When we’re suffering or in pain, we often don’t look too closely at what our doctor prescribes for us. We only care that it helps us heal and feel better as soon as possible. Problems arise, however, when we try to justify the continued use of certain medications long after the healing has finished.
According to a 2020 report by the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, nearly 16 million Americans reported misusing prescription drugs in the preceding 12 months. Of those, two million met the criteria for being addicted. Opioid painkillers topped the drug list with just over 9 million annual abusers. Finally, a similar study found that taking opioid pain relievers for longer than three months increases your addiction risk by 15 times.
All in all, prescription drug misuse has skyrocketed by 250% over the last 20 years, which explains why addiction recovery centers all over the nation are seeing dramatic increases in enrollment. And while opioids lead the pack in drug-related deaths, other prescription drugs can prove just as addictive. Those include commonly-prescribed ones like Adderall, Xanax, and Ritalin.
The most addictive prescription drugs fall into three general categories: Opioids and morphine derivatives, non-pain relief or other Central Nervous System (CNS) depressants, and stimulants. All three types have medical uses in specific cases. But patients can quickly morph into substance abusers if they start to use these drugs without professional medical supervision.
Let’s first take a look at some of the legitimate reasons for prescribing these drugs:
- Opioids and Morphine Derivatives – Used for mild to acute and chronic pain mitigation; produces an intense, short-term high for pain relief, euphoria, relaxation, and respiratory depression.
- Other CNS Depressants – Sedatives prescribed for anxiety, panic disorders, sleep disorders, and seizures; they also have a relaxing effect and slow breathing.
- Stimulants – Increases brain activity to improve alertness and focus and boost energy levels; usually prescribed to address ADD/ADHD and narcolepsy.
As drug rehab professionals, we see the heaviest misuse of the following five drugs:
This drug is a synthetic opioid and first came on the scene in the 1960s as an intravenous anesthetic. The United States Controlled Substances Act (USCSA) dictates that fentanyl is a Schedule 2 narcotic, meaning it has a high potential for abuse and addiction. To give you an idea of its potency, it’s about 100 times stronger than morphine and 50 times stronger than heroin. It can be administered via a skin patch or other intravenous method and in pill form.
Doctors often prescribe fentanyl to cancer patients and others who suffer from chronic or severe pain. For example, a friend of mine recently received a dose of fentanyl after oral surgery to help mitigate the pain right after surgery. While medical and federal regulatory bodies try to keep tight control of who gets the drug and for how long (my friend’s use was limited to while they were in the surgical facility), fentanyl abuse has risen dramatically in the last few years.
The main reason – a growing number of illicit manufacturing sources outside the United States are flooding the nation with a nearly infinite supply of cheaply-produced fentanyl. No need to ‘doctor shop’ to lobby for a new prescription. A person can simply go online or to their nearest street dealer. Unfortunately, this new ease with which you can obtain fentanyl and the lack of any form of manufacturing oversight has led to its rampant abuse and an increase in the number of overdose deaths.
Amphetamines fall into the category of USCSA Schedule 2N stimulants. Adderall represents one of the most common amphetamines and is used to treat ADD/ADHD and narcolepsy. Since they’re Schedule 2N, amphetamines also have a potential for abuse and addiction.
That said, several studies have confirmed through the years that if a person indeed has ADHD, using a stimulant like Adderall exactly as prescribed does not increase or decrease their risk of becoming a substance abuser (either from amphetamines or another addictive substance). In fact, the benefits of increased focus and energy and mood and impulse regulation far outweigh the possible risk of physical and psychological dependence.
Amphetamine abuse happens when either a patient begins to take the prescribed drug more often than predetermined or non-patients use the medicine for a quick high. Adderall is well-known as a popular ‘study drug’ for students looking for extra energy and focus to stay awake and alert during all-night cramming sessions. Others use it for the quick ‘high’ it produces, especially when mixed with alcohol or when the pills are smoked, snorted, or injected. It’s important to note that Ritalin and Concerta, also ADHD drugs, are often misused in the same way as Adderall because they are likewise stimulants. However, they are classified as methylphenidates, not amphetamines.
Some of the more severe side effects of amphetamine misuse include paranoia and hallucinations, chest pain, weight loss/loss of appetite, numbness in your limbs, pounding heartbeat, cardiac irregularities, seizures, and death.
Please tune in to Part II of this blog as we discuss some of the tell-tale signs of addiction and the three remaining most commonly abused prescription drugs on the market today.