Prescription Drug Addiction & Treatment

Millions of people have a legitimate prescription for an addictive prescription medication. From OxyContin to Xanax to Adderall, each is used to treat different disorders including chronic pain, anxiety and panic disorders, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and more.

Most people will be able to take their prescription for as long as they need it with little or no problems. Those who take their medications for the long-term will likely develop a physical tolerance to the medications, requiring them to take higher and higher doses to continue experiencing the intended effects. This physical dependence is not problematic unless it is paired with psychological dependence defined by:

    • Cravings for the medication
    • Abuse of the prescription
    • Compulsive use of the drug
    • Continued abuse of the drug despite negative consequences

When physical dependence and psychological dependence collide, prescription drug addiction is the diagnosis – whether the person is abusing his own prescription or the pills originally prescribed to someone else. No matter how or why it starts, once prescription drug addiction is in evidence, immediate intervention and treatment are recommended. Learn more about how we can help you to overcome prescription drug abuse and addiction at Orlando Recovery Center when you contact us at the phone number listed above.

Long-term Risks of Abuse

  • Physical dependence: Ongoing use of any amount of an addictive prescription drug will usually lead to a physical dependence. This can make it harder to quit on the fly. Patients are counseled to work with their doctor to slowly step down their dose rather than quit “cold turkey” in order to avoid withdrawal symptoms. This should be a relatively straightforward process and non-problematic – as long as the patient is not also psychologically dependent upon his prescription medication.
  • Psychological dependence: Cravings for the prescription medication in question often defines psychological dependence. Additionally, obsessing over getting more of the drug of choice, continually planning out how to get more than the prescribed dose, or how to use the drug to get high can also characterize psychological dependency. Some even come to feel that they are unable to function in certain situations without their prescription medication of choice. The psychological dependence upon the drug is arguably more difficult to overcome than the physical dependence – detox, withdrawal symptoms, and all.
  • Addiction: When both physical dependence and psychological dependence are in evidence, then addiction can be diagnosed. Once addiction takes hold, it becomes a life-changer. People are rarely able to function at work or at school. They struggle in maintaining relationships with their spouse, children, neighbors, friends, coworkers, and extended family. Their reputation begins to plummet, and they lose out on opportunities for change, advancement, and improvement. Many begin to struggle with acute and chronic health problems, and most will experience an accident – from car accident to medical emergency due to overdose – that can be fatal.
  • Compulsive use of prescription drugs: Despite all the negative consequences of chronic prescription drug use and addiction, those who struggle with the problem are unable to stop using. The inability to manage impulses begins with compulsive use of their medication and may cause them to engage in other choices for the sole purpose of maintaining their addiction. For example, they may commit fraud in order to get more pills than they are actually prescribed or manipulate multiple doctors to write extra scripts. They may steal from friends and family in order to pay for the expensive drugs. They may lie and cause emotional and/or physical pain to those they care about by making choices that they would never even consider under other circumstances.
  • Brain damage: Ongoing use of drugs of any kind can cause permanent changes to the brain. Cognitive function may be impaired, making it difficult for patients even after they have been drug-free for a period of time. While some damages and changes to the brain may resolve over time and with treatment, some neurons will be altered in size and shape and will function differently for the duration of a lifetime.
