Does Taking Prescription Medication Count as a Relapse?

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A question that is a common point of debate among those who are in recovery is if taking prescription medications count as a relapse. While the use of prescription drugs can have significant medical benefits many of these drugs are both physically and psychologically addictive. In recent years, there has been an increase in the use and abuse of drugs such as Oxycontin and Xanax that have further fueled this debate. One must understand both sides of the argument pertaining to the use of prescription drugs as a relapse event and possible options to minimize the risks of addiction.

presciption medication relapse

The Argument for Prescription Medication Use as a Relapse

The view that the use of prescription medication counts as relapse is seen by many in the recovery community, especially in the twelve-step group community. The line of reasoning used in this argument is prescription drug use is relapse—even in cases where it may be needed (i.e. after surgical procedures, cancer treatment)—because we don’t have a tolerance to those drugs initially and the resulting high or euphoria when taken is not seen as acceptable. Therefore, any use of prescription drugs when it isn’t medically necessary to keep you alive is a relapse and it isn’t just that it could lead to you actively using again, but that it is a relapse in itself and that you are no longer clean and sober.

The Argument against the Use of Prescription Medication as a Relapse

There are others who will contest there is little validity to the claim prescription medication use leads to relapse. Despite their potential for both physical and psychological addiction, prescription medications are not a relapse unless they are abused. If medications are being taken exactly as prescribed and the dosages are not being increased in any way then in taking pain medication that is prescribed is not considered a relapse. Additionally, if these drugs are not being enhanced by alcohol or other drugs and if the individual is not shopping around for doctors to prescribe these drugs “under the table”, it is not considered relapse.



Options to Lower the Risk of Potential Addiction

In regards to the use of prescribed medications as a relapse, substance abuse expert Terrence Gorski outlined several ways to minimize the risk of addiction to prescription painkillers. Some of these examples include the following:

1. Be Sure Doctors Take the Addiction Seriously
Those who are in recovery should ensure their doctors and anesthesiologists take their addiction seriously. This means openly discussing their addiction and sharing their concerns about relapse. Many doctors are unaware of the high tolerance they have for anesthetics and the use of prescription medication could cause relapse.

2. Have Someone Else Monitor Medication Use
This step is necessary because any use of mood-altering drugs can reactivate addictive thinking, ignite craving, and distort judgment. Recovering people should warn their doctors that addictive thinking and drug-seeking behavior may be reactivated and could result in relapse due to prescription medication use.

3. Prepare Before Surgery
Recovering people need to alert their sponsors and other recovering people to what is happening and ask for frequent visits from recovering people while in the hospital and while in recuperation. They should plan to have closed meetings in their hospital rooms during visiting hours. A friend who is in recovery could be with them when they wake up and support them through the fears that may have been aroused by the use of medication and stress of the illness and surgery.

4. Seek Counseling Before and After Surgery
To minimize the risk of prescription drug use and relapse, there should be counseling before surgery and after surgery. Openly discuss any problems with craving, withdrawal, or depression and if need be, find a medical drug detox.


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  • If you are a recovering addict and you take someone else’s prescribed narcotic pain medication, only for pain is it considered a relapse.

    1. Dana,

      Yes, this can still be considered a relapse. Also, depending on the mindset you have, getting medication prescribed to you can also be a relapse. Just because the bottle has your name on it, doesn’t mean you didn’t relapse. Consider your intentions and whether or not you are currently abusing the medication that was prescribed to another. If you need help, give us a call at 1-855-960-5456.

  • I believe that taking prescription meds when you legitimately need them as prescribed is not a relapse.

    I broke my collarbone and the pain was blistering. Taking morphine during the initial trauma is completely understandable even though my drug of choice are opiates.

    However, I let my broken collarbone take me away from meetings. I sat around and watched TV a lot and my head started telling me that I can use my collarbone as an excuse to get more pain meds.

    A few weeks after my initial break, I went out of my way to get pain meds. I took percocets even though I didn’t need them. My pain wasn’t bad at all.

    Thus, I relapsed. There’s a fine line between using pain meds when you are hampered with pain and discomfort and can’t sleep then what I did. I gave away all my time because I let a broken collarbone break me down. If I had kept going to meetings, I would’ve been ok. But I sat around far too much and paid the price for it.

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