Millions of people go to the doctor every year and receive prescriptions for medications to alleviate symptoms that interfere with their daily lives. However, these life-saving medications are also incredibly dangerous if used incorrectly. A prescription drug is any medicine regulated by law to require a doctor’s prescription before it can be obtained. Prescription drugs generally work by either suppressing or promoting chemical reactions in the brain.
Three different classes of prescriptions are most susceptible to abuse:
- Opiates – These are most commonly prescribed to reduce chronic pain
- Stimulants – These are commonly prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Common stimulants are amphetamines such as adderall.
- Tranquilizers or sedatives – frequently prescribed to treat anxiety disorders or sleep disorders.
Prescription drug abuse has become an epidemic across the United States as well as several European countries. In the United States, opioids, tranquilizers, sedatives and stimulants are the leading drugs that are abused. The number of people seeking treatment for opioid addiction grew more than 400% in the decade ending in 2008 and since then, the number has grown exponentially.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that about 54 million Americans have misused a prescription drug at least once in their lives. At the time of the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), approximately 4.3 million American adults were considered to be currently abusing prescription painkillers.
Most individuals don’t begin taking prescription drugs with the intention of becoming an addict. Many individuals take the medication to gain some relief from their pain. Another effect of the prescription drug is that many provide a pleasurable feeling. In an attempt to reduce the pain even further and enhance the feeling of pleasure, individuals begin to take more medication. A tolerance to the prescription drug is gradually developed, so now more and more is required to produce the initial effect.
What to Consider when Quitting Pills
Many times when people are fed up with their own prescription drug abuse, they’ll decide that they’re simply going to stop. They’ll grit their teeth and resist the urge to take a pill, thinking that going cold turkey is the only way to do it. Are they ever right about that? Often times this painful process can lead a user right back to where they left off taking the pills, sometimes even worse.
Before you can fully quit taking pills, there is something fully important that must come within you. You have to have the desire to quit. You have to want to quit. You also have to stick to it. This can be a very hard and tedious process. Most addicts have very situational minds and like to justify things. How many have ever thought that it would be okay to take just one more today, and take one less tomorrow? When quitting pain medication, it is very important to stick to a plan. Deviating from your plan will more or less delay the process and make your withdrawal last longer.
Sometimes the cold turkey method of quitting prescription drugs is safe and works – but rarely, and no one should ever think it’s safe for them without talking to their doctor first. If a person is on a very low dose of a drug and hasn’t been taking it for a very long time, cold turkey might be okay. However, “a very low dose” and “a very long time” are entirely subjective and different for everyone, and a doctor is the only one who should decide if your use fits that criteria or not. If quitting prescription drugs, one should ALWAYS talk to a doctor. Quitting prescription drugs can have very serious withdrawal and some acute withdrawal can even lead to death.
Pills And The Brain
Prescription pills interact with receptors in the brain. In turn, this intercepts and wards off pain sensations. Taking these drugs, even as directed can lead to physical and psychological dependence. When an individual takes these, the brain becomes used to the chemical changes incurred by their interference. When a pill enters the blood stream it floods the brain, fills an opioid receptor and depresses the central nervous system. Additionally, it increases the presence of dopamine, endorphins, and GABA. Dopamine causes us to feel pleasure, and with repeated chemical interference the brain may stop making and absorbing dopamine naturally. When this happens, brain chemistry may be negatively impacted. As a result, drug dependence occurs. When a drug wears off, the dopamine levels can decrease and both physical and emotional discomfort can occur.
So, why do some people become addicted while others do not? The line between drug use and abuse is a thin one. An on many occasions, people don’t realized they have crossed the line to addiction. There are certain life factors that can predispose someone to the abuse of prescription drugs. If the user has experimented with drugs in the past, they are more likely to abuse their prescription.
Some additional factors can include:
Environment – The interaction between an individual and their environment can provide the perfect catalyst to early onset addiction. Factors in one’s environment linking addiction may include but not be limited to:
- Socioeconomic status
- Social network
- Abuse, neglect, or abandonment
- Peer pressure
- Parental guidance
Development – When environmental and biological factors interact in a person’s developmental stages, the person is at a greater risk of becoming addicted. Although taking drugs at any age can lead to addiction, the earlier the drug use begins, the more likely it will progress to addiction.
Family History of Addiction – As human biology varies, some individuals are more genetically predisposed to addiction than others.