  • Health problems: High doses of prescription drugs can be toxic to the body. Stress to the respiratory system (especially with opiate painkillers and sedatives), the cardiac system (especially with stimulant drugs), and the liver and kidney due to all substances of abuse can eventually cause these systems to break down and fail. Additionally, chronic drug use can contribute to a lowered immune system, and the experience of acute illnesses may be more frequent.
  • Problems at home: It’s difficult to have a healthy relationship with a spouse, children, close friends, and family members when a person’s primary focus is getting and staying high. Many who struggle with prescription drug abuse find that their ability to get along with others and get their needs met in a way that is healthy diminishes as their use of illicit substances develops. Divorce is exceedingly common, as is loss of child custody. Many find that they are soon out of communication with friends and family members they were once close with because others finally reach a point where they are uninterested in enabling addiction or being harmed by the person’s choices under the influence.
  • Problems at work: Just as it is difficult to maintain positive emotional connections at home while actively abusing prescription drugs, it is also difficult to show up to work on time, maintain commitments, and work well with other employees and the boss. Even those who take stimulant drugs to increase their output will find that the psychological ramifications of ongoing, high-dose stimulant drug use make it impossible to function at work without problems for long.
  • Financial devastation: Difficulty at home often translates into a mismanaged budget, too much credit card debt, and missed payments that turn into foreclosure and bankruptcy. Difficulty at work can quickly mean job loss, and ongoing addiction makes it difficult if not impossible to find new employment and hold onto it for very long. As a result, many find themselves in financial ruin as a result of prescription drug abuse.
  • Increased abuse of other drugs: Prescription pills are expensive, especially in the high doses necessary to maintain a long-term abuse or addiction disorder. When financial problems become overwhelming, many turn to less expensive means of maintaining their addiction. Rather than stimulant pills, people may begin to abuse street drugs like crystal meth. Similarly, opiate painkiller addicts may turn to heroin – a drug that is far cheaper and far easier to obtain.
  • Legal problems: When money is tight and the dose of a prescription drug that is necessary to stave off withdrawal symptoms each day is high, the bills are pretty steep. With no income and little family support, many feel forced to turn to illegal means of procuring their drug of choice or feel that they must begin using illegal substances in order to maintain their addiction. Both choices can have serious, life-altering legal ramifications, including high fees and loss of freedom.
  • Accident: Accident under the influence is a risk every single day that prescription drug abuse and addiction continue without intervention and treatment, and it can often lead to death. Whether it is driving a car under the influence, drowning in a pool, getting burned, or accidentally shooting oneself or getting shot by a firearm, the risk of making poor choices while under the influence of prescription drugs is significantly increased as compared to the choices made while sober. Living a life defined by addiction often means living a life defined by dangerous choices and risky behaviors that can result in a fatality.
  • Overdose: Medical emergency caused by taking too much of a prescription drug or combining the prescription medication with another mind-altering substance like alcohol can contribute to the likelihood of overdose. Overdose is not always fatal and may manifest differently depending upon the drugs taken, the doses, and the physiology of the user. It is a constant risk, however, no matter how “experienced” the drug user, and it can result unexpectedly since a user’s metabolism and tolerance can shift without warning.

