Scientific research puts addiction firmly in the brain disease camp, but the affliction hasn’t always been understood as a medical condition. Even today, some people have a negative attitude toward addiction and others feel a sense of shame when struggling with the disease.
It’s true, as a disease, addiction isn’t like a cold virus. It’s a chronic disease with behavioral and physical symptoms. In fact, the behavioral aspect of addiction is the root reason why some people are skeptical or critical of the disease. Addiction researchers have even more evidence about how certain substances change the brain through ongoing analysis of brain scans. As the medical community understands more about the disease, better treatments are developed. The following four reasons shed more light on the complicated disease of addiction and the successful ways people learn to manage their symptoms.
Addictive Substances Change the Brain on a Molecular Level
Scientists aren’t sure about the exact combination of environmental, genetic and physical factors that lead to addiction, but they do have evidence of the dramatic changes to a person’s brain brought on by addictive substances. During the cycle of addiction, a person progresses from craving and bingeing on drugs to needing drugs in order to feel normal and finally to compulsively cravings the substances and taking them regardless of negative consequences. This cycle occurs because of the changes addictive substances bring to brain circuits.
At the beginning, drugs and alcohol affect an interconnected series of brain circuits involved in reward, learning and control, which leads to loss of control and bingeing. As chronic exposure to the substances affects certain neurotransmitters in the brain, including dopamine, the brain needs more and more of the substances in order for the person to feel normal. At this point, the brain’s amygdala is affected, which leads to irritability, anxiety and stress. Finally, brain areas associated with behavior and memory are involved, and a person seeks drugs compulsively with little ability to control himself.
Addiction Is Chronic
There is no cure for addiction. Like other chronic diseases, such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease, a person must learn to manage the symptoms of the disease. Since addiction is a brain disease, symptoms emerge as distinct behaviors, such as a compulsive desire to take drugs that brings on irritability. Managing these symptoms is done through psychological counseling and in some cases, medication therapy.
The relapse rates for addiction are similar to other chronic diseases. For example, the percent of patients who relapse with hypertension is 50 percent to 70 percent, and asthma has the same relapse rate. Around 30 percent to 50 percent of type-1 diabetes patients relapse, and 40 percent to 50 percent of patients with addiction relapse. The tendency to relapse is a sign a patient needs more treatment instead of a sign the patient has failed.
Addiction Occurs on a Spectrum
Just as there are stages of cancer, there are stages of addiction, and the disease may be mild, moderate or severe. The most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) measures addiction, or substance use disorder, on a continuum from mild to severe by evaluating a person’s symptoms. A person with only two to three symptoms has a mild form of the disease while a person with all 11 symptoms has a severe form. Symptoms catalog a person’s desire to take a drug despite negative consequences and the inability to stop taking the drug after trying multiple times.
Addiction Responds to Medical Treatments
Decades of research into addiction treatments show many treatment modalities successfully treat symptoms and lead to long-term sobriety. Talk therapies, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), give people skills to recognize thought patterns that lead to cravings. The therapies also help people identify negative and self-defeating thoughts that contribute to drug-seeking behavior. One analysis of CBT treatments found the therapy was most effective for treating cannabis (marijuana) and nicotine dependence but less effective for treating opioid and alcohol dependence.
For more severe addictions to opioids and alcohol, there are medications that help people live with the disease. Using research at the molecular and neurobiological level, scientists developed drugs that block the effects of these substances or make them intolerable. The drugs include naloxone and acamprosate for alcoholism, buprenorphine-naloxone for opioid addiction and varenicline for tobacco addiction. The success of these drugs at treating addiction is similar to the success of standard antidepressant medications.
Need Help Finding Addiction Treatment?
Learning to live a sober life is an ongoing process. Often a person learns valuable coping skills and lessons about herself that give her a chance to live a fulfilling life not possible before. An added advantage of gaining sobriety is the opportunity to help others. Sometimes a person can start on his own path to sobriety just by seeing the example of another person who made it happen.
If you or a loved one is suffering with a mental illness or addiction, please call us today. Our admissions coordinators help people find the treatment they need. We are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Do not hesitate to reach out for more information. Call us today!
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 Volkow, Nora D., Koob, George. (August 2015). Brain disease model of addiction: why is it so controversial?” The Lancet. Retrived Nov. 1, 2015 from http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanpsy/article/PIIS2215-0366(15)00236-9/fulltext.