Prescription Drug Addiction
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What Causes Prescription Drug Addiction?
When someone uses an opioid painkiller, the drug binds with parts of cells that are specifically sensitive to opioids. The opioid receptors are present in cells throughout the body, but the drug’s most powerful effects come from their interaction with opioid receptors in the brain. When it binds with the receptors, the drug has the effect of decreasing pain perception. It also may produce a feeling of euphoria or well-being.
In the brain, opioids cause an increase in the level of a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a type of chemical that helps nerve cells in the brain communicate with one another. Elevated dopamine levels produce good feelings associated with the drug’s high.
The pleasurable effects of dopamine disappear when the opioid isn’t present, so the user is driven to seek out more of the drug. As the use of the drug continues, the brain becomes less sensitive to its effects, triggering the need for higher doses to achieve the same result. Eventually, changes in the user’s brain chemistry become so pronounced that abstinence from the drug produces physical withdrawal symptoms.
Dependence on, or addiction to, opioid painkillers or other prescription drugs can begin when a patient doesn’t follow a doctor’s advice about how to use the drug when it is prescribed. Some older patients who are prescribed multiple medications may be at risk of unintentionally misusing the drugs they are prescribed.
In addition to a drug’s physical addictiveness, some other factors increase the likelihood that a given individual will abuse or become dependent on prescription drugs. These risk factors include:
- Personal history of abuse of alcohol, tobacco, or other substances
- Family or individual history of drug use or abuse
- Poverty or unemployment
- First drug use at a young age
- Depression, anxiety, or other mental illness
- Exposure to environments where drug use is prevalent
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