Prescription drug abuse is, unfortunately, quite common. In fact, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) suggests that 52 million people older than 12 in the United States have used prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons at some point.

For some people, an addiction to prescription medications begins with an actual prescription. These people have some sort of medical problem that is best dealt with through a pill, a shot, or a patch. They might use the medications appropriately for a short time, and then transition into experimentation and abuse in time.

Others come to prescription drug abuse through a sense of experimentation. They may not have a medical need for these prescriptions at all, but they might get them through theft, purchase, or gifts. These people are abusing medications, and they can also grow addicted to them.

Prescription drug abuse

An addiction develops when prescription medications do so much damage to the brain that cells cannot function without the help of drugs. The damaged brain cells call out for the drugs, and the person might feel helpless to resist the call.

Addiction to prescription drugs can happen to anyone. Similarly, anyone with an addiction can choose to fight back. Here’s how recovery happens, step by step.

Prescription Drug Categories

Step 1: Get real about addiction.

Some families find it hard to tell the difference between prescription drug use and prescription drug addiction. After all, some people who develop these addictions have a prescription for the drugs they take. It can be hard for families to know if people are popping pills due to a doctor’s orders or due to addiction.

Behavioral changes could be a key indicator. According to Mayo Clinic, those signs can include:

  • Stealing pills
  • Forging prescriptions
  • Sleeping more or less than usual
  • Seeming energetic, revved up, or high on a frequent basis
  • Claiming medication “loss,” so more must be purchased
  • Visiting many different doctors, hoping to get new prescriptions

Physical symptoms could also appear in people who have addictions. Those who take a great deal of pain medications might develop constipation, and they may complain frequently about abdominal pain. Similarly, people who abuse stimulants may develop a form of heart damage, and they may complain of chest or arm pain.

Addictions can also take a great toll on the family as a whole. As an article in Psychology Today points out, the spouse or loved one of someone who is addicted might need to bail that person out of jail, pay fines due to accidents caused by addiction, or make excuses to friends and family in order to cover up the addiction. This can be time-consuming work, and it is far from rewarding. That work could end up causing divorce or marital strife. Friends might also peel away, due to the sense of chaos that surrounds someone with an addiction.

Step 2: Understand treatment options.

Once an addiction has been spotted, it is time to take action. There are all sorts of different treatment routes families could explore.

Often, the treatment plan begins with medical detox. According to NIDA, medical detox is designed to manage the physical symptoms that occur when people attempt to withdraw from drugs. Doctors use medications, therapy, or both to help people process drugs out of their systems, without experiencing any of the uncomfortable or life-threatening symptoms withdrawal can cause.

Medical detox might be beneficial for anyone with a prescription drug abuse habit, but it is considered vital for people who are addicted to benzodiazepines. These prescription medications change brain chemistry to such a degree that withdrawal becomes life-threatening. People who do not go through medical detox can develop seizures.

When detox is complete, it is time to move on to rehab. There are two general types of rehab to choose from: inpatient and outpatient. Inpatient programs allow people with addictions to move right into the facility and get needed care. That can allow people to remove themselves from the constant temptation to use and abuse drugs, and it could be a very powerful step for some people. Others choose outpatient programs, so they can continue to live at home in their communities while they heal. There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to healing. Either could be ideal for people in need.

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Step 3: Deal with underlying mental health challenges.

Addictions are often triggered by an underlying mental health issue. In fact, the US Department of Health and Human Services reports that more than 25 percent of adults with mental health issues also have substance abuse issues.

Just as a mental health issue can trigger an addiction, it can work as an ongoing hurdle to meaningful recovery. When mental health issues strike, they can prompt a return to drug use and abuse. People with mental health symptoms may be convinced that drugs are the only things that can help. They may keep using drugs, over and over, to medicate those issues.

That is why addressing mental health issues is so vital, in terms of long-term recovery. People need help with those mental health challenges as they recover from an addiction, so they will not have a very powerful ongoing trigger that could sabotage their recovery chances.

Step 4: Deal with underlying physical causes.

While mental health challenges are closely linked to the onset and return of an addiction, so are physical health challenges. Specifically, pain can drive people to abuse drugs. Untreated pain can work like a prompt that pushes people back into drug use.

Addressing pain effectively, as part of the addiction recovery process, might mean getting creative with treatment options. According to Current Pain Perspectives, clinicians might recommend:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  • Meditation
  • Aerobic exercise
  • Support groups
  • Meaningful hobbies

These are steps that are, not coincidentally, also used in addiction treatment programs. Using the same therapies for both the addiction and the pain could help people to deal with both problems in a comprehensive way. That could lead to remarkable changes.

Step 5: Work the program.

In an addiction treatment program, people are provided with many different kinds of help. When all of these methods are put together, they can provide a complete picture of both the addiction and what the person might need to do in order to get better.

Counseling is a cornerstone of an effective rehab program. In individual sessions, people work with a counselor in order to understand how addictions typically develop. They explore the prior trauma, mental illnesses, and physical illnesses that may have contributed to the development of the addiction. Group counseling sessions provide additional help, as they allow people to pick up vital skills while learning from their peers. Family therapy counseling sessions allow people with addictions to mend fences with those they love and build better coping skills they can use with those families in the future.

As part of a rehab program, people need to learn how to both identify and prepare for a possible relapse, as it is very likely that people will relapse at least once. According to NIDA, relapse rates for addiction stand between 40 and 60 percent. That means that most people relapse at least once, but relapse does not need to mean a full return to drugs. People who relapse can learn from that relapse and develop better coping skills, so they can avoid that temptation more effectively in the future.

Relapse prevention might come in the form of classes or therapy sessions. People might spend time reading materials about relapse and preparing via homework, but this is work that simply must take place in some form. It is a topic that is too important to ignore.

Step 6: Stay healthy for a lifetime.

Recovery is a process, and it can take time to get things just right. Often, according to the website Living Sober, people in recovery find it hard to seek out the help of peers. They may know that peers can help with some aspects of recovery, but they may not know how to ask for help, or they may not know how to accept the help that is offered to them.

Support groups can make that help easier to find and utilize. In a support group meeting, people with the same addiction come together to swap stories of addiction devastation and recovery. In meetings, people can learn more about how others have dealt with common recovery challenges. And in meetings, people can form mentor relationships, so they can learn from people who have managed to achieve great things in recovery. For many people, support groups become a part of everyday sober life. They may start going to meetings in rehab, and they may never stop going throughout their lifespan.

A healthy lifestyle can also be considered a vital part of recovery. People who need to break a reliance on prescription drugs need to find other ways to handle life’s disappointments and distresses. For some, that means participating in hobbies that are both creative and meaningful. For others, that means getting serious about an exercise program. And for still others, it means taking time each day to meditate or perform yoga.

Finally, spending time with sober peers could be considered a key part of long-term recovery. People need to know that there are others just like them who have also dealt with an addiction problem but who have overcome the challenges through the use of therapy, lifestyle, and more. Sober peers could be found in a formal sober living home, but there might also be sober peers in the community that could be good role models.

Making a Difference

In 2013, according to the Center for Lawful Access and Abuse Deterrence, only 16 percent of Americans said that the United States was making progress in the fight against prescription drug abuse. Most said that the problem was growing larger with each passing year, not smaller.

This is a depressing statistic, but it does not have to be indicative of the future. As a country, we can fight back against prescription drug abuse, and we can make progress one addicted person at a time. It really can get better.