Sections: What Are Prescription Drugs | Types | Are They Addictive? | Effects | Symptoms | Withdrawal | Treatment | Hope

Yellowstone Recovery doesn’t just help those struggling with illicit drug addictions—we’re also a prescription drug addiction treatment facility. Learn more about prescription drug addiction in the sections below.


Prescription drugs are any medications that are prescribed by a doctor for a person’s medical care. Many prescription drugs can be safely taken every day, while others are not meant for long-term use due to addiction risk. Prescription medicine becomes problematic when it is taken differently than instructed, used regularly to achieve a high or avoid discomfort, or purchased illegally without a prescription.¹


Of the thousands of prescription drugs that exist on the market, there are certain types of medications that are more addictive and more commonly misused than others.

Commonly abused prescription drugs fall into three main categories: opioids, central nervous system (CNS) depressants, and stimulants. Each category is intended for specific medical conditions but can lead to dependence and abuse if misused.

Opioids are primarily prescribed for pain relief. Examples of this kind of prescription pain medication include fentanyl (Duragesic), hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxymorphone (Darvon), oxycodone (OxyContin), hydromorphone (Dilaudid), diphenoxylate (Lomotil), meperidine (Demerol), and morphine sulfate. They are known for their potential to cause addiction and overdose​​.

CNS depressants slow down brain activity, making them useful for treating sleep and anxiety disorders. This category includes barbiturates like pentobarbital (Nembutal), benzodiazepines such as alprazolam (Xanax), diazepam (Valium), and lorazepam (Ativan), as well as sleep medications like eszopiclone (Lunesta), zaleplon (Sonata), and zolpidem (Ambien). These drugs can cause drowsiness, confusion, and dizziness.

Stimulants are often prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and include drugs like Adderall and Ritalin. They increase alertness, attention, and energy but can be misused for their euphoric effects, leading to dangerous health outcomes​.²

The abuse of prescription drugs is a growing concern in the United States, with millions of people misusing these medications, sometimes leading to serious health issues, addiction, or even death.


Some prescription medications are addictive, some are not. The risk depends upon the type of medication, the dosage, and the person taking it (ADHD patients, for example, can usually take stimulants for many years without problems).

The Physiological Causes of Prescription Drug Addiction

Prescription Pill Bottles

The physiological causes of addiction to prescription drugs involve complex interactions within the brain’s chemistry and signaling pathways—processes that are significantly impacted by the repeated use of these medications.

  • Opioids work by binding to opioid receptors of the brain and spinal cord, which blocks pain signals. However, they also stimulate the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward, which can lead to a cycle of dependence as the brain seeks to replicate this rewarding sensation. This leads to increased tolerance and physical dependence.
  • Stimulants increase dopamine levels, but they do so more quickly and more intensely than natural processes, enhancing feelings of energy and attention. Over time, the brain’s own ability to produce and regulate dopamine without the drug’s presence can diminish, thereby leading to dependence.
  • Sedatives and anxiolytics affect the brain’s GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) system. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, meaning it can decrease or inhibit nerve impulses. Sedatives enhance the GABA effect, leading to a calming effect. With prolonged use, the brain may adapt and reduce its natural GABA production, leading to dependence on the drug to maintain a balanced state.

These processes highlight the delicate balance of neurotransmitters in the brain and how prescription drugs, while beneficial for certain conditions, can lead to addiction if not carefully managed.


Different drugs have different effects, but common effects of highly addictive drugs like narcotics and stimulants include powerful relaxation, pleasurable feelings, increased energy, increased heart rate, pain relief, reckless behavior, and poor decision making.

Addictive prescription drugs can significantly alter the brain’s and body’s functioning with prolonged misuse. Apart from the immediate targets of these medications, such as pain relief or mood stabilization, they can disrupt the balance of neurotransmitters, which are chemicals that control communication between neurons. This disruption can lead to changes in the brain’s reward system, to the extent that the pursuit of the drug’s effects becomes a priority over all other activities.

Additionally, prescription drug abuse can impair cognitive functions, such as memory, decision-making, and the ability to learn, by altering the brain’s structure and function over time. These drugs can impact almost every system of the body, leading to cardiovascular issues, liver damage, respiratory depression, and disruption of normal digestive processes. Therefore, to avoid becoming addicted to prescription drugs, it is vital to use these medications only as directed by a qualified medical professional.


Prescription drug addiction symptoms can vary depending on the type of drug being abused but generally include a range of behavioral, physical, and psychological indicators. Here’s a bullet-point list of common symptoms:

  • Behavioral Changes:
    • Increased secrecy or lying about drug use
    • Doctor shopping (visiting multiple healthcare providers to obtain prescriptions)
    • Using prescription drugs under non-prescribed conditions or dosages
    • Stealing or forging prescriptions
    • Social withdrawal from friends and family
    • Neglecting responsibilities at work, school, or home
  • Physical Symptoms:
    • Noticeable changes in energy levels, either increased energy (with stimulants) or drowsiness (with opioids and sedatives)
    • Unexplained weight loss or gain
    • Changes in sleep patterns
    • Deterioration in personal grooming or physical appearance
    • Nausea, vomiting, and changes in appetite
    • Symptoms of withdrawal when drug use is reduced or stopped
  • Psychological Symptoms:
    • Increased anxiety, irritability, or paranoia
    • Mood swings or sudden emotional changes
    • Depression
    • Confusion or impaired judgment
    • Obsessive thoughts about obtaining and using the drug
    • Denial of addiction despite clear evidence of drug misuse
  • Signs of Overdose (which can vary by drug type):
    • Extreme drowsiness or inability to wake up
    • Slow or irregular heartbeat
    • Difficulty breathing or stopped breathing
    • Seizures
    • Loss of consciousness

Recognizing these symptoms early and seeking professional help can prevent the problem from escalating into a more severe addiction to prescription drugs.


Symptoms of prescription drug withdrawal can also vary based on the drug class, as follows:

  • Opioids:
    • Muscle aches and pains
    • Restlessness and agitation
    • Anxiety and depression
    • Nausea and vomiting
    • Diarrhea
    • Sweating and fever
    • Insomnia
  • Benzodiazepines and Sedatives:
    • Anxiety and panic attacks
    • Seizures
    • Tremors
    • Sweating
    • Insomnia
    • Hallucinations
  • Stimulants:
    • Depression and lethargy
    • Disturbed sleep patterns
    • Increased appetite
    • Agitation or irritability
    • Vivid, unpleasant dreams

Due to the potential severity of withdrawal symptoms, proper medical supervision is essential during the detox process.

Group Therapy Session


Prescription medication addiction can be just as difficult to quit as any illicit substance. For the greatest chance of long-term success, it is important that you seek the help of a dedicated prescription drug addiction rehab program.

Depending on the drug type, dosage, and duration of use, withdrawal symptoms can be severe or even life-threatening. In a professional prescription drug addiction treatment facility, you’ll be able to go through prescription drug detox in a safe environment under the supervision of doctors. Then you’ll learn valuable skills and coping strategies to help you manage your recovery in the long term.


If you are addicted to prescription drugs, Yellowstone Recovery in Southern California can help you break your dependency and take back your life. Call (844) 217-7980 to get started.


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