Signs Of Prescription Drug Addiction
How do you know if you are addicted or not? If you’ve been using prescription drugs in a way that was not intended by your doctor, then it is possible that you are dependent on them, and dependency often leads to addiction.
Symptoms of opiate abuse – Opiates are one of the most commonly abused prescription drugs. Some users use them following a legal prescription for a medical condition, while others seek them out for medical or psychiatric relief. These drugs can often go by the names codeine, hydrocodone, oxycodone, fentanyl, and morphine. Abuse and addiction can progress very differently with numerous individuals. These have a tendency to be abused due to their relaxing and euphoric effects. Common symptoms of abuse may include:
- Lowered blood pressure
- Dry mouth
- Constricted pupils
- Constipation or other digestive irregularities
- Slow or slurred speech
- Nausea, or vomitting
- Sleepy or drowsiness
Symptoms of sedative or tranquilizer abuse – These medications are often used to treat anxiety, sleep disorders, and panic attacks. A person abusing these may not be conscious of how it impacts their appearance. These drugs have a tendency to make a user feel a sense of well-being, intense happiness, and/or excitement when abusing these drugs. The most common drugs in this category are Xanax, Valium, Halcyon and Ativan. Common symptoms of abuse may include:
- Decreased attention span
- Poor memory
- Lack of coordination
- Lowered blood pressure
- Impaired judgement
- Rapid, involuntary eye movement
Symptoms of stimulant abuse – Stimulants cause the body and the brain to move faster and make the user feel more alert. These drugs are used to treat ADD or ADHD. Some of the commonly used medications include Adderall, Ritalin, and Concerta. Common symptoms of abuse may include:
- Loss of appetite or weight loss
- Irregular heart beat
- High blood pressure
- Elevated body temperature
- Dilated pupils
- Restlessness and hyperactivity
- Sweating, shaking or tremors
- Paranoia or nervousness
When an individual becomes addicted to prescription drugs, their entire course of life changes with their main purpose to obtain and take these drugs. Symptoms such as:
Inability to stop use: As much as the user would like to cut back, it will be impossible to do so.
Intense focus: Nothing becomes more important than obtaining and ingesting the drug. Friends, families, careers, and hobbies all pale in comparison.
Negative consequences: Things like arrests, loss of family and friends, medical situations or other negative consequences cannot deter use.
Isolation: A user will likely isolate themselves to spend more time getting a “high.” They may keep their addiction in secret so that others will not prevent them from using.
Personal hygiene: They no longer take care of their appearance and cleanliness.
The symptoms of drug withdrawal, and the length of that withdrawal, vary depending on the drug of abuse and the length of the addiction.
Tranquilizers/Sedatives: Withdrawal may begin within 1-4 days, peaking in the first two weeks. In some cases, protracted withdrawal can last months or even years without treatment. Quitting these drugs cold turkey can be dangerous and even deadly. The more common and less severe withdrawal symptoms are “rebound” symptoms that manifest within one to four days of discontinuing these drugs, depending on which medication was used. Most of the symptoms that occur during the acute phase of withdrawal can include:
- Hand tremors
- Sleep disturbance
- Headache, muscular pain and stiffness
- Psychosis or psychotic reactions
Opiates: Prescription painkillers can produce withdrawal symptoms just hours after the last dose, with symptoms lasting to a week or more depending on the dosage and frequency that was being used. Unassisted withdrawal of opiate medications may not be life-threatening, however it can lead to relapse. Medication assisted therapy and detox in a trained medical facility may make relapse less likely.
Early withdrawal symptoms usually start within 6-12 hours for short-acting opiates, and they start within 30 hours for longer-acting ones. These symptoms can include:
- Muscle aches
- Trouble falling and staying asleep
- Excessive yawning
- Nose running
Late withdrawal symptoms from opiates generally peak within 72 hours and can last a week or more. Psychological withdrawal symptoms can last longer than a week. These symptoms include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Stomach cramps
- Drug cravings
Stimulants: Immediately following the use of stimulants a person may feel anxious, sad, and agitated. Around 12 hours after the initial “crash” phase, a person will likely feel both mental and physical exhaustion, insomnia, and depressive symptoms. This can last from 96 hours to multiple week, accompanied by extreme drug cravings. Additional symptoms can include:
- Body aches
- Slow heart rate
- Slow movement
- Dulled senses
- Slow speech
The Risks of Going Cold Turkey
Unfortunately, many abusers and addicts don’t understand the risks associated with suddenly stopping their prescription pills or the severity of them.
