Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : July 2012

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If you have had surgery, an injury, or have been in severe pain, you may have been prescribed a pain killer.

Although most individuals take prescription medication as prescribed, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) found that 20 percent of the population ages 12 and older have used prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons at least once in their lifetime. NIDA’s Monitoring the Future Survey found that young people are strongly represented in this group with one in 12 high school seniors reporting using a prescription pain reliever for nonmedical reasons.

Prescription drug abuse is defined as either taking a prescription drug that has not been prescribed for you, or taking it in dosages or for reasons other than prescribed.  If you are prescribed a prescription drug for post surgery pain and you take it for your back pain this is prescription drug abuse. Prescription drug abuse can lead to prescription drug addiction.

Prescription drug addiction is a growing problem. Unfortunately, many people do not consider it as serious as when someone is using street drugs. An addict is an addict is an addict, whether the individual is using prescription drugs, alcohol or street drugs. The same destructive behaviors, and potential for impact on their own and their family’s lives, are present regardless of the drug.

A list of commonly abused prescription drugs includes:

Opioids for pain

  • hydrocodone (Vicodin®)
  • oxycodone (OxyContin®)
  • propoxyphene (Darvon®)
  • meperidine (Demerol®)
  • diphenoxylate (Lomotil®)
  • hydromorphone (Dilaudid®)

Stimulants to treat ADHD

  • dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine®)
  • methylphenidate (Ritalin® and Concerta®)
  • amphetamines (Adderall®)

Central Nervous system depressants for anxiety

  • barbiturates such as pentobarbital sodium (Nembutal®)
  • benzodiazepines such as diazepam (Valium®)
  • alprazolam (Xanax®)

Drug Dependency vs. Drug Addiction

Prescription drugs change the brain chemistry of the person using them just like alcohol and illegal drugs do.  The individual’s brain is not as effective at producing brain chemicals like dopamine or endorphins. The individual then has to replace these chemicals with another drug. It is the chronic exposure to the prescription drug that causes this adaptation and the person becomes physically dependant.

Someone who is physically dependent will experience withdrawal symptoms if the drug is reduced or stopped abruptly. The symptoms can range from moderate to severe, but can usually be managed medically by slowly tapering the use of the drug. Dependence usually includes tolerance where the individual needs more of the drug to receive the same effects. Drug Addiction, which can include dependency, differs in that it involves compulsive drug seeking behavior and use despite often devastating consequences.

Symptoms of excessive prescription drug use may include:

  • mood swings
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • agitation
  • difficulty sleeping
  • isolation
  • loss of interest in relationships with family and friends
  • withdrawal

Signs of prescription drug dependency and addiction may include:

  • Past history of addiction
  • Using prescription drugs prescribed for others
  • Visits to the doctor with vague complaints to get more medication
  • Mood swings
  • Seeing several different doctors
  • Using different pharmacies
  • Using more medication then recommended
  • Using medication for reasons other than prescribed
  • Not interested in treatment options other than medication
  • Hospital visits

There are many treatment options for prescription drug dependency and addiction.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a problem please call the Lawyer Assistance Program for free, confidential counseling at (410) 685-7878, ext. 3041 or (800) 492-1964. You can also email us at jquinn@msba.org.

Lisa Caplan, LCSW-C, CAC, is Program Counselor for the MSBA Lawyer Assistance Program.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin : July 2012

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