Thousands of Australians trust prescription medications to provide relief from pain, to curb anxiety and stress or to treat other mental conditions. Yet, for many, this dependence on prescription drugs can turn into drug abuse or prescription addiction (either for them or for one of their family members). Prescription medication addiction in fast becoming a commonplace problem in Australia. This is attributed to a common belief that prescription drugs are safe, since they have been prescribed by a doctor. However, if not used appropriately, these drugs can also be unsafe and addictive.

What is prescription drug abuse or addiction?

Abuse or addiction can result from using a prescription medicine without any prescription, either in a different way than is prescribed, or to attain a feeling of pleasure. Addiction to such drugs, including the condition of being physically dependent on them, involves taking drugs habitually despite its adverse consequences on mental and physical health.

Once someone is physically dependent on a prescription drug, stopping its use will cause withdrawal symptoms like nausea, shaking, irritability, and insomnia. Tolerance also develops i.e. more and more of the drug is needed to experience the desired effect. Moreover, patients tend to show hesitancy about disclosing their addictive condition while providing a medical history to their physician. Hence, it becomes difficult for physicians to judge whether the patient really needs the medicine for medical reasons or has a drug issue.

It becomes the duty of patients, physicists and pharmacists combined to keep a check on prescription drug abuse and addiction and prevent it. Patients should be well informed about the directions for use; find out the side effects of the medicine and notify their doctor about all the prescription or OTC drugs that they are taking. Health care professionals should ask the patient about any history of substance abuse, including what other medicines are being taken, and prescribe medicines accordingly.

What drives people to prescription medication addiction?

Many factors can lead this condition, including:

  • The perception among patients that prescription drugs are safe to take in any situation.
  • Prescription medicines are easily available these days.
  • Various motivational factors like enhance cognitive ability, reduced stress or pain or improvement in sleep problems.

Commonly abused prescription medicines

The following categories of medicines are usually abused:

  • Opioids e.g heroin, morphine (used to relieve pain)
  • Depressants e.g. diazepam, alprazolam, zolpidem, phenobarbitol (used to provide relief from anxiety and stress; and treat sleep disorders)
  • Stimulants e.g Ritalin, Concerta, Adderall and Adderall XR ( stimulate the nervous system; mostly used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD and narcolepsy)

Signs of dependency on prescription medication

  • Persistently increasing usage
  • Personality changes
  • Withdrawal from social activities, family and friends
  • Use is continued even after the medical condition has improved
  • A lot of time is spent on getting the prescription
  • Change in appearance, eating and sleeping routine
  • Neglecting work and household responsibilities
  • Frequently passing out and forgetfulness
  • Highly defensive reactions to any question asked about drug use

Treatment options for prescription medication dependence

While seeking treatment for recovering from prescription medication, one must put into consideration the type of medication that is being abused. There are two major categories of this type of addiction: behavioural and pharmacological.

Behavioural treatment teaches patients strategies on how to avoid taking drugs, handle withdrawal symptoms and deal with a relapse. CBT, individual, group or family counselling are a few instances of behavioural therapy, which if delivered effectively can improve the victim’s social life and help with personal relationships. Some addictions are treated with medicines that offset the effect of the medicine on the brain and its function.


Since 1992, there has been a huge increase in Australia in the usage of prescription opioids particularly oxycontin. For those addicted to painkillers or other opioids, treatment plan is based on research done on heroin addiction treatment. It combines pharmacological and behavioural treatment. Medications that are currently being used include:

  • Methadone
  • Buprenorphine
  • Naltrexone
  • Naloxone


There has been little research conducted on treating addiction to depressants of the central nervous system. Victims suffering from an addiction to barbiturates and benzodiazepines should not attempt to stop them on their own as sudden withdrawal can cause problematic side effects. Patients are required to undergo detoxification under keen medical supervision, tapering the dosage by decreasing it a little at a time. Taking counselling sessions whether outpatient or inpatient, can also prove to be of great help. Certain therapies like CBT lay emphasis on altering the patients’ thoughts, behaviour and stress handling skills, to encourage them to discontinue the use of the addictive medicine.


The treatment plan banks on tapering the dosage and easing the withdrawal symptoms. Psychotherapy remains the mainstay of treatment. The victim during this process has to “unlearn” an addiction by struggling with the cravings and the withdrawal symptoms under trained supervision. CBT, contingency management and multi-pronged method (matrix options) are a few reliable options in this category.

There is no medication approved by as yet to treat addiction to stimulants. Cocaine and methamphetamine detoxification treatments provide the basis for treating addiction to prescription stimulants. Based on the patient’s state, the first step is to gradually decrease the use of the medicine and treating the withdrawal symptoms. This detoxification is followed by behavioural therapies to enable them to cope up with this problem. Joining support groups may also be effective in combination with therapy.

Recovery from prescription drug addiction treads a long path that banks on steadfast determination and will power. However the best way to curb this ill would be foremost prevention and adopting caution when seeking self-remedies at home.

If you or someone you know needs help with prescription medication addiction, the counsellors and psychologists at Australia Counselling can help. We have addiction specialists located in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Canberra and other regional areas of Australia. Visit our Addiction- including substances page to find a counsellor or psychologist in your local area.


  1. What should I do if I might be addicted to pain medicine ?

    1. Hi Manuela, if you think you are addicted to pain medicine you should seek professional help ASAP. Go to your GP or search our directory to find a counsellor.

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