Prescription Addiction

An in-depth look at the types of prescription painkillers, rise in opioid overdoses and who is at risk for abusing these legal drugs.


Prescription opiates, which have been formulated to alleviate pain, continue to rise on the scale of abuse and addiction. So much so, that the Obama administration recently hosted a summit discussing the effects of prescription opiate abuse; particularly the immense number of overdoses. Simultaneously, the United Kingdom is addressing concerns of a dramatic increase of abuse with the prescription painkiller Fentanyl.

Types of Prescription Painkillers

Prescription painkillers are given to persons who have undergone a surgery, incurred an injury or suffers from chronic pain. They are generally meant for short term use; however because of their strong effects, ability to stimulate the areas of the brain that perceive pleasure and potential for a tolerance to rapidly build, they often become abused. In turn, this leads to an addiction.

Some of the most common prescription painkillers which are abused include:

Hydrocodone: Often combined with acetaminophen. Brand names include Vicodin, Lorcet or Lortab.

Oxycodone: Most commonly prescribed as OxyContin but also included in Endocet, Percocet, Percodan and Roxicet.

Morphine: Brand names may include Avinza or Kadian. It is also given intravenously.

Codeine: Often combined with paracetamol and given to people with a heavy cough.

Propoxyphene: Brand names include Darvocet, Propacet and Darvon.

Hydromorphone: Given to people in severe pain. It is sold under the name of Dilaudid.

Meperidine: A light sedative, it is sold as Demerol or Meperitab.

Painkiller Prescriptions Double in 17 Years

According to the US Center for Disease and Control, “drug overdose death rates in the United States have more than tripled since 1990 and have never been higher. In 2008, more than 36,000 people died from drug overdoses, and most of these deaths were caused by prescription drugs…14,800 were caused by prescription painkillers.”

Nicholas King, a professor of biomedical ethics at McGill University recently published a review in the American Journal of Public Health which discusses the potential contributing factors to the rise in deaths related to prescription painkillers. Dr. King says “The cause that we found the most evidence for was quite simply a massive increase in prescribing of these painkillers.”

However, this had nothing to do the with the infamous “pill mills” in states like Florida or online pharmacy shopping; rather, Dr. King and his colleagues determined the rise in prescription painkiller deaths can be linked to prescriptions having doubled over the past 17 years.

He believes that the doubling of prescription painkillers began in the late 80’s and 90’s with doctors pushing drugs like oxycodone to people who did not have serious illnesses like cancer, (which, prior to this time, was the only way to get these strong drugs) but who simply displayed moderate pain. By 2013, Canada and the U.S. consumed 99.9% of the world’s hydrocodone, 87.3% of the world’s oxycodone, 60.1% of its morphine, and 51.8% of its methadone.

It is important to note that strong opioids, like the ones being discussed in this article, are unavailable in more than 150 countries and, when they are available, they often cost more in low- and middle-income countries.

Who Is at Risk for Developing an Addiction to Prescription Opioids?

Television shows and movies may depict a drug addict as someone who is jobless, uneducated or is a minority. However, people with an addiction come from all professions, educational levels, ethnicities and backgrounds.

According to the American Pain Society, “although people with chronic pain are more likely than others to receive prescriptions for opioids, the risk of developing a painkiller addiction depends on more than just prolonged exposure to these drugs.” Moreover, people using opioids for non-medical purposes are most likely to obtain them from friends, family members or associates rather than going to a doctor for a prescription. The APS also revealed that persons who have a personal or family history of alcohol or drug abuse are more prone to developing a prescription painkiller addiction.

Apart from the aforementioned, teenagers and young adults are more likely to abuse opoids. This may be in relation to pressure these individuals often go through at school or work as well as, personal curiosity.

Finally, a group of people at risk for prescription painkiller addictions, and who often go unnoticed, are adults over the age of 65. This group is regularly prescribed opiates; often without an in-depth consultation or questions by a doctor. Moreover, these seniors may not realize the effects of taking more than the prescribed amount; thereby, they unintentionally increase their tolerance and overall use.

Getting Treatment for an Opioid Addiction

A painkiller addiction creates long term changes in the brain. People who undergo treatment at a hospital or addiction rehab will likely experience unpleasant withdrawal symptoms and intense cravings. In many instances, a rehab center with treatment programs for prescription opioids will offer medications like Suboxone or methadone to ease the symptoms. Centers like Holistic Light, an addiction treatment center in Costa Rica and Panama serving patients from US, offer cognitive behavioral therapy, individual counseling, equine therapy, de-stressing activities like yoga, meditation and Tai Chi, as well as, maintaining a healthy diet are all proven to aid in the recovery of a painkiller addiction.

Rehabilitation treatment for opiate abuse and addiction can be costly; however, it is far less costly, in comparison with the cost of the addiction and continuous use of the drug itself.