How to Detect If You or Your Loved One is Addicted to Prescription Medication

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Prescription addiction happens covertly, so you may not detect your own or your loved one’s dependence until much later in the process. Many people who abuse prescription painkillers simply tell others – and themselves – that they take their pills because of pain.

“Most of the time you are unable to decipher [an addiction] until an individual has experienced more deficits than benefits from abusing the medications,” Dr. Nancy B. Irwin, a primary therapist at Seasons in Malibu, says. “In other words, unless there are apparent impairments in functioning as a result of abuse, most individuals do not even realize they are abusing.”

The fact that prescription opioids come from a doctor tend to lull one into thinking that he or she is simply taking medicine instead of abusing hard drugs. “Prescription medication can be obtained legally and is largely covered by your health insurance,” Dr. Irwin says. “[Some believe] street drugs carry more risk than prescriptions because you are unaware of any additives or other drugs it could be combined with.”

On the contrary, prescription painkillers are actually one of the most common causes of lethal drug-related accidents in the country. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that nearly half of all U.S. opioid overdose deaths involve at least one prescription opioid. The report also reveals that more than 15,000 Americans died from overdoses involving prescription opioids in the year 2015 alone.

To help you or your loved one pull out of this dangerous cycle, here are four key questions that can unveil whether or not someone’s prescription medication use has developed into addiction.

1. How often are you taking the medication?

If you suspect prescription opioid abuse, Dr. Irwin says this should be one of the first questions to ask. Are you or your loved one taking the pills every few hours or are you actively trying to space them out as much as possible? Are the dosages low or high?

Bear in mind that all prescription medication must be taken as prescribed. Many doctors also write prescriptions for pain medication to be taken only “as needed.” If you find yourself or a loved one taking these medications on a regular basis or in higher doses, the prescribing doctor needs to know. Taking higher doses or more frequent doses is a sign of possible addiction.

2. Can you stop taking the medication?

Prescription pain killers are usually not an ideal way to manage chronic pain. They’re much more effective for acute pain, which should pass in a matter of weeks in most cases. If the person is unable to stop taking the medication after the appropriate amount of time, check to see if discontinuing the medication causes problems. This would be a tell-tale sign of dependence. Dr. Irwin says, “The abuse begins to happen when individuals become physically dependent on prescription medication and the desire to avoid the physical and psychological discomfort from withdrawal symptoms outweighs the choice to stop taking the medication.”

3. How do you act when you don’t have medicine?

If you or your loved one forgets the medication at home or can’t get a refill on time, what happens? Your behavior during this time is usually a telling sign as to whether you are an addict.

According to Dr. Irwin, initial signs and symptoms include changes in behavior or mood, decreased tolerance of others, increased agitation, irritability, anxiety or impulsivity.

“You will see changes in cognition which can include memory loss, confusion, poor concentration or focus, complaints regarding physical aches and pains, body sensations such a pins and needles, poor G.I. functioning or an urgency to get to the medication.”

Typically, right before a prescription runs out, addicts get “panicky” and spend a great deal of time scheduling doctor appointments and pharmacy pickups out of fear of missing a dose.

4. Where are you getting the medicine?

Most people with serious pain should not have an issue getting prescription medication from a doctor who can oversee their pain treatment plan. Whenever possible, it is best that the person gets all of his or her prescriptions filled from the same pharmacy. A pharmacist who gets to know the patient and his or her medications is in a good position to help spot signs of possible prescription addiction. If you or your loved one makes an effort to avoid seeing the same pharmacist, know that this may be a sign of addict behavior.

While prescription pain opioids are often useful and sometimes necessary to treat moderate to severe pain, they are far from harmless. The key is to monitor one’s intake of these prescriptions and maintain an open and honest dialogue with a medical professional.

Recovery from Prescription Medication Addiction

Not everyone who receives prescription painkillers become dependent, but when addiction does take hold, it’s important to look beyond the drug abuse. “The addiction is a symptom to underlying psychological and physiological ailments that have yet to be treated,” Dr. Irwin says.

The problem with addiction is that it contributes to the brain being hijacked and leads to poor judgment, often rendering them unable to seek help on their own. If you find that your loved one refuses to acknowledge their drug abuse, Dr. Irwin suggests an intervention along with other family and friends. “Be vigilant, stay informed, consult with professionals and ensure that you continue to be persistent.”

On the other hand, if you recognize the addiction symptoms in yourself and are ready to recover, allow yourself the time to heal. Get assistance and do what you can to prioritize your health and overall wellbeing.

“Prescription addiction requires a focused approach to eliminating the dependence and then facilitating a long-term plan for success,” Dr. Irwin says. “Seasons in Malibu thinks about that plan from the moment [the person] walks through the doors.” The recovery team’s approach includes a systemic treatment model that strongly takes the individual’s family, environment, vocation and activities of daily living into account, she says.

When dealing with drug addiction, remember that having a good spirit and keeping an open mind help tremendously during the recovery period. “Prescription abuse and dependence can be more difficult to spot early on, that is why staying vigilant, maintaining an open line of communication and seeking help immediately can make the crucial difference for you or your loved one.”


Dr. Nancy B. Irwin is a Certified Hypnotherapist and the Primary Therapist at Seasons in Malibu, a world class, dual-diagnosis, CARF-accredited drug rehab and addiction treatment center in Malibu, CA that specializes in treating addictions such as alcoholism, cocaine addiction, opiate addiction, prescription drug abuse and more. Dr. Irwin earned her doctorate in clinical psychology from California Southern University and is a certified practitioner of Time Line Therapy, Emotion Free Therapy, and Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). Over the years, she’s shared her expertise on CNN, CNBC, Fox, MSNBC and other popular radio and TV shows.

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