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Understanding Addiction as a Chronic Disease

Table of Contents

While many people have been told that substance addiction is a chronic disease, they may not know precisely what that means. After all, conditions like heart disease and diabetes are chronic in nature, but these diseases involve sick people who are treated in hospitals, people who never chose to take a substance that could lead to their own harm. Or did they?

Addiction: A Chronic Disease

One of the most important things that those suffering from addiction and their caregivers must learn at the onset of treatment is that addiction is a chronic disease. Like many people who suffer from diseases like cardiovascular illness and diabetes, addicts made an initial choice that had an impact on their disease onset.

As humans, we may choose to eat unhealthy foods, smoke, or refrain from exercise just as people may choose to drink or try drugs. In many illnesses, our lifestyle choices play a role, but there are many other factors involved when it comes to chronic disease onset such as our genetic heritage, environment, and overall health. Yet when disease sets in, progression is inevitable without comprehensive treatment that targets all aspects of the disease, whether that illness is addiction, diabetes, or any other chronic disease.

The Chronic Disease Model

The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as a primary, chronic disease that “often involves cycles of relapse and remission.” Treatment of this progressive disease is needed to prevent disability or even premature death. Moreover, effective treatment can enhance the addict’s quality of life for themselves and their families.

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Addiction is regarded as chronic because it tends to require long-term management. Furthermore, addiction is a complex disease that involves far more than those early choices to drink or use drugs. Addiction has physical, psychological, and behavioral aspects that must be addressed by a comprehensive treatment plan that targets these elements carefully with proven therapies.

Addiction’s Complicated Nature

If people would just stop smoking, cancer diagnoses would decrease. If people would just eat healthy, obesity wouldn’t trigger so many illnesses, and if people wouldn’t abuse drugs or alcohol, addiction wouldn’t set in in the first place–right?

Too often, this is the family’s lament when confronted with a loved one’s addiction. Yet addiction specialists could tell them that choice is only one factor in this disease; there are many others that are beyond their loved one’s control.

A person’s genetic makeup, relationships, and mental and physical health all play a role in addiction disease onset. The fact is, not everyone who eats cheeseburgers and French fries every week is going to become obese. Not everyone who drinks regularly will develop an addiction. There are factors that are beyond a person’s control when it comes to a disease like addiction.

Treating a Complex Illness

As with chronic diseases, addiction treatment is necessarily comprehensive. There are therapies like medical detox and pharmaceutical drugs that target the physical aspect of the disease.

Medications can decrease the intense cravings for drugs or alcohol while medical detox can slowly and carefully see the addict weaned from the addictive substance.

Other therapies like individual and group counseling can target the psychological and behavioral aspects of addiction. Addicts learn to understand what triggered them to abuse substances in the first place and then how they can more effectively manage those triggers and refrain from drinking or using drugs.

See also  The Role of Genetics in Alcohol Addiction

Starting at The Cause

In some cases, addicts learn how to manage the negative emotions that might have led them down a path of substance abuse. Other treatments target relapse and provide recovering addicts with strategies for warding off a renewed cycle of drug or alcohol abuse.

The fact is, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “addiction shares many features with other chronic illnesses.” Family history, environmental conditions, and behavior tend to play roles in the disease of addiction just as they do in other chronic illnesses.

Appropriate treatment at an addiction treatment center like Destination Hope can lead to long-term recovery by addressing each of these aspects of the disease. Just as other chronic illnesses can be successfully managed, addiction, too, can be overcome so that the addict can enjoy improved health and substantially improved quality of life.


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