Understanding Prescription Opioid Abuse

woman taking a pill with water

Opioid pain medications are some of the most commonly abused medicines around the world.1 Although prescription opioids are frequently prescribed by primary care doctors for pain relief, they carry a strong potential for abuse and recreational misuse. Even long-term use as prescribed by a doctor can be extremely dangerous or even deadly.

So how you do recognize prescription opioid abuse and who is at risk? And most importantly, how do we treat opioid abuse and dependence? Keep reading for answers.

What Is Prescription Opioid Abuse?

Misusing opioid drugs can happen in a variety of different ways. Most often, when a person abuses or misuses prescription opioids, he or she takes medicine that was prescribed for someone else, takes a higher dose than was prescribed, or takes a prescription opioid specifically for the purpose of getting high.2

Opioid abuse has become a serious epidemic, and to some people, it may not be clear why their loved ones begin abusing prescription opioids in the first place. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, there are four main reasons a person may choose to misuse prescription opioid drugs.3 They include:

  • Recreational enjoyment – Some people just want to get high and leftover prescription opioids in their medicine cabinet might be the most convenient way to do it.
  • Self-medication – A person may be experiencing pain and therefore thinks it is necessary to take someone else’s prescription opioids or a larger dose of their own medication to relieve the pain.
  • To relax or relieve tension – Some opioid misuse may also be a result of continued attempts to relieve symptoms of anxiety and stress.
  • Compulsive habits – Some people may develop a dependence or an addiction to opioid drugs even just from taking the medicine as prescribed by a doctor. This can lead to compulsive habits of taking larger or more frequent doses of opioids.

Who Is Most at Risk in this Opioid Epidemic?

Of the nearly 92 million adults who used prescription opioids in 2015, an estimated 11.5 million adults misused them. Another 1.9 million people had an opioid use disorder tied to prescription opioids in 2015.4

Anyone could develop an addiction or dependence on opioid prescription drugs, but some individuals may be at increased risk.4,5 Those who are more likely to abuse prescription opioids include:

  • Individuals with chronic pain, mental health problems, or previous substance use problems
  • Individuals who have experienced suicidal thoughts and major depression
  • Individuals who are unemployed, uninsured, and lower-income
  • Individuals who are male
  • Individuals who live in rural areas
  • Medicaid patients
  • Individuals who receive high daily doses of opioids

Where Do Prescription Opioid Abusers Get Their Drugs?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most people who abuse prescription opioids get them from a relative for free.6 So even though you may think that giving a loved one an old prescription from your cabinet is helping, it may actually be harming them in the long run.

Other common ways people get prescription opioid medicines for non-medical use include6:

  • From their primary care doctor
  • Stealing prescription opioids from a friend or relative
  • Buying prescription opioids from a friend or relative
  • Buying prescription opioids from a drug dealer or other stranger
  • Writing fake prescriptions, stealing prescription opioids from a clinic or pharmacy, or buying them on the internet

Preventing Prescription Opioid Abuse

If you have a friend or family member who is at risk for developing an addiction to prescription opioid drugs, you can help prevent it. Here are four specific ways you can do so:

  1. Do not let friends or family members take your old opioid prescriptions. Encourage them to go to the doctor or seek out alternative treatment for pain.
  2. Get rid of old prescriptions in your medicine cabinet. Protect the individuals in your household by getting rid of unused and expired prescription drugs. Your friends and family members won’t be able to steal leftover medication from your medicine cabinet if they aren’t there.
  3. Encourage your loved one to get a second opinion from another doctor. If a loved one’s doctor prescribes an opioid medication and they believe there may be another treatment option or they don’t feel comfortable taking the medicine, encourage them to seek out another doctor’s opinion.
  4. Encourage your loved one to seek out psychiatric care. If your loved one is struggling with anxiety, depression, PTSD, or some other mental health issue, encourage them to see a counselor or psychiatrist. This may help keep them from misusing prescription opioids in an attempt to cope or self-medicate.

The decision to abuse or misuse prescription opioid drugs is ultimately up to the person themselves, but these actions may help prevent it.

Treatment for Prescription Opioid Abuse

The best treatment for prescription opioid abuse and addiction is prescription drug detox followed by long-term rehab. Individuals who are addicted to opioids cannot simply stop abusing the drugs with sheer willpower. Opioid addiction changes the way the brain functions, making it extremely difficult to modify those negative behaviors and drug-abusing habits.

The first step in treating prescription opioid abuse is prescription drug detox at a medically supervised detox center. A medical detox program typically involves a team of medical and clinical professionals that create a detox program based on the client’s needs and treat any uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms the client experiences during withdrawal.

The client’s detox program should be modified and changed as he or she progresses through withdrawal until a sober state is achieved. This allows for the most comfortable and safe drug detox experience possible.

Once the client has completed detox, he or she should continue on with addiction treatment by enrolling in a long-term drug rehab program for prescription opioid abuse. Drug rehab will provide important life skills, support, and tools that are necessary to prevent relapse and maintain long-term sobriety.

If you or a loved one is addicted to prescription opioid medication, it’s not too late to get help. Please contact Briarwood Detox Center today to learn more about our individualized prescription drug detox programs for men and women.



  1. https://www.pharmaceutical-journal.com/opinion/comment/the-prescription-opioid-addiction-and-abuse-epidemic-how-it-happened-and-what-we-can-do-about-it/20068579.article
  2. https://teens.drugabuse.gov/blog/post/what-does-it-mean-misuse-opioids
  3. https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/report_3210/ShortReport-3210.html
  4. https://www.statnews.com/2017/07/31/opioids-use-disorder-prescription/
  5. http://managedhealthcareexecutive.modernmedicine.com/managed-healthcare-executive/news/top-risk-factors-opioid-use-disorder-overdose
  6. https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/data/prescribing.html


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