How prescription drug addiction is treated

In 2020, 1.2 million people in the United States misused prescription pain relievers. Addiction to prescription drugs often begins with medically prescribed necessary use, such as after surgery or injury. Gradually, use becomes abuse, leading to substance use disorder or addiction. When this happens, prescription drug treatment is needed.

Read on to learn more about prescription drug treatment options, including inpatient, outpatient, medication, and community support.

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Prescription Drugs and Addiction

The most common prescription drugs that lead to addiction include:


Opioids are painkillers derived from opiates, such as opium, morphine, and heroin, which come from the opium poppy plant.

Opioids activate neurotransmitter receptors in the brain dopaminecausing euphoric feelings.

Opioids treat severe pain caused by surgery, illness, medical procedures, and childbirth.

Here are some examples of opioids:

  • Codeine
  • Methadone
  • Fentanyl
  • Hydrocodone
  • Morphine
  • Oxycodone
  • Meperidine

What is the opioid crisis?

In the late 1990s, new opioids came onto the market. They were increasingly prescribed on the basis of false information that they were less addictive. They were, in fact, very addictive. In 2017, the US Department of Health and Human Services declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency.

In 2019, nearly 50,000 people in the United States died from opioid overdoses. Preliminary data estimates more than 75,000 opioid-related overdose deaths in 2021.

Central nervous system depressants

Depressants calm the nervous system and have sedative effects. They are used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders.

They understand:

  • Benzodiazepineslike Valium (diazepam) and Ativa (lorazepam)
  • Chlordiazepoxide
  • Lunesta (eszopiclone)
  • Ambien (zolpidem)


Mainly prescribed for ADHD, stimulants stimulate the prefrontal cortex of the brain and increase dopamine.

They understand:

  • Amphetamineslike Adderall
  • Methylphenidateslike Ritalin

Drug treatment options

Drug treatment helps manage severe withdrawal symptoms, which can make a significant difference to long-term recovery.

A 2020 study investigated the use of drug treatment with methadone or buprenorphine in people with opiate addiction and found a 76% reduction in overdoses at three months and 59% at one year.

Drug treatments

Some drugs used for drug treatment include:

  • Methadone: A long-acting opioid agonist (chemical that activates a receptor) that reduces craving for opioids and withdrawal. It lessens or blocks the effects of opioids. By law, only a treatment program certified by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration or SAMHSA can dispense methadone, usually at a methadone clinic. Methadone is prescription-only, taken daily, and available in liquid, powder, or tablet form.
  • Buprenorphine: A partial opioid agonist that causes euphoria and respiratory depression at low to moderate doses. These effects are weaker than those of full opioid agonists such as methadone. Buprenorphine is the first drug that can be prescribed or dispensed in a health care provider’s office, increasing access to treatment. It is taken daily and available as tablets, implants and time-release injections.
  • Naltrexone: Binds and blocks opioid receptors and suppresses opioid cravings. Naltrexone is an extended-release intramuscular injection, usually given by a healthcare professional in a doctor’s office.
  • Naloxone: Naloxone is a temporary treatment created to quickly reverse an opioid overdose. It also binds to opioid receptors. It can be given as a nasal spray, intramuscular injection, or injection under the skin.

Residential Treatment Options

Treatment options for prescription drug addiction also include inpatient and outpatient treatment.

Hospitalization, where a person stays overnight, is also known as residential rehabilitation or rehabilitation treatment. Outpatient treatment is usually a clinic that a person visits during the day for treatment, but returns home at night.

Long-term residential treatment

Long-term residential treatment facilities provide round-the-clock care for a hospital stay of six to 12 months. These can be hospitals, psychiatric hospitals and non-hospital settings.

Treatment is usually very structured and may include employment training and other support services.

Short-term residential treatment

Short-term residential treatment options are designed to provide intensive treatment with a shorter stay, usually one week or 30, 60 or 90 days.

After completing the hospital portion of the program, you will engage in outpatient programs including individual therapy, family therapy, group therapy, and support groups.

Ambulatory treatment facilities

Outpatient treatment facilities are lower in intensity but offer individual, family and group therapy, allowing the person to engage in regular work and home routines.

These programs are often designed to treat people with dual diagnoses, including substance use disorders and mental health disorders and conditions.

Prescription addiction therapy

Living with addiction can be very isolating. Therapy can be a useful tool to help overcome addiction.

Some effective therapeutic methods for drug addiction include:

  • Individual therapy: Individual sessions, usually weekly, with a trained addiction therapist. May include talk therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to examine automatic or negative thought patterns and replace them with healthier thoughts.
  • group therapy: Hearing the experiences of others with similar experiences can be important for recovery and sobriety. Research has shown that group therapy leads to positive results.
  • family therapy: Family therapy encourages all family members to make specific positive changes while the person in recovery works through their issues.
  • Support groups: Support groups may include Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), and SMART Recovery (Self-Management and Recovery Training). Support groups are often available at community centers and online.

Studies show that social connections with family, groups, community and friends have positive effects on recovery.

Complementary and alternative medicine

Complementary and alternative medicine, while not a substitute for addiction treatment, can offer additional support.

  • Quality sleep: More than 75% of people with an opioid addiction have trouble sleeping. Sleep impacts many aspects of opioid abuse, including reward centers in the brain, mood regulation, stress management, and pain perception.
  • Yoga: In a study of hatha yoga practiced by people receiving opioid agonist therapy, mood improved with decreased anxiety and pain.
  • mindfulness: One study indicated that mindfulness increased response to natural rewards, decreased response to opioids, and decreased cravings.


Addiction to prescription drugs often begins with medically prescribed use following surgery or injury. Over time, use can lead to misuse and become addictive. When addiction occurs, treatment is needed.

Treatment for prescription drug addiction includes medication, inpatient and outpatient treatment centers, therapy, and support groups. People can also benefit from alternative therapies such as yoga, mindfulness, and high-quality sleep.

A word from Verywell

Overcoming addiction to prescription drugs on your own is almost impossible. The first step of admitting you need help can be the hardest of all. By seeking treatment, you will find the support, resources and social connection needed to overcome addiction.

If you are struggling with a prescription drug addiction and want to seek help, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP.

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