Back Pain

Updated 26 January 2017

7 highly addictive prescription medications

It’s not just illegal substances like heroin and cocaine that are highly addictive. Some of the most common pain medications, for backache for instance, can have dangerous consequences.


From time to time most of us need prescription medications. Whether it’s antibiotics to fight off bacteria or an antidepressant to stabilise our mood, the medication the doctor gives us can make a world of difference.

But just because the medication comes from a doctor or pharmacist does not mean you can’t get addicted to it. According to Centre for Disease Control in the USA “more people died from drug overdoses in 2014 than in any year on record”. Prescription medications were involved in 60% of the cases.

Read: Alarm over cough syrup drug abuse among Cape Town learners

Opioids that are often used to relieve severe backache, and produce morphine-like effects, are some of the most dangerous prescription drugs due to the high risk of patients overdosing. We looked at some of the most addictive prescription medications:

1. Xanax

Also known as Alprazolam, this medication is commonly used to treat panic and anxiety disorders. Research from the University of Wisconsin Medical School shows this drug is often used in combination with other addictive drugs and is often part of addiction disorders. Fatal overdose can also occur, and people who are “progressively more incapable of tolerating their emotions and life stressors” are especially vulnerable.

2. Oxycodone

Oxycodone is an opioid often prescribed for relief of moderate to severe pain, such as end-stage cancer. A study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry says that “drug-naive individuals” often become addicted after a legitimate prescription was issued to them.

3. Valium

Typically producing a calming effect, Valium is used to treat a range of conditions such as anxiety, seizures and alcohol withdrawal syndrome. Prof Malcolm Lader from the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College found that long-term tranquilliser use can cause brain damage and the detoxification can even lead to seizures.

4. Demerol

Like oxycodone Demerol is a prescription pain medication. Research from Chang Gung Memorial Hospital in Taiwan found the danger of this drug lies in the tolerance that user develop. This will lead to an increase in dosage and painful withdrawal symptoms.

Read: OTC and prescription drug abuse

5. Codeine

According to the Medicines Control Council (MCC) codeine is the most abused over-the-counter (OTC) drug in South Africa, Health24 reported earlier this year. But this substance is often found is prescription medications or syrups and can alter the user’s level of consciousness. It’s even more potent when this OTC is mixed with other prescription medication.

6. Ritalin

Commonly used for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Ritalin is a stimulant that affects the central nervous system. The Centre for Substance Abuse Research (CESAR) in the USA found “chronic heavy use can lead to physical dependence, and withdrawal symptoms include exhaustion and severe emotional depression”. This drug is often abused by students who use it as a stimulant.

7. Vicodin

This opiate-based painkiller is highly addictive and is often used for a euphoric feeling. Researchers from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences found that bone pain, anxiety, aches, cramps, chills, vomiting, diarrhoea and nausea are associated with long-term abuse.

Read more:

7 dangerous medication mistakes

The most abused over-the-counter drug in SA

Celebrities and substance abuse


Ask the Expert

Backache expert

Susan qualified as a Physiotherapist in 1990, and completed her master’s degree in Physiotherapy in 2013 at the University of Pretoria. She has a special interest in human biomechanics, as well as the interaction between domestic and work-related ergonomics.

Still have a question?

Get free advice from our panel of experts

The information provided does not constitute a diagnosis of your condition. You should consult a medical practitioner or other appropriate health care professional for a physical exmanication, diagnosis and formal advice. Health24 and the expert accept no responsibility or liability for any damage or personal harm you may suffer resulting from making use of this content.

* You must accept our condition

Forum Rules