Prescription Drug Addiction Causes

You can only get so far in recovery without knowing about the causes of prescription drug addiction. When you understand the causes behind your substance use, it’s much easier to address the problem.


The most common addictive prescription drugs include opioids, stimulants, and depressants (including sedatives, benzodiazepines, and barbiturates).

These medications all share one common trait: they cause physical and psychological dependence or addiction.

Many factors can cause prescription drug addiction, including:

  • Overprescription by doctors
  • The drug’s chemical effect on your body
  • Family and genetic causes
  • Environmental and social causes
  • Physical and mental health causes

Some of these causes are universal, while others are specific to the type of addictive prescription drug. For instance, overprescription is more often a cause of opioid addiction than barbiturate addiction.

What is Prescription Drug Addiction?

Prescription drug addiction is a physical or psychological need to misuse certain medications, like:

  • Opioids, including Vicodin, OxyContin, or Percocet
  • Stimulants, like Adderall, Ritalin, or Concerta
  • Benzodiazepines, such as Xanax, Halcion, or Prosom
  • Sedative-hypnotics, for instance, Ambien, Lunesta, or Sonata
  • Barbiturates, e.g. Mebaral, Luminal, or Nembutal

You may know prescription drug addiction as a substance use disorder. Like other types of substance use disorders, it develops when your body and nervous system begin to expect your drug of choice to be in your system all the time.

Effects of Prescription Drug Addiction

The effects of prescription drug addiction include:

  • Dependence, or a physical and psychological need to use (or abuse) addictive medication constantly
  • Tolerance, the need to use increasingly higher doses of medication to get the same effects over time
  • Withdrawal, a syndrome that varies depending on the drug (but can include: cravings, nausea, mood changes, and changes in sleep or appetite)

Additionally, overdose is a common effect of prescription drug addiction that causes

Beyond these universal signs of addiction, the physical and psychological effects of prescription drugs on the brain depend on the drug type.

Effects of Opioid Addiction

Opioid medications all have similar effects, since they’re in the same drug class. They all have effects on a chemical that slows signaling in the nervous system.

The effects of opioids include:

  • Dizziness
  • Euphoria, or the feeling of being high
  • Itching
  • Nausea
  • Sedation
  • Slowed breathing

Effects of Stimulant Addiction

All stimulant medications work by increasing activity in your central nervous system. When stimulants make the nervous system work harder, it has effects such as:

  • Anxiety
  • Decreased appetite
  • Euphoria, or the feeling of being high
  • Less need for sleep
  • Mania
  • Paranoia

Effects of Depressant Addiction

There are three types of medications that all work by decreasing the level of activity in your nervous system. They include benzodiazepines (e.g. Valium), barbiturates (e.g. Mebaral), and sedative-hypnotics (e.g. Ambien).

Effects of Benzodiazepine Addiction

The effects of benzodiazepines include:

  • Confusion
  • Dizziness
  • Euphoria, or the feeling of being high
  • Memory loss
  • Poor coordination
  • Sedation

Effects of Barbiturate Addiction

The effects of barbiturates include:

  • Confusion
  • Euphoria, or the feeling of being high (actually, some people describe the euphoria from barbiturates as similar to being drunk)
  • Drowsiness
  • Lowered inhibitions
  • Poor coordination
  • Slurred speech

Effects of Sedative-Hypnotic Addiction

The effects of sedative-hypnotics include:

  • Confusion
  • Decreased consciousness
  • Drowsiness
  • Euphoria, or the feeling of being high
  • Sleepiness
  • Short-term amnesia, or memory loss

Causes of Prescription Drug Addiction

Prescription drug dependence is a complicated disorder with many causes. It can be hard to pin down why you developed a prescription drug addiction when someone else you know didn’t.

There’s almost never just one cause behind drug addiction. There are countless combinations of ways you can develop a problem.

For instance, you could be unlucky enough to have a history of childhood trauma, family addiction, and receive a pain medication prescription that you don’t need.

Or you could have a complicated medical history, take multiple medications that all increase the risk of addiction, and go to school with peers who abuse prescription drugs.

All of those factors are potential causes of psychological addiction and biological dependence, and they’re far from the only ones.

Prescribing Causes for Prescription Drug Addiction

For many people, prescription drug addiction starts at the doctor’s office. In fact, 1 in 4 people who start taking opioid medications develop an addiction, even if they take them as directed.