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Treatment and Therapy Options

Though the risks of continuing to abuse prescription drugs for the long-term are serious and life-threatening, the good news is that there are a number of different treatment options that are evidence-based in terms of their ability to help patients find relief from addiction. A unique combination of therapies and treatments can help patients to stop using all drugs of abuse immediately and safely, and then turn their attention to learning the coping skills that will help them to manage underlying mental health disorders and other day-to-day issues that may be driving their drug use as well as learn relapse prevention techniques.

Prescription Drug Addiction Treatment Options

  • Detox: Use of stimulants, benzodiazepines, and painkillers will all result in a unique set of withdrawal symptoms when the person undergoes detox (e.g., stops using the medication). For those who are psychologically dependent upon the drugs, the experience of psychological withdrawal symptoms will be just as severe as the experience of physical withdrawal symptoms.


At a medical treatment facility, patients have the benefit of 24-hour support and supervision as well as comprehensive medical care that can help them to get through the process as quickly and smoothly as possible and address any complications as they arise.

It is important to note that underdoing benzodiazepine detox at home alone without medical supervision can be deadly. Medical care is recommended. Additionally, complications can arise no matter what the drug of choice, especially if the person has underlying medical and mental health symptoms. Professional detox is always recommended.

  • Evaluation and diagnosis: Each person’s experience is unique, even if the drug of choice is the same. People use drugs for different reasons, and those reasons may be connected to underlying medical and/or mental health issues that can be treated. That is, in some cases, substance abuse is certainly a disorder unto itself but it also may be a sign that another disorder is also at issue. In order to ensure that the person is best equipped to avoid relapse for the long-term, identification of all co-occurring disorders – followed by treatment of those disorders – is necessary, and that starts with an in-depth evaluation and diagnostic process once the patient is stabilized after detox.
  • Behavioral therapy: One of the best ways to help a patient to identify the behaviors, thought processes and perspectives that may be underlying her use of substances and other choices that are self-harming is to undergo intensive, one-on-one behavioral therapy. Self-awareness and taking responsibility for one’s actions are key parts of growth in recovery, and this starts with a thorough exploration of the person’s true thoughts and ideas and how the choices that those ideas trigger can either make their lives easier or harder. Identifying self-harming thought processes and learning how to replace them with positive perspectives and putting them into practice can greatly help solidify recovery.
  • Group therapies: Support groups that focus on a specific issue related to addiction (e.g., managing psychological cravings, relapse prevention, etc.), a tangentially related issue to addiction (e.g., family issues, legal matters, etc.), or that focus on self-improvement (e.g., 12-step programs) all provide attendees with the benefit of peer support and the value of being an important part of a community. Learning how to speak up and communicate in a positive way, giving back to others, and learning from the choices and stories that others share are all hugely instrumental in helping someone in recovery from addiction to learn how to be functional out in the world while sober.
  • Alternative therapies: There are a number of alternative therapies that may be effective for different patients as they work to better understand the nature of their co-occurring disorders and strengthen themselves in their ability to avoid relapse in recovery.

For example, someone who abused stimulant drugs in order to lower their weight may utilize nutritional therapy to help them learn how to manage their weight more healthfully and follow up with sports therapy, outdoors and adventure therapy, or a personal training plan. Similarly, someone who abused opiate painkillers or benzodiazepines in an attempt to escape feelings of grief associated with family problems may take part in family therapy, parenting courses, or work with a life coach to find a new positive direction in their lives. Each person’s needs are unique and thus their therapy choices should be unique as well.

  • Holistic treatments: Yoga, meditation, acupuncture, acupressure, herbs and supplements, and hypnosis – there is almost no end to the types of holistic interventions that may be beneficial to a patient who is learning how to find healthy ways to manage stress and mitigate cravings for drugs and alcohol.
  • Aftercare and support: Once rehab is complete, recovery continues for a lifetime through ongoing support and aftercare options. Some may opt to move into a sober living home after cessation of rehab; others may prefer to return home but to take part in a heavy therapy/treatment regimen that continues the work started in inpatient treatment. The patient and the therapeutic team should work together towards the end of his or her time in rehab to create a unique aftercare schedule that will be of the most benefit to the patient’s ability to avoid relapse.

Treating Underlying Mental Health Issues

Just like addiction treatment, stabilization followed by intensive therapy and aftercare support is a crucial part of the treatment experience for a patient diagnosed with a co-occurring mental health disorder as well as a substance abuse problem.

Medication management may be a part of that process as many people utilize antidepressants, antipsychotics, beta blockers, and other medication options to assist them in managing disruptive mental health symptoms in a positive way, especially in the early stages of treatment. This can be a lengthy process of medication adjustment, however, so it is important that the patient be monitored and continue to engage with their doctor on the medication issue while also actively seeking out treatment assistance.

Long-term follow-up care through ongoing treatment sessions dedicated to the management of the mental health disorder as well as support groups and holistic therapies are highly recommended as well.

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Statistics and Research

  • About 52 million people over the age of 12 have abused prescription drugs at some point in their lifetime.
  • Though most people are well aware of the risks associated with driving after drinking, not as many people recognize how impaired their driving skills are when they are under the influence of prescription drugs, even if they take the medication exactly as prescribed. Alcohol isn’t the only drug of abuse causing accidents on the road: in 2009, one in three drivers who died in a car accident tested positive for drugs.
  • An estimated 7 million people in the United States (or 2.7 percent of the population) abuse prescription drugs each year.