If a person is addicted to benzodiazepines (“benzos”), like Xanax (see Quitting Xanax), Klonopin, Ativan, or Valium, (tranquilizers or sedatives) quitting cold turkey could kill them. Benzos (and alcohol) are the only types of prescription drugs for which the withdrawal can be medically deadly. Suddenly quitting benzos can cause seizures and death.
If a person is addicted to narcotic pain medication (opiates), like Vicodin, Oxycontin, or Percocet, quitting cold turkey won’t be medically fatal, but it can lead to death in other ways. Quitting painkillers can lead to complications from withdrawal symptoms, like choking on vomit or becoming dehydrated, can be deadly. The most common cause of death related to quitting opiates cold turkey, however, is from overdose. If a person quits alone for several days, their body’s tolerance will not be the same, and taking a dose that they were previously used to can cause an overdose.
In addition to these symptoms, the biggest risk during the detox period is relapse. People who quit cold turkey usually start off feeling determined, but once withdrawal sets in, they’ll go to any length to get more of the drug.
If you want to begin the path toward recovery, consult with a doctor, methadone clinic or addiction treatment program before quitting any prescription drug. Medically assisted detox along with medication replacement therapy and ongoing therapy have proven effective in helping people overcome their addiction to prescription drugs.
Other At-Home Methods
People who are resistant to medical treatment but want to quit prescription drugs might try other methods on their own. They might try to self-administer drugs like Methadone and Suboxone, which are meant to help with opiate withdrawal. It’s not recommended for a person to use these drugs outside of an inpatient detox center, because it is too easy to incorrectly take or abuse the medication, which can lead to severe illness or death.
Another very dangerous method of quitting prescription drugs at home is with a “drug detox kit.” Drug detox kits can be bought online, but they are rarely effective, and they can be deadly, too. Every person needs an individualized treatment plan based on their own body, medical history, and drug habits, and an at-home kit will not provide that.
The Safe Way
Some people think that if you’re addicted to a prescription drug you should be able to just stop and not take it anymore, but that isn’t true. It can be very difficult to stop taking the drug cold turkey, and for some drugs withdrawal can even be dangerous. Therefore, the safest way to rid your system of the drug is to go to a detox program run by medical professionals who will care for you while you go through withdrawal.
While a person could certainly try any of these at-home and alone methods, they do so at their own severe risk. For the prescription drug addict, even a successful attempt at quitting is likely to result in an eventual relapse. The only safe way to quit prescription drugs is under medical supervision, in tandem with addiction treatment that will give a person the tools they need to stay clean.
Admission to a medical detox program is ideal to stop taking pain pills safely. Withdrawal symptoms that result from stopping a prescription opioid pain reliever once a dependence has formed can be extremely uncomfortable, and for this reason, it is not recommended to stop taking these drugs “cold turkey,” or suddenly. Quitting tranquilizers or sedatives “cold turkey” can be deadly. Instead, they are often tapered off slowly over a set period of time to allow the brain a chance to recover and re-stabilize itself.
After the initial detox phase, there are different types of therapies that can help with overcoming addiction to avoid relapsing. There are inpatient facilities, there round-the-clock access to therapists and doctors are available. An outpatient facility is an additional option where you can get treatment during the day but return home at night, or one might simply work with a therapist individually after detox is complete.
A prescription painkiller addiction doesn’t have to be permanent. There are many who have sought out and reached long-term sobriety from prescription pills. With the right help and good followup care, people with persistent addiction issues can learn to keep things under control, so they can live healthy and happy lives in the future.
If you are struggling with addiction, the experienced staff at Sober Nation are ready to talk you through what is happening in your body and explain the symptoms and sensations that you are experiencing. Medical personnel can also keep your loved ones informed of your status as you go through this process while treating you or your loved one with the compassion and respect they deserve. Some of the expert staff of Sober Nation are recovering from addictions themselves and are an active part of the recovery community around you, so they understand the pain and frustration that you experience. Turn your goal of recovery into reality and call Sober Nation today.
If you feel you or a loved one need help with an addiction, SoberNation provides tools and resources as well as a 24/7 hotline. (866) 207-7436