Disease of Addiction

Reviewed by Dr. Lawrence Weinstein | Last updated: June 24, 2019

American Addiction Centers (AAC) recognizes that addiction — whether involving alcohol, prescription drugs, illicit drugs, or over-the-counter drugs — is a disease. We approach every individual seeking treatment at an AAC facility as a whole person who is not only suffering from an illness, but who also is full of unique strengths and potentials. We realize that for many people, addiction is not their only struggle, and so we provide treatment for co-occurring mental illnesses and offer holistic care to address physical, spiritual, social, and occupational needs as well.

Addiction and the Brain

Just like diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic conditions, addiction is an illness that requires treatment. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), “addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory, and related circuitry.”

Multiple areas of the brain are involved in the neurobiology of addiction. Addiction especially impacts the neurotransmission (how parts of the brain “talk” to one another) and function of the brain’s reward system, also known as the mesolimbic dopamine pathway. This system involves structures such as the ventral tegmental area (VTA), nucleus accumbens, other basal forebrain structures, the amygdala, and the anterior cingulate cortex. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that enable communication, and the main neurotransmitter involved in the reward system is dopamine. However, other neurotransmitters are also involved.

In addition to the reward system, addiction also impacts the neurotransmission and function of the cortical and hippocampal circuits, especially in their connections to the reward system. The frontal cortex in particular is a key player in issues with impulse control, judgment, and other executive functions. The hippocampus is important for remembering positive or negative experiences.

AAC’s 3-year study on patient outcomes shows our commitment to research and that addiction treatment can have a lasting impact.

Symptoms of Addiction

Symptoms of Addiction

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), symptoms of a substance use disorder may include:

  • Often use substance more than intended
  • Cravings to use the substance
  • A desire or unsuccessful attempts to control, decrease, or stop substance use
  • Ongoing need to increase use to achieve same effect
  • Relationships negatively impacted by substance use
  • Recurrent use of substance in risky situations
  • Substance interferes with fulfilling obligations
  • Continued substance use despite the problems it causes
  • Stopping or decreasing important activities because of the substance
  • Excessive time spent obtaining, using, or recovering
  • Withdrawal symptoms if substance use is stopped

Effects of Addiction

The disease of addiction can impact an individual not only on a biological level but also on psychological, social, and spiritual levels. Addiction may negatively impact an individual’s physical health, mental health, spirituality, interpersonal functioning, occupational functioning, academic functioning, and domestic functioning. For instance, an individual may develop hepatitis, become depressed, experience a crisis of faith, become estranged from their spouse, lose their job, fail a class, get evicted from their home, and/or get sent to jail, all due at least in part to their addiction. According to ASAM, addiction is a progressive disease and without treatment or participation in recovery work, addiction can result in disability or premature death.

Even after an individual completes treatment and is working to stay in recovery, relapses can happen. Relapse is not exclusive to addiction, but is also common in many chronic diseases, including high blood pressure and diabetes. In addiction, relapse may be triggered by exposure to substances, environmental cues, emotional stressors, and physical stressors. For instance, going to a bar, going to a friend’s house where you used to use, sadness, or fatigue could all potentially trigger relapse. Relapse does not mean that the individual is a failure or cannot get better, it simply means that they need to reengage with treatment. If an individual with previously controlled diabetes starts having high blood sugar levels again, we provide them with the help and tools to get their blood sugar back under control. Individuals who relapse need the same assistance and support.

Risk Factors for Addiction

Risk of Addiction

There are many factors that can increase an individual’s risk of developing an addiction, including their genetics, environment, biology, psychology, age of first use, addictiveness of drug used, and frequency of drug use. Environmental risk factors may include family, culture, peers, social support (or lack thereof), trauma, stressors, toxins, and availability/accessibility of substances. Biological risk factors may include deficits in neurological function, inflammation from various causes, and other physical illnesses. Psychological risk factors may include thought patterns, cognitive (thought) and affective (mood) distortions, temperament (personality), impulse control, and other mental illnesses.

Our Approach to Addiction Treatment

At AAC, we approach every individual as a whole person who is full of unique strengths and potential but may be facing multiple challenges. In addition to addiction treatment, we provide treatment for co-occurring mental illnesses and offer holistic care to promote physical, spiritual, social, and occupational well-being, thereby helping individuals overcome their struggles with addiction and live healthier, happier lives.

Depending on the facility, treatments available at AAC facilities may include individual psychotherapy, group therapy, medication assisted treatment (MAT; includes prescribing medications to help individuals recover and stay sober long-term), family therapy, alternative therapies, and holistic care. AAC offers several levels of care, including medical detox, residential treatment, intensive residential treatment, partial hospitalization programs, intensive outpatient programs, regular outpatient services, and sober living homes. Clients are referred to the appropriate level of care based on his or her individual needs as assessed through comprehensive evaluations at admission and throughout his or her participation in the program. Clinicians work together with every client to ensure they get the care they need. AAC’s treatment programs educate clients about the symptoms, causes, and effects of addiction, both physiological and psychosocial. We help people not only stop using, but also to understand the addictive mechanisms at work in their lives and develop strategies for managing them. We know that making changes to attitude, behavior, and lifestyle are the foundation for long-term healing from addiction.

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