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Why Do Some People Get Addicted to Prescription Drugs and Others Don’t?

drugMany prescription drugs, including painkillers, sedatives and stimulants, have the potential to be addictive if they’re abused. However, these drugs are considered safe if used as directed. Most people who take prescription drugs use them as they were intended to be used, with no problems. Others receive a prescription for a potentially addictive drug to treat a legitimate medical problem, only to lose control over their use of the drug and wind up addicted.

What makes the difference? How can some people use prescription drugs for their intended purposes with no negative long-term effects, while others, who may ostensibly share the same medical background and life circumstances, end up needing prescription drug addiction treatment, or even treatment for addiction to illegal drugs? The answer is complicated, as there are many factors that make a person vulnerable to prescription drug addiction. They include genetics, mental health, length of use, and environmental factors like history of trauma and previous substance abuse.

The Genetic Factor
Heredity isn’t the only factor in play when it comes to addiction, and experts don’t yet know which genes are responsible for addiction. However, identical twin studies suggest genetics account for about 50 percent of a person’s susceptibility to addiction.

Furthermore, some people are born physiologically hard-wired with a susceptibility to addiction. Five to 10 percent of people are born with a brain extra-vulnerable to addiction. However, just because someone is born with a genetic susceptibility to addiction doesn’t mean that person is destined to become an addict. If a person with an addiction-vulnerable brain is never exposed to substance abuse in his or her peer group or family, and if he or she never meets any of the other criteria for addiction susceptibility, then there’s a strong chance he or she will remain sober throughout his or her life.

The Genetic Factor
Heredity isn’t the only factor in play when it comes to addiction, and experts don’t yet know which genes are responsible for addiction. However, identical twin studies suggest genetics account for about 50 percent of a person’s susceptibility to addiction.

Furthermore, some people are born physiologically hard-wired with a susceptibility to addiction. Five to 10 percent of people are born with a brain extra-vulnerable to addiction. However, just because someone is born with a genetic susceptibility to addiction doesn’t mean that person is destined to become an addict. If a person with an addiction-vulnerable brain is never exposed to substance abuse in his or her peer group or family, and if he or she never meets any of the other criteria for addiction susceptibility, then there’s a strong chance he or she will remain sober throughout his or her life.

Length of Drug Use
Of course, the length of time during which a person uses prescription drugs also makes a difference in whether or not he or she will become addicted to those drugs. A person who abuses prescription drugs for only a few weeks is much less likely to become a full-blown addict than a person who abuses them for months or years. A person who uses prescription drugs exactly as directed is unlikely to become addicted at all.

The Environmental Component
Half of the factors contributing to the development of an addiction are environmental in nature. These factors relate to the way a person was raised, his or her social group, economic status and exposure to substance abuse. The two strongest environmental factors contributing to the development of a prescription pill addiction — or any substance abuse disorder — are exposure to substance abuse and a history of childhood trauma.

History of Trauma
Physical, emotional or sexual abuse, or other childhood trauma, like the death of a parent, causes physiological changes in the brain that appear to be permanent. Though addiction experts don’t know why, these brain changes can leave the person more vulnerable to addiction as he or she grows older.

Exposure to substance abuse is another significant risk factor for addiction. Children and teens who are exposed to substance abuse in the home, perhaps through witnessing a family member’s struggle with addiction, for example, are more likely to become substance abusers and addicts themselves when they grow up. Adults who have a history of abusing substances — like alcohol, illicit drugs or even tobacco — are more likely to abuse and, by extension, become addicted to prescription drugs.

While it’s possible for some people, particularly those with a genetic pre-disposition to addiction, to develop a prescription drug addiction immediately, addiction is just as likely to develop slowly over time. People are most likely to become addicted to a prescription drug when they are using it to cope with tough circumstances or difficult emotions, like chronic pain, stress, panic attacks or depression. When a prescription drug begins to fill a void in someone’s life or meet an emotional need, that’s when addiction is most likely to occur. People who are less vulnerable to addiction don’t rely on prescription drugs or other substances to calm them when they’re anxious, make them talkative when they’re feeling shy or help them escape from painful feelings or memories. They rely on healthy coping mechanisms, and they draw happiness and joy from things in their lives other than drugs.

Not everyone who uses prescription drugs becomes addicted to them, but some do. A variety of physiological and emotional factors make a person more likely to become addicted to prescription drugs. By stopping prescription drug use entirely as soon as the warning signs of addiction begin to appear, full-blown addiction can be avoided.