Is drug addiction a disease?

Is Drug Addiction a Disease?

The debate over “is drug addiction a disease” or a choice is not new. For decades, researchers have offered evidence to support both theories. Why is the answer to this question so important? It can help formulate a plan for combatting the nationwide epidemic of drug addiction and misuse.

Over 20 million Americans have a substance use disorder. Of that, 1.4 million have a prescription pain killer use disorder, 1.6 million have other opioid use disorders, and over 900,000 have a methamphetamine use disorder. Additionally, 9.5 million American adults have mental health and substance use disorders.

Many of these millions have likely tried to overcome their substance use disorder by accessing inpatient or outpatient services or on their own. Unfortunately, only a small portion can maintain recovery. It would be rare for someone to say they relapse because they choose to or desire to continue misusing drugs. Instead, they feel compelled to use drugs again, as if they need them for survival. They become stuck in a cycle of addiction.

The Cycle of Addiction Explained

No one develops a substance use disorder overnight. The first few times you take a drug, it enters your bloodstream and travels to the brain. Once it enters the brain, the drug changes how the brain functions. For example, misusing an opioid or any sedative will slow down the brain’s functioning.

Your thoughts, movements, speech, and reactions will slow, and you will feel calm and relaxed. Many people experience euphoria since opioids trigger the release of dopamine, a feel-good chemical, into the brain’s reward center. Dopamine is released at much higher levels than the brain can produce naturally.

1. Tolerance

As the drugs begin to leave your system, the brain notices. It wants to continue feeling pleasure, so you may experience intense urges to misuse more drugs. Each time you give in to your brain’s request for more, you are building a tolerance, representing the amount of drugs you must take to achieve the desired effects.

Over time, tolerance builds, and you need more and more of the drug to feel euphoria and pleasure.

2. Dependence

There are times when you want to stop misusing substances. You try to cut back or quit cold turkey. Within hours, you begin having symptoms of withdrawal. Symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, chills, fever, sweats, digestive problems, and muscle spasms can feel excruciating.

Withdrawal symptoms indicate that your brain and body depend on the drugs. The brain has become so used to the drug that it now thinks it needs them to function. Because they can be so debilitating, many people continue misusing the substances to ease their withdrawal symptoms. Having a dependence does not necessarily mean you have an addiction, however. Tolerance and dependence are two parts of something much more complex.

3. Addiction

The National Institute on Drug Abuse characterizes addiction as the continued compulsive use of substances despite adverse consequences.

Signs of addiction include specific behaviors associated with substance misuse. The American Psychiatric Association created the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 5th edition, to help treatment providers diagnose substance use disorders. They established eleven criteria:

  1. Using more of the substance and for more extended periods than intended
  2. Wanting to cut back or quit but are not able to do so
  3. Being unable to fulfill duties at home, work, school, and socially
  4. Continuing to use drugs even though it creates broken relationships
  5. Avoiding activities you once enjoyed to spend time misusing substances
  6. Spending most of your time seeking, misusing, or recovering from substances
  7. Continuing to use drugs even though you know it will worsen physical or mental conditions
  8. Putting yourself in dangerous situations to obtain and misuse substances
  9. Tolerance
  10. Withdrawal symptoms
  11. Cravings

The first two criteria represent your inability to control your misuse of substances. Criteria 3-6 represent how your substance use disorder has affected you socially. As for criteria 7-8, risky behaviors may include meeting drug dealers in dangerous areas, stealing money or items, driving while intoxicated, or sharing needles.

To further understand addiction and whether it is a disease, it’s essential to know what the term “disease” means and how it differs from other addiction descriptions.

Disease, Disorder, Condition, or Syndrome

A disease changes the way the body functions. Diseases can be formed due to internal or external factors that are not “normal” to the body. Diseases are noticeable and measurable. It is a health condition with a clear cause. Using specific tests, you can receive a diagnosis for your symptoms.

A disorder describes a cluster of symptoms that may not yet be diagnosable. Your doctor may need more time investigating your systems to narrow down possible diagnoses.

A condition describes your state of health, like poor, good, or stable. Conditions occur when your body is in an abnormal state or different than what you experience on a “normal” basis.

Syndromes are groups of symptoms specific to a disease. They commonly appear together and are features of a particular disease. If you have a syndrome, you are at a higher risk of developing a disease.

Based on these definitions, drug addiction is a disease because it causes a change in how the body functions and has a clear cause. NIDA supports this theory because drugs alter brain functioning.

Drug Addiction Disease Risk Factors

You may be wondering what makes some people more susceptible to the disease of addiction. There is no one cause but rather multiple risk factors. The most common risk factors include the following:

  • Genetics passed down through family biology
  • The environment in which you live can influence your drug misuse
  • Age of first use, with early misuse altering brain development
  • Social pressure to misuse substances
  • Family attitude regarding substance misuse

Addiction is a chronic disease like diabetes, fibromyalgia, heart disease, and cancer. This means a substance use disorder can be treated successfully using proven methods, including medication, behavioral therapies, and other relapse prevention strategies. It is a disease that can be controlled to get back to living the sober life you deserve.

Treatment for Drug Addiction in Los Angeles and Houston

Seeking treatment for a drug or alcohol use disorder? Contact us today.

The Heights Treatment has drug treatment facilities located in Los Angeles and Houston. Let us help you pave the road to recovery.