Treatment & Recovery

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Why do some people become addicted to drugs, while others do not?

As with any other disease, vulnerability to addiction differs from person to person. In general, the more risk factors an individual has, the greater the chance that taking drugs will lead to abuse and addiction. No single factor determines whether a person will become addicted to drugs. The overall risk for addiction is impacted by the biological makeup of the individual—it can even be influenced by gender or ethnicity, his or her developmental stage, and the surrounding social environment, such as conditions at home, at school, and in the neighborhood. Scientists estimate that genetic factors account for between 40 and 60 percent of a person’s vulnerability to addiction, including the effects of environment on gene expression and function. Adolescents and individuals with mental disorders are at greater risk of drug abuse and addiction than the general population.

Can addiction be treated successfully?

YES. Addiction is a treatable disease. Discoveries in the science of addiction have led to advances in drug abuse treatment that help people stop abusing drugs and resume their productive lives.

Can addiction be cured?

These images of the dopamine transporter show the brain’s remarkable potential to recover after a long abstinence from drugs—in this case, methamphetamine.

Addiction need not be a life sentence. Like other chronic diseases, addiction can be managed successfully. Treatment enables people to counteract addiction’s powerful disruptive effects on brain and behavior and regain control of their lives.

Does relapse to drug abuse mean treatment has failed?

No. The chronic nature of the disease means that relapsing to drug abuse is not only possible, but likely. Relapse rates (i.e., how often symptoms recur) for drug addiction are similar to those for other well-characterized chronic medical illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension, and asthma, which also have both physiological and behavioral components. Treatment of chronic diseases involves changing deeply imbedded behaviors, and relapse does not mean treatment failure. For the addicted patient, lapses back to drug abuse indicate that treatment needs to be reinstated or adjusted, or that alternate treatment is needed.

What are the principles of effective addiction treatment?

Research shows that combining treatment medications, where available, with behavioral therapy is the best way to ensure success for most patients. Treatment approaches must be tailored to address each patient’s drug abuse patterns and drug-related medical, psychiatric and social problems.

How can medications help treat drug addiction?

Different types of medications may be useful at different stages of treatment to help a patient stop abusing drugs, stay in treatment and avoid relapse.

  • Treating Withdrawal. When patients first stop abusing drugs,they can experience a variety of physical and emotional symptoms, including depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders; restlessness; and sleeplessness. Certain treatment medications are designed to reduce these symptoms, which makes it easier to stop the abuse.
  • Staying in Treatment. Some treatment medications are used to help the brain adapt gradually to the absence of the abused drug. These medications act slowly to stave off drug cravings, and have a calming effect on body systems. They can help patients focus on counseling and other psychotherapies related to their drug treatment.
  • Preventing Relapse. Science has taught us that stress, cues linked to the drug experience (e.g., people, places, things, moods) and exposure to drugs are the most common triggers for relapse. Medications are being developed to interfere with these triggers to help patients sustain recovery.

How do behavioral therapies treat drug addiction?

Behavioral treatments help engage people in drug abuse treatment, modifying their attitudes and behaviors related to drug abuse and increasing their life skills to handle stressful circumstances and environmental cues that may trigger intense craving for drugs and prompt another cycle of compulsive abuse. Moreover, behavioral therapies can enhance the effectiveness of medications and help people remain in treatment longer.

How do the best treatment programs help patients recover from the pervasive effects of addiction?

Getting an addicted person to stop abusing drugs is just one part of a long and complex recovery process. When people enter treatment, addiction has often taken over their lives. The compulsion to get drugs, take drugs and experience the effects of drugs has dominated their every waking moment, and drug abuse has taken the place of all the things they used to enjoy doing. It has disrupted how they function in their family lives, at work and in the community, and has made them more likely to suffer from other serious illnesses. Because addiction can affect so many aspects of a person’s life, treatment must address the needs of the whole person to be successful. This is why the best programs incorporate a variety of rehabilitative services into their comprehensive treatment regimens. Treatment counselors select from a menu of services for meeting the individual medical, psychological and social needs of their patients to foster their recovery from addiction.

Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institutes of Health

  • Last updated: 02/20/2014
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