There's a common assumption that some of the most dangerous substances available to drug users today are all illegal, and while that is certainly the case in some instances, one of the most prevalence issues facing the U.S. is the abuse of perfectly legal prescription drugs. The abuse of prescription drugs has been on the rise over the last decade with everything from painkillers to sedatives to stimulants making their way into communities.
Perhaps the most common of these is painkillers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), deaths caused by the abuse of painkillers has eclipsed those caused by cocaine and heroin combined. In 2008, overdoses claimed the lives of 15,000 people in the United States compared to just 4,000 deaths in 1999. Unfortunately, the use is widespread. In 2010, about 12 million people over the age of 12 said they used painkillers for non-medical reasons and about half of emergency room visits in 2009 were due to accidental overdoses.
What makes the abuse of prescription painkillers and other drugs more common than different methods is how easy it is to obtain them. The CDC reports that the number of prescription pain pills sold to hospitals has quadrupled over the last decade or so,comma meaning that even in legal channels the market is being flooded with them, making it easier to obtain unnecessary pharmaceuticals than ever before.
Though the problem is widespread there are some areas more at risk than others. In particular, abuse of prescription drugs is a significant problem in Florida. Sales of prescription painkillers per person are three times higher in the Sunshine State than in Nebraska, which has the lowest rate of sales. Furthermore, there are between 14.9 and 27 deaths due to overdose per 100,000 people in Florida, placing it among the highest rates in the country.
Looking at the bigger picture, the problem in Florida appears even more serious. According to a recent NPR story, doctors in the state prescribe 10 times more oxycodone pills than all other states combined. The reason so-called "pill mills" have flourished in Florida is because there is no monitoring system in place and abusers can go from clinic to clinic getting prescriptions, which are sometimes filled on the spot.
While the statistics paint a startling picture about the amount of people abusing prescription drugs, numbers alone do not tell the entire story. Abusing such drugs has a number of adverse health effects as well. For instance they can cause one's heart rate to increase and can impact breathing. In the most serious cases it can lead to seizures and comas, while overdoses are often fatal.
Additionally, as it the case with most drugs, addiction is a serious problem and each kind of medication presents its own risks.
Painkillers in particular put abusers at a high risk for dependence and addiction. The reason stems from the fact that these drugs target the opioid receptors in the brain, spinal cord and intestinal tract. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), chronic exposure to the pain-relieving properties of the substance can lead to dependence and addiction. The withdrawal from such a condition can range from something as mild as restlessness to more severe complications including insomnia and bone pain.
Painkillers may be the most commonly abused prescription drugs but they certainly are not the only pharmaceuticals that pose a problem. Sedatives, known as central nervous system (CNS) depressants, are also popular among abusers.
This family includes anti-anxiety medication such as Xanax and Valium as well as sleeping pills such as Ambien, and they all present their own batch of dangers that are different than those associated with pain relievers. According to the NIDA, CNS depressants work by slowing brain activity, and while there may not be any immediate risks associated with their over-use, the biggest issues come if one stops using them very suddenly. Depending on which drugs are being abused, sudden withdrawal can cause everything from seizures to life-threatening complications.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from CNS depressants are stimulants. These drugs are usually used for the positive benefits they have in terms of alertness, energy and concentration. Often used to treat conditions such as ADHD or depression, the drugs have become more popular among people who use it for non-medical reasons.
The most commonly-abused stimulants are dextroamphetamine (Adderall) and methylphenidate (Ritalin). Among the most immediate effects of the drug are symptoms like an increased blood pressure and constricted blood vessels.
The use of stimulants has become increasingly prevalent on college campuses as student turn to them as a way to boost their performance in school. However, a recent Canadian study found that any benefits such drugs have in healthy students is often overstated and in fact may be non-existent. Even if there were any benefits they would be outweighed by the inherent risks involved with using the drugs for non-medical purposes and an overdose may resemble that of harder drugs including methamphetamine and cocaine. Furthermore, withdrawal from drugs like Ritalin and Adderall can cause extreme fatigue, depression or changes in heart rhythm.
"Overdoses are rare and potentially lethal," the study points out, adding that what "is more worrisome is the addictive potential of these prescription medications."
While the rate of prescription drug abuse may be on its way up that is not to say there aren't treatment options available to those who are using. According to the NIDA, options include behavioral methods, which provides patients with tools to help them battle addiction. However, there are also pharmacological methods as well. These target the affects that drugs have on the brain and most experts recommend combining the treatment with behavioral options.