prescription drug abuse rate

  • Many people seem to think that prescription drug use is inherently safe because there are standards for the production of pills, a doctor who endorses their use, and a pharmacist who dispenses them – a far cry from the dealer on the street handing out baggies of synthetic substances cooked up in a clandestine lab. Unfortunately, they are only be safe under certain circumstances and when taken as directed by a physician who monitors ongoing use of the drugs.

commonly abused substances

  • The Monitoring the Future study found that teens are abusing prescription drugs in droves. An estimated 13.9 percent of high school seniors reported prescription drug use in the past year. Amphetamines (often ADHD medications) were the primary drugs of choice among high schoolers: 8.1 percent of seniors, 7.6 percent of sophomores, and 4.3 percent of 8th graders reported using amphetamines in the last year. Adderall specifically was a commonly abused drug: about 6.8 percent of seniors, 4.6 percent of sophomores, and 1.3 percent of 8th graders reported using the drug in the past year.

teen prescription stimulant drug abuse rate

  • Prescription drug abuse does not just occur among patients prescribed an addiction drug. Rather, many first begin a prescription drug dependence when they take “leftover medications” they find in the medicine cabinet recreationally.
  • Not everyone abuses prescription drugs with the intent to get high and “nod out.” Only prescription painkillers and sedatives have that effect. People who abuse stimulant medications (e.g., Adderall, Vyvanse, Ritalin, etc.) often do so in order to accomplish more in a short amount of time, increase their focus and ability to do well on tests, or to avoid the need for sleep or food as they work toward their goals.

drug overdoses

  • Many people inadvertently overdose on their medication of choice because they take doses too close together or drink alcohol while on their medication, not realizing how the substances work together in their systems.
  • Prescription drug “take back” days happen frequently across the country. Police departments, government agencies, medical facilities, and some private businesses across the country participate, offering a safe drop location for the disposal of all unwanted and unneeded medication.

What are the most abused prescription drugs?

The most abused prescription drugs include three classifications of medications: opiate painkillers, sedatives or benzodiazepines, and stimulant drugs. Each is very different in effect and prescribed for different disorders, but all can be devastating when a person abuses the medication.


    : Opiate painkillers are the most frequently abused type of prescription drug in the United States. An estimated 5.1 million people abuse the drugs each year. Prescribed to treat acute or chronic pain, they also create a high in the user when taken in large amounts. Examples include OxyContin, Vicodin, Percocet, and others. Abuse of these medications can cause overdose characterized by extreme respiratory depression that can result in coma, brain damage, and death.


    : Benzodiazepines are prescribed to patients struggling with anxiety and panic disorders and/or insomnia. An estimated 2.6 million people in the US abuse these medications each year seeking out the sedation and high that they create when taken in large doses. High-dose abuse can result in a lowered breathing rate and lowered blood pressure that can be deadly; risks of overdose increase significantly when combined with alcohol. Examples of benzodiazepines include Xanax, Valium, Atavan, and others.


    : Stimulant medications are prescribed to increase alertness, focus, and mood in patients who struggle with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, and other issues. People often abuse these drugs in an effort to accomplish more in a day or to lose weight. Abuse can cause paranoia, hallucinations, psychosis, erratic behavior, stroke, seizures, heart attack, and death. Examples of stimulants include Ritalin, Vyvanse, Adderall, and others.

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What makes a prescription drug addictive?

Prescription drugs are so addictive in part due to the fact that they trigger the pleasure pathway in the brain. Because taking the drug can cause a “high” in users who are unused to the drug and its effects, taking these meds can be uniquely pleasurable. Some people will begin to crave that feeling and seek it out, wanting it all the time. Continued use of these drugs for this purpose, however, often means that a low dose is no longer effective in creating the high, forcing the user to take a higher dose in order to experience the pleasurable symptoms.

Increased tolerance plus the cravings to experience the high add up to addiction – but not everyone has this experience or develops this problem when taking addictive prescription drugs. Why? There are a number of reasons. Some people may be prone to the development of addiction while others are not. Genetics, biology, trauma, environment, and other factors can contribute to the likelihood that one person will develop an addiction while another will not.

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Are there alternatives to prescription medications to treat mental Illness?

