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What is Self-Medication?

Michael Pollick
Updated Feb 20, 2024
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Many people suffer from chronic pain conditions or mental illnesses in a self-imposed silence. For any number of reasons, these people will use or abuse drugs such as alcohol, marijuana, heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine in order to cope with their symptoms. This practice of using illicit or legal drugs without proper medical supervision is known as self-medication. Many people who self-medicate have not been formally diagnosed with an actual medical or psychological condition, but others turn to alternative medical treatments when conventional drug therapies no longer bring relief. Some self-medication efforts can also be traced to the high cost of prescription drugs commonly used to address severe pain and psychological conditions. Self-medication is often considered a form of addiction, although the two concepts are not necessarily identical.

During the early 1970s, a working theory called the "self-medication hypothesis" emerged. This hypothesis suggested that many people suffering from certain physical or mental illnesses would experiment with various drugs until they discovered one that addressed their specific needs. This substance, whether it be legal alcohol or illegal heroin, would then be considered a drug of choice. A person suffering from clinical depression or lack of energy, for example, might choose to self-medicate with a stimulant such as caffeine or nicotine or cocaine. Other drugs such as alcohol or Valium might actually make a depression sufferer feel worse, so under the self-medication hypothesis, a depressed person would most likely become addicted or dependent on stimulants. This addiction could be fed by something as legal as three cups of strong coffee in the morning, or as illegal as a snort of cocaine. Self-medication can take on any number of forms.

Others may choose to self-medicate with central nervous depressants, commonly alcohol or prescription anti-anxiety medications. Some people believe they would benefit from drugs which induce a sense of relaxation, as in the case of moderate alcohol intoxication. Becoming intoxicated allows a person to lower his or her social inhibitions and release stress. A strong barbiturate, such as the infamous mother's little helper, would have a calming effect on the user and eliminate the absolute highs and lows associated with a stressful day. A person who chooses to self-medicate could also borrow prescription medication from friends or family members, or try to achieve the same narcotic effects by taking large doses of over-the-counter medications.

Some people choose self-medication because of concerns over the safety and efficacy of traditional prescription medicines and treatment regimens. Seeking professional help for an intensely personal issue may also involve admitting an addiction or illicit lifestyle choice, so some people choose to self-medicate rather than reveal the true nature of their conditions to others. Others may not be able to afford the often prohibitive expense of traditional prescription medications, or do not have access to such professional health care options. Because of the short-term or illegal nature of many drugs used for self-medication, however, many sufferers eventually do seek out better courses of treatment rather than risk incarceration or suffer through painful withdrawals.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to WiseGeek, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By goldenmist — On May 03, 2011

An increasingly popular form of self-medication due to the ongoing debate about its legalization is the use of marijuana. There is no doubt that it can be abused and it can cause problems for heavy, regular users. Nonetheless, the fact that it's been cleared for medical use in a number of parts of America for treatment of symptoms like nausea, insomnia, lack of appetite and more has made many people turn to it to treat their own problems and if it's not available for medical use where they live or they're afraid of having to see a doctor about it, they might turn to self-medicating.

Of course it is still illegal and shouldn't be relied upon for relief of symptoms. I just thought it was interesting how something that would commonly be referred to as self-medication is slowly starting to be used as actual medication.

By lapsed — On May 01, 2011

The over-the-counter medications this article is most likely referring to is anything with codeine in it, a reasonably weak opiate except when taken in large doses. The over-the-counter versions of this drug are always paired with paracetamol or something similar, which when taken in large doses is very dangerous. You will end up in hospital. Same goes for any cough syrup which might contain codeine. It's really not worth the risk.

Although it's probably possible to become dependent on even therapeutic dosages of these medications as well. From memory the boxes say something like "do not use for longer than 2-3 days unless directed" or something of the like.

By Engelbert — On May 01, 2011

Interesting fact that somewhere between 30% and 60% of all drug users have concurrent mental health issues. Whether such issues were caused by drugs or were pre-existing is hard to say. Also interesting was the part of this article about how people come to find a "drug of choice" and how the drug they choose might be indicative of the issues they are self-medicating for.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to WiseGeek, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range...
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