Addiction Is a Surprisingly Misunderstood Disease

Simply put, addiction is the continued use of alcohol and other drugs even when that use causes harm.

It's often described as a disease of the mind, body and spirit because it involves the physical and psychological craving or compulsion to use a mood-altering substance.

Medical Definition

The American Society of Addiction Medicine describes addiction as "a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry." "Primary disease" means addiction is not the result of some other problem. For example, addiction is not caused by a bad marriage, financial hardship or a difficult childhood.

In fact, the number one risk factor for addiction is genetics. Individuals who have addiction in their family history are at a much greater risk than the general public of developing addiction.

Alcohol and drug addiction targets the mid-brain, causing regulatory dysfunction of a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Like other diseases such as diabetes, asthma and hypertension, addiction often involves cycles of relapse and remission.

Three other things to know about addiction:

  • It's progressive - if unaddressed, it will get worse
  • It's chronic - there is no cure, but it can be managed
  • It's potentially fatal

Signs of Trouble

There are specific screenings and assessments designed to detect addiction, but in general, the symptoms involve:

  • Loss of control
  • Craving
  • Persistent use despite adverse consequences

Families are affected by the harmful consequences of addiction as well. To cope with the fear and chaos of a loved one's addiction, families tend to keep secrets, find scapegoats and adopt unhealthy behaviors like denial, blame or preoccupation. So, families need help in their own right.

The Good News

Like other chronic diseases, addiction to opiods can be managed successfully. Most people who go to treatment programs not only stop using drugs but they also improve their occupational, social and psychological functioning.

Millions of people around the world are proof that recovery is stronger than addiction. And they are proof that treatment works, families heal and life gets better.