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An Introduction to Substance Use Disorders for Dental Professionals

Course Number: 545

Prescription Medication Use & Addiction

Prescription medication abuse is defined as use of a medication in any way not directed by a doctor, including use without a prescription of one’s own, use in greater amounts, more often, or longer than told to take a drug; or use in any way not directed by a doctor. It is a problem that deserves attention, especially from healthcare professionals. While prescription drugs can be powerful healing tools, they also pose serious health risks related to their abuse. 42,50,61

In 2022, 14.2 million Americans aged 12 or older (5%) had misused psychotherapeutic prescription drugs within the past year. This included 8.5 million people who misused prescription pain relievers, 4.8 million who misused prescription tranquilizers or sedatives, and 4.3 million who misused prescription stimulants. The class of prescription drugs most commonly abused was opioid pain relievers, such as Vicodin®or OxyContin®.45,50,61,69

Prescription (Rx) and over-the-counter (OTC) medications account for most of the commonly abused drugs by high school seniors after alcohol and marijuana. When high school seniors were asked how prescription narcotics were obtained for nonmedical use, 70% of 12th graders said they were given to them by a friend or relative. 42

There are several factors that contribute to prescription drug abuse:

  • Misperceptions about their safety. Because these medications are prescribed by doctors, many patients assume the medications are safe to take under any circumstances. This is not the case. Prescription drugs act directly or indirectly on the same brain systems affected by illicit drugs. Using a medication other than as prescribed can lead to a variety of adverse health effects including overdose, addiction, or death.

  • Increasing availability. According to one study, the percentage of one or more prescription stimulant fills increased from 3.6% in 2016 to 4.1% in 2021. The percentages of females aged 15-44 years and males aged 25-44 years with prescription stimulant fills increased more than 10% during 2020-2021.18

  • Motivations to abuse. Patients may use prescription drugs to get high; to counter anxiety, pain, or sleep problems; or to enhance cognition. Whatever the motivation, prescription drug abuse comes with serious risks.13,42