Why do people get addicted to prescription drugs and what can be done about it?

How and why addiction to prescription drugs occurs

pharmacist dispensing prescription drugs

One of the issues with people taking prescription drugs is the mental concept that they must be safe as the GP has prescribed them. Just because a doctor has prescribed a pill it does not mean it is safe for everyone (which is why we are often warned of side effects) and it certainly does not mean that the prescribed drug is intended for long term use. 

Another problem is the internet.  It is now so easy to Google any medical condition or complaint and find the recommended medication as a treatment for it. Following on from that, it is also possible to buy medications off the internet that haven’t been medically prescribed.    It is also easy to research what effects certain medications can have and then decide that’s the medication for you!! 

Some prescribed medications are addictive. Generally it is the misuse of the medication that will create the addiction. The commonest prescription drug addiction that we help with at The Haynes Clinic is for Benzodiazepines (which include diazepam, clonazepam etc). They are a type of sedative medication, and they slow down the body’s and brain’s functions. The body has a natural chemical called gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) and this chemical reduces the activity in the areas of the brain responsible for reasoning, memory, emotions and all essential functions including breathing.  Benzodiazepine drugs increase the effects of GABA on your brain and body.  This means these drugs make you feel more relaxed and sleepier, reduce levels of anxiety and relax your muscles.  

Benzodiazepines are commonly prescribed to treat anxiety and grief and will normally be prescribed by the GP for use over a maximum four-week period. The most commonly prescribed Benzodiazepines are Valium – also known as Diazepam – Lorazepam and Temazepam.

Most people will find the prescribed medication effective but suddenly it can be seen as their “crutch” and “how am I going to manage my emotions without it?” That thinking, for some, will be the start of a prescribed medication addiction.

During the recent Covid lockdowns there are well documented studies showing adverse effects of the pandemic on people’s mental health and in particular the increase in rates of depression and anxiety.  The Covid outbreak led to people implementing drastic changes in their lifestyle, including social distancing. Periods of self-isolation and loneliness resulted in negative consequences on people’s mental wellbeing. There was a documented increase in the prescribing of Benzodiazepines, and it is quite possible that with the severe reduction of nursing and medical staff, including GPs, that some prescriptions were routinely repeated and not stopped as would normally have happened. This obviously led to unintended and extended use of diazepam and chlordiazepoxide (Librium).  Some of the prescriptions that were stopped and not automatically renewed led in some cases to individuals seeking access to the medication via the internet. They thus extended its use, not as originally intended or prescribed by their GP.

After a while, and that time will vary for individuals, the body starts to build up a tolerance to the drug and we will start to take more pills to try and get the same effect as when they were first prescribed. For example, with, Diazepam a limited prescription would then lead us to source that additional diazepam that our body is needing from the internet.  This can be dangerous as there is absolutely no guarantee that the diazepam tablets we are purchasing have any properties in them that are even close to the medication that we have been prescribed and getting from a genuine drugs company via the pharmacy. Also, by taking extra medication the brain will respond to the excess GABA being produced and will start to produce less.  This in turn will create high levels of paranoia, mood swings and anxiety and can lead us to a worse medical condition than we originally had. By taking larger amounts of the medication, to counter the effects of body tolerance to the drug, there is also the very potential risk of suffering from an overdose as we have moved away from recognised safe daily drug guidelines.  

As with all addictions, a prescription drug addiction will have a detrimental effect on all our life areas. Social, work, relationships, health and those close to us will be subject to our changing and rapid mood swings.  For family and friends, they will not immediately associate our deterioration with our use or misuse of medication.

Stopping the use of addictive medication

In recognising that our misuse of medication has created an addiction to it, then we need to detox ourselves off it. There is a substitute medication available to safely detox from alcohol, heroin or an opiate addiction: as a generalisation,  an alcohol detox can be completed in seven days and an opiate detox can be completed in ten days.  However, there is no substitute medication for a diazepam detox and therefore there has to be a daily reduction over a period of time that could extend for up to six weeks or more, depending on the daily dosage of the medication that was being consumed.

A daily reducing regime is really difficult to try and administer within the home environment.  The body will be used to having so much medication a day and when it is being reduced down slowly it is very easy to not maintain the reduction.  That is why people will seek help via a residential rehab unit such as The Haynes Clinic where we are used to safely administering, for example, a benzodiazepine detox, such as diazepam, within an environment that will incorporate a daily structured treatment and therapy programme.

Having the supportive structure of a residential rehab clinic is very important in being able to maintain a daily reduction in the dosage of the medication. Also, having staff that are used to administering a prescribed medication detox is critical again in them being able to offer support and encouragement to see the detox through to its completion.