Addictive prescription medications are more likely to cause dependence if you aren’t taking them for the right condition. Some providers prescribe controlled substances for people who don’t actually need them.

For instance, opioid pain medications are so potent that they’re recommended for use in treating cancer pain or post-surgical pain. Yet millions of Americans take these drugs to treat long-term chronic pain, leading to addiction.

Chemical Causes for Prescription Drug Addiction

All prescription drugs that cause substance use disorders have a similar chemical cause for addiction.

When you use an addictive medication, your nervous system develops tolerance to the effects over time by changing the way your brain’s chemicals communicate. This can cause you to take the drug more often, or take higher doses.

The more often you use an addictive drug, the quicker you develop physical dependence. Your nervous system gets used to having your prescription medication in its system, and without it, you develop withdrawal.

One of the most severe symptoms of withdrawal is the craving to use drugs. This craving can be impossible to ignore.

This cycle of chemical changes in the brain (and the compulsive drug use that results) is a leading cause of prescription drug addiction.

Genetic and Family Causes for Prescription Drug Addiction

Family history is a common cause that contributes to prescription drug addiction. That is, if you have immediate family members who live with substance use disorders, you’re more likely to develop addiction to prescription drugs.

The family causes for prescription drug addiction include:

  • Parental drug use: Witnessing your parents or adult role models use street drugs or abuse prescription drugs when you’re a child increases the risk that you’ll develop a substance use disorder later in life.
  • Genetic causes: The genes you inherit from your parents account for up to 50% of the risk you’ll develop addiction. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you will develop addiction if your parents have it, but the chances are higher.

Environmental Factors for Prescription Drug Addiction

Your environment can be a contributing cause of prescription drug addiction—both your current environment and the one you grew up in.

A stressful family environment (e.g. poverty, absent parents, divorced parents, or domestic abuse) when you’re a child can increase the likelihood that you’ll develop an addiction in adulthood.

As an adult, the environmental causes of prescription drug addiction include:

  • Cultural and social ideas that prescription drugs are safe and acceptable to abuse
  • Chronic stress that accompanies relationship problems, work troubles, and family issues
  • Media exposure, including movies, TV shows, and even social media posts that gloss over the dangers of prescription drug addiction
  • Peer pressure from groups or friends who engage in social prescription drug abuse
  • Spending time in physical environments that encourage substance abuse of any kind, including bars, parties, and clubs

Health Factors for Prescription Drug Addiction

Prescription drug addiction can develop more easily if your physical health is poor. When you’re living with chronic illness, your body can be more sensitive to the effects of potent prescription medications because of:

  • Changes in weight
  • Changes in how you metabolize drugs
  • Dehydration
  • Digestive problems, including stomach, liver, kidney, or colon problems
  • Other medications you’re taking, which can interact with

The same is true if you live with a mental health condition such as a mood disorder or traumatic stress disorder.

Mental health disorders can indirectly cause substance use disorder when prescription drug abuse becomes a coping method. It’s very common for multiple mental health conditions to occur together, including substance use disorders.

Treatment for Prescription Drug Addiction

No matter what the cause, prescription drug addiction requires treatment that is:

  • Evidence-based with support from the medical and scientific communities
  • Individualized with a treatment planning process that’s different for everyone
  • Focused on the underlying cause by putting each patient’s needs first instead of their diagnosis

A scientifically-proven, patient-focused treatment plan that tackles the cause of your addiction can include:

  • Detox: Medical detoxification programs help you stay safe and comfortable through the withdrawal phase.
  • Inpatient treatment: Intensive residential treatment promotes recovery for people who need 24/7 support.
  • Outpatient treatment: Flexible treatment sessions can take place daily or a few times a week.
  • Medication-assisted treatment: For recovery from prescription opioids, medication can help maintain long-term success.

Address the Root Causes of Prescription Drug Abuse at Northeast Addictions Treatment Center

When you learn all about what causes prescription drug addiction, you can be more effective at fighting it. At Northeast Addictions Treatment Center, you can do this all on an outpatient basis. You and your counselors will design a customized program that works around your schedule. Call Northeast Addictions Treatment Center today to get started on your personalized plan.

Written by
Northeast Addition Editorial Team

©2023 Northeast Addition Center | All Rights Reserved

This page does not provide medical advice.

Ready to make a change? Talk to a specialist now.