Is Prescription Drug Misuse, Abuse?
Prescription drug abuse is a pressing concern in modern American society, where millions of adults and younger individuals take potentially addictive medications without proper authorization or for purely recreational purposes. However, not all people who abuse a prescription medication necessarily understand what they’re doing. In a study published in March 2014 in the journal Substance Abuse, researchers from New York University used a small-scale experiment to estimate how many people know what constitutes participation in prescription drug abuse.
Is Misusing Abusing?
Prescription drug abuse is also sometimes known as the nonmedical use of prescription drugs. Technically, a person participates in this form of abuse whenever he or she knowingly takes his or her prescribed medication in a manner other than intended or knowingly takes a medication prescribed for someone else. However, some public health experts make a distinction between prescription drug abuse and prescription drug misuse. This distinction holds that abusers purposefully seek to obtain a nonmedical benefit from improper use of a medication, while misusers seek to obtain a medical benefit (such as pain relief) from improper medication use. In addition, public health officials typically distinguish between the abuse/misuse of medications that have no potential to trigger physical dependence and addiction, and the abuse/misuse of medications with an addictive potential.
There are several reasons any given individual might start abusing/misusing a prescription medication. For example, some people mistakenly believe that since prescription medications come from doctors, they don’t pose a particular danger even when used in an unintended manner. Known risks of prescription medication abuse/misuse include the development of a diagnosable case of drug abuse or drug addiction (i.e., substance use disorder) and the onset of a nonfatal or fatal overdose.
Extent Of The Prescription Misuse Problem
The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration tracks year-to-year trends in prescription drug abuse through an annual project called the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The most recent available figures from this survey, which cover part of 2011 and most of 2012, indicate that about 6.8 million American adults and teenagers abuse a mind-altering, potentially addictive medication in the average month. This number represents roughly 2.6 percent of the total adult and teen U.S. population. In descending order of popularity, the four classes of medications most commonly targeted for abuse are opioid painkillers, tranquilizers, stimulants and sedatives. Opioid painkiller abuse occurs far more often than any other form of prescription medication abuse.
How Many Understand The Definition Of Abuse?
In the study published in Substance Abuse, researchers from three branches of New York University (including the NYU School of Medicine and the NYU College of Nursing) used a small-scale assessment of 27 patients receiving treatment at a primary care clinic to estimate how many people understand the definition of prescription drug abuse (defined by the research team as nonmedical prescription drug use/prescription drug misuse). They began this assessment by asking each of the study participants to complete a brief questionnaire on the use/misuse of alcohol, tobacco, illegal/illicit drugs and prescription medications. In addition, the researchers used interviews to probe the answers each participant gave on his or her questionnaire. Six of the 27 patients had a recent history of prescription drug abuse/misuse, while another eight had a recent history of abusing an illegal/illicit substance.
The researchers found that all but one of the study participants understood what constitutes the use of an illegal or illicit drug. However, fully 41 percent of the participants inaccurately described what constitutes the abuse/misuse of prescription medications. The most frequently encountered inaccuracy was a failure to distinguish between medications with a potential for triggering problems with abuse and addiction, and medications that have no such potential. Interestingly, none of the study participants with a history of illegal/illicit drug use inaccurately understood the meaning of prescription drug abuse/misuse.
The authors of the study published in Substance Abuse concluded that many of the patients who discuss prescription drug abuse/misuse with their doctors may not understand the terms and definitions that doctors commonly employ. This tendency toward misunderstanding appears to be especially prominent in people who have no personal experience with illegal/illicit drug intake. Based on these findings, the study’s authors believe that primary care doctors who screen their patients for potential prescription drug abuse may inadvertently misidentify those patients as medication abusers in a significant number of cases. In line with this belief, they point toward a need to clarify the language used to explain prescription drug abuse/misuse to patients.
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