Medical Discovery News
By Drs. David Niesel and Norbert Herzog 

Drug abuse is not confined to street drugs like methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine. America is facing an epidemic of prescription drug abuse, particularly with pain relievers, anti-depressants and stimulants. In 2010, 7 million Americans abused prescription drugs every month.

People are able to abuse such medications by taking medicines prescribed for someone else, using them in excess, or by taking them in a way not prescribed, such as crushing and snorting pills or liquefying and injecting them to hasten the effects needed to produce a high.

Anti-depressants, sedatives and tranquilizers are abused by more than 2.5 million people each month. The mood-altering drug Zoloft ranks sixth on the list of abused pharmaceuticals and earned more than $500 million in sales. It is prescribed for depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and social anxiety disorder. The 10th most abused prescription drug is Xanax (alprazolam), called Xany, blue footballs, Xanybars or just bars on the street. Xanax had sales of almost $275 million in 2012. This drug is intended to treat anxiety or panic disorders. It is often abused because it creates what is described as a sense of wellbeing, but can be fatal when abused.

The sleeping pills Ambien and Lunesta are the fourth and seventh most abused drugs from the pharmacy, with sales of $670 and $450 million respectively in 2012. Both are used to treat difficulties falling or staying asleep but can produce hallucinations when abused. Tom Brokaw of NBC News inadvertently experienced these symptoms from Ambien while covering the last presidential campaign.

Drugs used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, are also widely abused, usually by students seeking a way to stay awake and intensely focused on a project or test. Other than marijuana and synthetic marijuana, Adderall is the most-used drug by high school seniors and the eighth most abused prescription drug in the country. Its sales top $400 million. Other stimulants of the central nervous system, Ritalin and Concerta, are the third and fifth most abused pharmaceuticals. Stimulants can have significant side effects like irregular heartbeat, heart failure, seizures and behavioral changes such as paranoia or hostility.

Some of the most abused drugs are opioid analgesics used clinically as pain relievers. These drugs are involved in 75 percent of all pharmaceutical overdose deaths – more than 16,000 people a year. An estimated 5.1 million people abuse these drugs each month. This included the most abused pharmaceutical drug – Oxycontin. In 2012, sales of this drug reached about $2.5 billion. The second most abused prescription drug, Suboxone, is used as a maintenance treatment for opioid dependence. Its sales brought in almost $1.4 billion. Another opioid, Opana ER (oxymorphone), ranks ninth on the list of most abused pharmaceuticals and is used to treat severe and chronic pain. It earned $300 million in sales in 2012.

Prescription drugs like these are a double-edged sword. They do a lot of good for a lot of people, and many genuinely need them to function. New regulations that govern the use of these drugs, while annoying for people who need them, help limit some of the abusive behavior of those breaking bad.

Medical Discovery News is a weekly radio and print broadcast highlighting medical and scientific breakthroughs hosted by professor emeritus Norbert Herzog and professor David Niesel, biomedical scientists at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. Learn more at www.medicaldiscoverynews.com.