There are alternatives to prescription drugs when it comes to treating mental health symptoms. In fact, almost no one advocates for the use of medications alone for mental health disorder management; most mental health treatment professionals advise patients to attend therapy, group sessions, and take advantage of complementary and alternative methods (CAM) of treatment in addition to taking medication.

Is it possible to rely on therapy and CAM treatment without use of medications? Possibly. Each patient is different, and in some cases, the goal is to eventually stop using medications after initial stabilization and depend solely on the coping skills, reduction in stress, and changes in perspective provided by alternative therapeutic intervention.

Some possible alternatives to medication in mental health treatment include:

  • Peer support groups
  • Self-help plans
  • Nutrition changes
  • Exercise plan
  • Holistic treatments (e.g., meditation, yoga, acupuncture, acupressure, etc.)
  • Herbal supplements

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What exactly is an opiate and how does it work?

Opiates are narcotic painkillers (e.g., hydrocodone, codeine, oxycodone) that are prescribed to treat moderate to severe pain. They work by attaching to opioid receptors in the brain, spinal cord, and other organs, and they cause a reduction in the experience of pain by the user. They also cause a host of side effects, including:

  • Drowsiness
  • Constipation
  • Nausea
  • Mental confusion

In high doses, opiates can also cause depressed respiration, slowed heart rate, and other potentially problematic physiological changes that result in medical emergency, including overdose and death.

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What is a benzodiazepine and how does it work?

Benzodiazepines (e.g., alprazolam, diazepam, clonazepam, etc.) are an addictive class of prescription medications and one of the most commonly prescribed medications for the treatment of mental health conditions and symptoms. They can be prescribed as anti-anxiety medications, anticonvulsants, sleep aids, muscle relaxants, and sedatives.

They work by binding to the GABA receptor in the brain and essentially allow dopamine to be released without interference from inhibiting neurons. In the process, however, they produce a high in the user akin to the effect of drinking alcohol. Though they are prescribed to be taken as needed in many cases, the nature of the disorders triggering the prescription often means that patients self-medicate and take too high of a dose of the drugs. As a result, they inadvertently develop prescription drug abuse problems and ultimately addictions.

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What dosages are there for prescription painkillers?

Depending on the active ingredient in the prescription painkiller (e.g., oxycodone, codeine, hydrocodone, etc.) and the amount of the active ingredient in specific formulation, different doses will be available and have different effects in the user. For certain medical issues, a specific formulation or dosage may be more common (e.g., a low dose of Percocet for the treatment of acute pain after a dental surgery), but the effect of the drug, and whether or not it works to help the patient reduce his experience of pain, may be impacted by:

  • Underlying medical issues that affect process and elimination of the active ingredient in the drug
  • The use of other medications and their impact on the bioavailability of the painkiller
  • Metabolism of the patient
  • Foods eaten and/or nutrient levels in the body
  • Age of the patient

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What is a drug half-life?

The term “half-life” refers to the length of time that it takes the body to process a prescription drug and clear it from the body. Some are metabolized quickly and process through the body rapidly. These often come with a rapid onset of effect, and they are effective in treating acute issues.

For example, Xanax is a rapid onset benzodiazepine with a short half-life so it is often prescribed to people who struggle with acute symptoms related to anxiety and panic with a dosing schedule that allows for taking multiple doses throughout the course of the day. However, Ativan is also a rapid onset benzodiazepine but it has an intermediate half-life, so while it may be effective for the treatment of anxiety, it is also prescribed to aid with sleep when insomnia is an issue because it stays in the body a little bit longer than Xanax.

It is important to know the half-life of a given medication because stepping up the dosing schedule, taking more of a medication, or combining its use with other medications with different half-lives can result in overdose.

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What are the signs and symptoms of prescription drug abuse?

