According to the CDC, more than six thousand people are treated for drug misuse or abuse every day. That’s an incredibly high number and it makes us wonder: is the problem the drugs or is it the people? We set out to find the answer. Here is what we learned along the way.
Problem: The Drug Side
Most prescription drugs are created to dramatically alter the way the human body functions–at least for a while. They are designed to increase the body’s ability to form antibodies, to produce certain hormones, etc. The effects felt by the patient are nowhere near congruous with the amount of change that actually takes place within the body. It is the extreme nature of these changes that causes so many of the side effects that patients report when they first start taking a drug.
Doctors used to be hesitant to prescribe drugs like antibiotics or opioids to patients who were sick or injured. This has changed dramatically in the last few years as the perspective of doctors has shifted from “only as a last resort” to “better safe than sorry.” In fact, according to a NIH study, in 2010, enough painkillers were prescribed to treat every American every four hours for a whole month.
That shift in perspective, along with the high rates of antibiotics injected into factory farmed livestock has inadvertently led to the evolution of “super” diseases. Remember, bacteria and viruses evolve just like humans do and as we eradicate one strain, the other strains all get stronger and more adept at thwarting medicine’s efforts to heal us.
Another consequence of drug prescriptions is the permanent altering of a brain’s functioning, particularly with regard to painkillers and hormone production. Once the brain gets used to the hormones it makes naturally being supplied via other means, it simply adapts to the supply and stops making the hormone itself. If the supply is artificial for too long, the brain will “forget” how to create that hormone at all, meaning that the person truly does need the drug to function properly.
This is also how a tolerance builds up, says Black Bear Lodge (a rehabilitation facility). Their prescription drug page mentions that a body will physically build up a tolerance for the drugs that have been prescribed, resulting in the patient needing more and stronger doses of the drug to achieve the same level of treatment for a condition, but also often leading to prescription drug abuse.
Conclusion: Doctors, for a variety of reasons, are more likely to prescribe drugs than they are to run tests or wait and see how a patient reacts to other types of treatments. The supply is steady and easily available even for drugs like opioids.
Problem: The People
Often, if the drug is taken exactly as prescribed and the patient follows the guidelines offered up by his doctor exactly, that patient can be safely weaned off of the prescribed drug with no effects. Unfortunately, not all people will follow the directions exactly. Some will simply forget, others will willfully ignore instructions. Human error must be factored in to the creation of an addiction.
Genetics do play a role: a research done by the Laboratory of Neurogenetics finds that addiction can be inherited. The degree of genetic predisposition, however, can vary depending on the drug in question. For example, cocaine has a higher genetic factor than most hallucinogens.
Environment is an important factor. People who are exposed to addiction behaviors at an early age are more likely to develop their own addictions later in life, particularly if they are close to the person exhibiting those behaviors.
Addictions do not spring up out of nowhere, but it is rarely the result of completely controllable factors like environment (and to a lesser extent, personality type). Genetics, human biology and the nature of how the drugs are made and (too) readily prescribed plays a much larger role in the rate of addiction within the United States.