A State of Illinois Licensed Psychological Association (License #098.000088)

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Drug Addiction

What Is Drug Addication?

Drug addiction is a complex, chronic, and treatable disease. The path to drug addiction begins when an individual makes a conscious choice to use drugs, but addiction is not just "a lot of drug use." Recent scientific research provides overwhelming evidence that not only do drugs interfere with normal brain functioning creating powerful feelings of pleasure, but they also have long-term effects on brain metabolism and activity. At some point, changes occur in the brain that can turn drug abuse into addiction, a chronic, relapsing illness.

Those addicted to drugs suffer from compulsive drug craving and usage and cannot quit by themselves. Treatment is necessary to end this compulsive behavior. Over time, a person's ability to choose not to take drugs is compromised. This in large part is a result of the effects of prolonged drug use on brain functioning, and thus on behavior. Addiction, therefore, is characterized by compulsive drug craving, seeking, and use that persists even in the face of negative consequences.

What Is The Difference Between Substance Abuse And Substance Dependence?

The American Psychiatric Association has developed strict criteria for the clinical diagnosis of abuse and dependence. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-IV (DSM-IV) defines both categories.

Substance Abuse. A maladaptive pattern of substance use leading to clinically significant impairment or distress, as manifested by one (or more) of the following, occurring within a 12-month period:
1. Recurrent substance use resulting in a failure to fulfill major role obligations at work, school, home (e.g., repeated absences or poor work performance related to substance use; substance-related absences, suspensions, or expulsions from school; neglect of children or household).
2. Recurrent substance use in situations in which it is physically hazardous (e.g., driving an automobile or operating a machine when impaired by substance use).
3. Recurrent substance-related legal problems (e.g., arrests for substance-related disorderly conduct).
Continued substance use despite having persistent or recurrent social or interpersonal problems caused or exacerbated by the effects of the substance (e.g., arguments with spouse about consequences of intoxication, physical fights).

Substance Dependence. A maladaptive pattern of substance use leading to clinically significant impairment or distress as manifested by three (or more) of the following, occurring at any time in the same 12 month period:
Substance is often taken in larger amounts or over longer period than intended.
1. Persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control substance use.
2. A great deal of time is spent in activities necessary to obtain the substance (e.g., visiting multiple doctors or driving long distances), use the substance (e.g., chain smoking), or recover from its effects.
3. Important social, occupational, or recreational activities given up or reduced because of substance abuse.
4. Continued substance use despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent psychological, or physical problem that is caused or exacerbated by use of the substance.
5. Tolerance, as defined by either:
a. need for markedly increased amounts of the substance in order to achieve intoxication or desired effect; or
b. markedly diminished effect with continued use of the same amount
6. Withdrawal, as manifested by either:
a. characteristic withdrawal syndrome for the substance; or
b. the same (or closely related) substance is taken to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms

What Are The Signs And Symptoms Of Drug Addiction?

The particular signs and symptoms of drug abuse and dependence vary depending on the type of drug. Addiction to any drug may include these general characteristics:

1. Feeling that you need the drug regularly and, in some cases, many times a day
2. Making certain that you maintain a supply of the drug
3. Failing repeatedly in your attempts to stop using the drug
4. Doing things to obtain the drug that you normally wouldn't do, such as stealing
5. Feeling that you need the drug to deal with your problems
6. Driving or doing other activities that place you and others at risk of physical harm when you're under the influence of the drug

What Are Some Misconceptions About Drug Addiction?

Many people view drug abuse and addiction as strictly a social problem. Parents, teens, older adults, and other members of the community tend to characterize people who take drugs as morally weak or as having criminal tendencies. They believe that drug abusers and addicts should be able to stop taking drugs if they are willing to change their behavior. These myths have not only stereotyped those with drug-related problems, but also their families, their communities, and the health care professionals who work with them. Drug abuse and addiction comprise a public health problem that affects many people and has wide-ranging social consequences.

Can Drug Addiction Be Treated?

Research shows that addiction is clearly treatable. A variety of approaches are used in treatment programs to help patients deal with these cravings and possibly avoid drug relapse. Through treatment that is tailored to individual needs, patients can learn to control their condition and live relatively normal lives. Treatment can have a profound effect not only on drug abusers, but on society as a whole by significantly improving social and psychological functioning.

Drug addiction can be effectively treated with behavior-based therapies and, for some drugs, such as heroin or nicotine, with medications. Additionally, treatment reduces the risk of infections and can improve the prospects for employment.

Sources: Mayo Clinic, DSM-IV, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, National Institute of Drug Abuse

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