoing monitoring by a healthcare provider. Prescription drugs may also be indicated for the treatment of treat chronic or complex conditions that demand continuous monitoring and management.

Beyond this, pharmaceutical drug abuse often involves prescription medications โ€“ opioids and benzodiazepines in particular.

A man has his head in his hands in a black and white photograph to represent prescription drug addiction.

Prescription Drugs That Can Lead to Addiction

Are prescription drugs addictive, then?

Prescription drug abuse effects may include addiction, especially in the case of the following medications:

  • Benzodiazepines
  • Opioids
  • Sedative-hypnotics (barbiturates)


Benzodiazepines are prescribed for the short-term treatment of anxiety disorders, panic attacks, or insomnia. Common benzos include:

  • Xanax (alprazolam)
  • Klonopin (clonazepam)
  • Valium (diazepam)

Any long-term use of benzos leads to the development of tolerance and physical dependence, especially in high doses.

It can be dangerous and potentially life-threatening to suddenly stop using benzos if you are dependent on this prescription drug. The risks of withdrawal can be mitigated with a tapered reduction in dosage, sometimes involving substitute prescription medications.


According to SAMHSA, prescription opioid-based painkillers are the second-most abused substance in the United States after alcohol. The U.S. opioid epidemic began in the late 1990s with the prescription of opioids like OxyContin for the relief of chronic pain, leading to a sharp increase in fatal overdoses and addiction in the form of opioid use disorder.

Tolerance to opioids and physical dependence on the medication can develop in a month or so. Addiction often but not always follows.

While opioid use disorder is incurable, most prescription opioid addictions respond positively to a combination of MAT (medication-assisted treatment) and psychotherapies like CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy).

Abusing prescription opioid painkillers may also lead to heroin abuse.

Sedative-hypnotics (barbiturates)

Sedative-hypnotics like barbiturates are prescribed for the treatment of insomnia, anxiety, and seizures, although less frequently due to the introduction of benzos. Common barbiturates include:

  • Solfoton (phenobarbital)
  • Nembutal (pentobarbital)
  • Seconal (secobarbital)

Barbiturates can be especially dangerous when abused because they can trigger breathing difficulties, particularly when combined with alcohol. This class of prescription medication can also be intensely addictive, with abrupt discontinuation of use being potentially life-threatening.

Misuse of Prescription Drugs

Problems with prescription drugs often begin when someone misuses the medication. Prescription drug misuse is to use a medication in contravention of legal or medical guidelines, such as:

  1. Taking more of the medication than prescribed
  2. Increasing the frequency of doses as tolerance builds
  3. Using a medication that was not prescribed for you

The misuse of prescription drugs often leads to abuse and accelerates the potential of becoming addicted to pills. Look out for the following prescription drug abuse symptoms:

  • Health problems developing due to drug use
  • Neglecting personal and professional commitments
  • Tolerance and physical dependence building
  • Withdrawal symptoms presenting upon discontinuing use
  • Cravings for the medications manifesting

Addiction to Prescription Medication

Any prescription drugs abuse is likely to cause tolerance and dependence to develop. Any abused prescription drugs may also lead to you become addicted to medication, even if it was prescribed by a physician.

All prescription medications that are routinely abused activate the reward center of the brain โ€“ the nucleus accumbens. Sustained abuse will trigger structural and functional brain changes, leading many people to become addicted to medicine.

The sustained use of prescription medications causes tolerance to build, meaning that you will require more of the medication or more frequency doses as the effects of the medicine diminish. Over time, this will create physical dependency on the medication and you will need to continue using the medication to avoid the presentation of unpleasant withdrawal symptoms, prompting a vicious cycle of abuse. If left unchecked, this often leads to addiction, a chronic and relapsing brain disorder characterized by compulsive drug use regardless of adverse outcomes.

Dangers of Prescription Drugs

Prescription drug abuse occurs when a person uses a medication in a way that is not intended or prescribed by a healthcare provider. This can lead to serious health problems and even death. Here are some of the dangers of prescription drug abuse:

  • Addiction: Addictive prescription drugs include opioids and benzos. Continued use of these drugs can lead to physical dependence and addiction.
  • Overdose: Prescription drug abuse can lead to life-threatening overdose. Overdose may occur if you take too much of a drug or when you mix different drugs together โ€“ polysubstance abuse.
  • Organ damage: Some prescription drugs – painkillers and sleeping pills, for instance – can cause organ damage when used in excess. Long-term use of these drugs can lead to liver, kidney, and heart damage.
  • Mental health problems: Prescription drug abuse may trigger or inflame mental health problems like depression, anxiety, and psychosis.
  • Accidents: Prescription drug abuse can impair your judgment and coordination, increasing the risk of accidents and injuries.

Prescription Drug Addiction Facts

A woman sits with her chin resting on her arms to represent prescription drug abuse.

These prescription drug addiction facts are sourced from NCDAS (National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics and SAMHSA reports.

  • At the peak of the U.S. opioid epidemic in 2012, physicians wrote over 255 million prescriptions for opioid-based painkillers. The number of opioid prescriptions written started declining by 2018.
  • Half of those abusing painkillers got the medication from a family member or friend.
  • Taking prescription opioids for more than three months increases your risk profile for addiction significantly.
  • Past-year opioid use in the United States decreased from 2019 to 2020.
  • Almost 10 million U.S. adults misuse opioids at least once each year.
  • Hydrocodone is the most commonly prescribed opioid painkiller.
  • 14% of all drug addictions involve opioid use, whether illicit drugs like heroin or prescription painkillers.
  • 2.6 million over-12s in the U.S. had a diagnosable opioid use disorder in 2021.

Treatment for Prescription Drug Abuse

Treatment for prescription drug abuse typically involves a combination of behavioral therapies and medication-assisted treatments.

You should always consult your prescribing physician before stopping the use of any prescription medication. A tapered reduction in dosage is often recommended to streamline the withdrawal process.

After addressing the issue of physical dependence, you can then engage in ongoing inpatient or outpatient treatment to tackle the psychological side of addiction to pills prescribed by your doctor or abused recreationally.

Ongoing treatment will involve a personalized combination of MAT, psychotherapy, counseling, and holistic treatments.

Some people engaging with professional addiction treatment also find peer support groups like NA (Narcotics Anonymous) or SMART Recovery are a beneficial component of ongoing sober living.

Get Help for Prescription Drug Addiction at Ohio Recovery Centers

At Ohio Recovery Centers, we treat all substance use disorders, including prescription drug addiction.

You should consult your prescribing physician before discontinuing the use of any prescription medication. In many cases, a tapered reduction in dosage can mitigate withdrawal symptoms and cravings during detox. After detox, you can engage in intensive outpatient treatment at our Cincinnati alcohol and drug rehab.

Whatever level of treatment intensity best suits your circumstances and the severity of your prescription drug addiction, access the following treatments at Ohio Recovery Centers:

  • MAT (medication-assisted treatment)
  • Psychotherapy (CBT or DBT)
  • Group therapy
  • Individual counseling
  • Holistic therapies
  • Aftercare

Whether you have developed an addiction to medications you have been prescribed or you have been abusing prescription medications, address the physical and psychological aspects of addiction at our Cincinnati treatment center. Call 513-757-5000 today for immediate assistance.

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