Why do you think that people with addiction issues seem to make so many poor choices and become so easily irritated? Research by Dr. Merrill Norton of the University of George tells us that those who experience alcohol or opiate prescription drug abuse beginning in their teens put themselves at high risk of permanent brain damage. This damage halts the development of the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which prevents a person from developing mature decision-making skills. They also have difficulty in holding up their own end of emotional adult relationships, and they have little or no ability to control impulses.
Dr. Norton, whose doctorate is in the field of pharmacology, has spent his career studying addiction medicine and also chronic pain management—along with the effects of pain pill addiction on the human brain. He tells us that in the last year, American doctors wrote upwards of a quarter million pain pill prescriptions.
If you’re worried that you’ve been affected by opiate prescription drug abuse, then it’s vital to get help now. The prefrontal cortex of the brain finishes its development approximately in its mid-twenties, and it might still be possible to avoid permanent damage or to learn new behaviors as long as you stop taking pain pills.
Prescription Drug Abuse Creeps Up On You
Most people who get into trouble with opiate prescription pain pill abuse cannot simply stop using the oxycodones, hydrocodones or other pain medications that they’re taking because they are so addictive. They also fail to recognize the dangers of taking pain pills, because they believe that the doctor would not prescribe them if they were dangerous.
Sometimes the doctor might start them out on Vicodin and then switch them to Percocet or maybe Tylenol with codeine. The person then thinks that they cannot become addicted because the doctor is switching their medications before that happens. But all of those medications are opiates, and prescription drug abuse happens if you’re using any of them.
Yet others begin to crush and snort their pain pills. They think that as long as they aren’t shooting up heroin, there is no possible way they can become addicted, but that’s just not true. If you’re taking pain pills regularly—and you’ve noticed that they don’t do much to help your pain anymore—then you have probably developed an opiate prescription pain pill addiction.
How Prescription Drug Abuse Affects Your Brain
You may have already read about the brain’s pleasure and reward system, and how opiates fill the mu receptors that stimulate the brain’s reward pathway. However, there is much more to the story of how prescription drug abuse affects the brain.
Dr. Norton begins by discussing three possible pathways through the adolescent years. About 23 percent of teenagers have a smooth ride through those years, he says, with natural instincts about what will or won’t work out for them. But most teens have problems to one degree or the other. Some 35 percent of them make unwise decisions some of the time—but for the most part they fare well. The remaining 42 percent of teenagers always choose the bumpiest road. They enjoy the thrills that come from taking risks. They are also prone to isolating themselves from the adults that might provide a calming influence in their lives.
One theory, says Norton, involves the development of the brain’s dendrites, the structures that pass along messages and impulses between nerve cells. He likens the brain of a 15-year-old to a house that is under construction. The wiring is all in place, but it’s not hooked up yet. If you stay away from prescription drug abuse, the wiring will be completed over the course of the next eight years. By the time a person reaches their mid-twenties, it should all be fully operational.
During those developmental years, the brain’s millions of synapses actually decrease, from about 12 million in an 11-year-old to some 4 million in a 16-year-old. Much of this happens with the help of a biochemical called dopamine. But Norton believes many adolescents and young adults feel unsettled from the amount of activity that takes place and they go through extreme periods of highs and lows. Norton theorizes that many of them turn to alcohol or prescription drug abuse in order to self-medicate and calm those feelings of emotional inefficiency. The brain’s emotional development grinds to a halt.
The wiring in the brain of the person who abuses alcohol or opiate prescription drugs never gets hooked up, so to speak. Over time, as the person moves through his twenties, his brain loses its ability to continue creating dendrites through the normal learning processes.
The grown adult struggling with prescription drug abuse becomes an emotionally unbalanced person. They fail to find harmony in the world around them, and they remain constantly irritated. They also make decisions based on the reasoning skills of a teenager. Many of their hopes and thoughts focus on themselves and they have difficulty controlling impulses—again, these behaviors are similar to those found in teenagers.
What Therapies Will Help?
Once the brain’s wiring is complete, you cannot engage another electrician to go in and rewire it. If it’s faulty, it will remain faulty. However, if you are a twenty-something using alcohol or abusing prescription drugs, it may not be too late for you.
Norton and many other scientists believe that the brain’s prefrontal cortex does not complete its development until the brain’s corpus collusum connects the brain’s hemispheres when the person reaches approximately 30 years of age. If you’re still in that age group, it’s not too late to stop prescription drug abuse and let your brain finish doing its job. A good methadone or Suboxone treatment program in your neighborhood can provide the help you need.
If you are beyond that age, there are still therapies that might help you develop better reasoning or decision-making skills. Talk to the counselor assigned to your case at the methadone treatment program about techniques such as motivational enhancement interviewing or cognitive behavior therapy.
Learning how to meditate and exploring guided imagery are other ways to adjust negative behaviors. Through these techniques a person can increase their levels of calmness and become adept at taking the time to make good decisions. Stress management exercises or movement classes—going to a gym or practicing yoga—can also help.
Time obviously is important. For the person still in their twenties, it means a chance to stop abusing prescription drugs, form better emotional relationships, and develop improved logic. If you’re beyond that age, you’ve got to stop prescription drug abuse for matters of your own health and also to learn the techniques suggested here. Give your local methadone program a call today to learn how you can get started.