There are a number of behaviors that can indicate the abuse of prescription drugs, including:

  • Taking any amount of a prescription medication without a prescription from a doctor
  • Taking a prescription drug in a way that is not prescribed (e.g., taking a higher dose or taking the pills more often than recommended)
  • Taking prescription pills specifically to get high
  • Altering the pills before ingesting them (e.g., crushing them before snorting, swallowing, or injecting them)
  • Taking other prescription medications or mind-altering substances to augment the effects of the prescription
  • Filling a prescription for an addictive medication at multiple pharmacies
  • “Doctor shopping” or seeking multiple prescriptions for similar drugs for the same purpose from different doctors without their knowledge

Although the signs of use of stimulant drugs will be very different from the signs of use of sedatives or painkillers, chronic drug abuse of any kind takes a toll on a person’s life and personality. Ongoing abuse of any prescription medication will usually result in any combination of the following:

  • Financial loss and struggles
  • Job loss and/or difficulty getting a new job
  • Personality shifts, including mood swings, isolation, and disinterest in spending time with longtime friends and family
  • Extreme weight loss or gain
  • Extreme changes in sleep patterns
  • The beginning of mental or physical health problems or the worsening of underlying issues
  • Defensive and/or dishonest response to questions or concerns about drug use
  • Hiding drugs or lying about being under the influence

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What effect does crushing medications have?

Crushing pills before ingesting than be a deadly practice. If the pill is an extended-release version of the medication, containing multiple doses that are designed to be released over a period of hours rather than all at once, the practice of pill crushing can be even more dangerous. In an effort to experience all the doses at the same time, some may crush the medication and then snort the resulting powder, taking in multiple doses simultaneously. This can lead to a drug overdose that is deadly, and if done regularly, it can contribute to the development or maintenance of an addiction.

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How long do prescription drugs stay in your system?

Depending upon the half-life of a substance, the length of time that a drug is active and in effect in a person’s system will vary. The half-life is defined as the length of time that it takes for a drug to reduce by half and be processed out of the body. Though there is still technically some level of the drug in the system, it may not be at a therapeutic level.

For many prescription drugs, it will be possible to detect traces of the substance in the person’s system using a drug test for weeks after it was last ingested.

Additionally, it is important to note that a number of factors can impact how quickly a drug is processed out of someone’s system – and those factors may shift and change over time. Age, metabolism, drug-condition interactions, multiple drug interactions, and more can impact how long a medication stays in the system of the user.

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What prescription drugs will cause withdrawal symptoms?

All addictive prescription drugs will trigger withdrawal symptoms in the user if that person suddenly stops taking their drug of choice after a long period of high-dose use and physical/psychological dependency. The specific withdrawal symptoms experienced will vary depending upon:

  • The type of prescription medication taken (e.g., withdrawal symptoms caused by benzodiazepine detox will be far different from withdrawal symptoms caused by stimulant drug withdrawal)
  • The daily dose of the drug of choice at the time of cessation of use
  • The use (or not) of other addictive substances, including marijuana, other prescription drugs, and alcohol
  • Underlying mental health disorder(s) or symptoms
  • Underlying medical disorder(s) or symptoms
  • The use (or not) of medications designed to assist in alleviating the experience of some withdrawal symptoms

Some common symptoms may include:

  • Stomach cramping
  • Bone and muscle pain
  • Heavy sweating, shaking, runny nose, tremors, etc.
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Seizures

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What happens when a prescription drug overdose occurs?

A prescription drug overdose can occur when a person takes a high dose of their drug of choice that is overwhelming to their system. For example, too much of a stimulant prescription drug can result in heart attack or stroke that can be fatal, and too much of an opiate painkiller or benzodiazepine can result in a suppressed respiratory system that stops breathing and the heart that can be deadly.

The possibility of overdose is not necessarily something that is a high risk for those new to using substances. Though inadvertently taking too much as a novice drug user is a possibility, so too is having too much of the drug in the system already, taking a “normal” dose additionally, and having it add up to be too much – or combining substances and creating a synergistic effect in the body that is overwhelming to the senses.

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Treatment Works

Learn more about the options available to you or your loved one struggling with prescription drug abuse or addiction when you contact us at Orlando Recovery Center today. We’re here to help.

Medical Disclaimer: The Orlando Recovery Center aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options, and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.