According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 48 million Americans – or 20 percent of the population – have used prescription drugs for non-medical reasons at some time during their lifetime. This includes many elderly who are using medication for pain management.

In most cases, these medications were initially prescribed by a physician to treat pain, relieve anxiety, or improve sleep. They may have been prescribed initially for something as simple as a toothache. However, within a short period of time, the user began to increase the frequency or amount of the dosage, causing a dependence.

Addiction is a chronic, often relapsing brain disease that causes compulsive drug seeking and can physically lead to changes in the structure and function of the brain. Repeated drug use can affect your self-control and ability to make sound decisions, impacting on your social, occupational and psychological well-being. Unlike with most drug addictions, a major segment of pain medicine addicts are in their 60s, 70s or older, people who started using pain killers after surgery or due to chronic pain.

While opioids with such brand names as OxyContin, Percocet and Vicodin are effective in reducing pain, they can lead to drug dependency and abuse over time – and can become deadly when combined with substances that depress the central nervous system, like alcohol, barbiturates or benzodiazepines like Xanax, Valium and Klonopin which work by decreasing brain activity.

Taking central nervous system depressants for a few days to several weeks can decrease anxiety and improve sleep. After a while, however, larger doses are required to get the same effect. Stopping suddenly after prolonged usage can also cause serious problems, such as confusion and withdrawal seizures.

The risks for addiction differ among individuals, and may be affected by one’s biology, social environment and/or age of development at the time the drug was first taken. Addictions can run in families.

How do you know if you or a loved one is addicted to a prescription drug? Calling a doctor for frequent refills or asking for an increased amount of medication are likely signs. The best thing to do, should this occur, is to contact an expert as soon as possible.

Local Note: Medication management and medication supervision are services provided by some New Jersey home health agencies, like Expert Home Care.   Please call (800) 848-2336 for more information.