Is Drug Addiction a Disease?

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Medically Reviewed By: Diana Vo, LMFT

June 13, 2023

Table of Contents

Is drug addiction a disease? Yes, drug addiction is a chronic and progressive brain condition with high relapse rates. While there is no cure for addiction (substance use disorder), most addictions respond favorably to evidence-based treatments.

This guide examines the following key issues:

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  • Is alcohol and drug addiction a disease?
  • Why is addiction a disease?
  • Addiction: clinical definition.
  • How can you connect with addiction treatment in Southern California?

What is Drug Addiction?

Drug addiction, clinically described as substance use disorder, is a complex and debilitating condition characterized by compulsive and repetitive drug-seeking behaviors. Drug addiction is recognized as a clinical disorder by DSM-5-TR (fifth revised edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), which is widely used by healthcare professionals for diagnosing mental health conditions like chronic drug addiction.

Substance use disorder encompasses a range of addictive substances, including but not limited to illicit drugs, prescription medications, and alcohol. Individuals with drug addiction experience a persistent and uncontrollable urge to consume these substances regardless of the adverse outcomes they may encounter.

Is addiction a disease, then? Drug addiction is a chronic and progressive condition that affects the brain’s reward system, altering its structure, function, and chemistry. It is not merely a matter of willpower or a moral failing but a complex interplay of genetic, environmental, and behavioral factors. The compulsive nature of drug addiction makes it challenging for individuals to quit using drugs or maintain abstinence even when they want to do so. Understanding drug addiction as a disease is crucial for effective treatment and support.

Clinical Addiction Definition

Drug addiction (substance use disorder), is widely recognized as a chronic and relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive drug-seeking and drug use, despite the negative consequences it brings. This understanding has led to the classification of addiction as a brain disorder due to the significant functional changes it induces in brain circuits associated with reward, stress, and self-control.

When it comes to clinical definitions of substance use disorders, DSM-5-TR provides comprehensive criteria that encompass the symptoms of various substance-related and addictive disorders. The 11 diagnostic criteria for substance use disorders help to expand the understanding of the disease of addiction and illuminate the common symptoms observed in those with addictions. Symptoms of addiction can be categorized as follows:

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Impaired control over substance use (DSM-5 criteria 1 to 4)

  • Consuming larger amounts of the substance and for a longer duration than intended.
  • Persistent desire to cut down or regulate substance use, often with unsuccessful attempts to quit.
  • Spending a significant amount of time obtaining, using, or recovering from the effects of the substance.
  • Experiencing intense cravings or an overpowering urge to use the substance.

Social impairment (DSM-5 criteria 5 to 7)

  • Inability to fulfill major responsibilities at work, school, or home due to substance use.
  • Continued substance use despite significant social or interpersonal problems.
  • Giving up or reducing participation in important activities due to substance use.

Risky use (DSM-5 criteria 8 and 9)

  • Repeated substance use in physically hazardous situations.
  • Continuing substance use despite awareness of the potential physical or psychological harm it may cause.

Pharmacologic (DSM-5 criteria 10 and 11)

  • Tolerance: Requiring higher doses of the substance to deliver the intended effect or experiencing reduced effectiveness of the usual dose. Tolerance may develop at different rates for different symptoms.
  • Withdrawal: Experiencing a range of signs and symptoms when the levels of the substance in the body decrease. Individuals often seek the substance to alleviate these withdrawal symptoms.

Note: Withdrawal symptoms are not documented for hallucinogens, PCP, or inhalants. Additionally, in the context of appropriate medical treatment, tolerance and withdrawal do not count as criteria for an addiction related to prescription medications.

Recognizing drug addiction as a disease is essential in order to promote empathy, reduce stigma, and underscore the need for comprehensive medical and psychological interventions to effectively address and manage this challenging condition. Understanding addiction as a disease helps individuals overcome the misconception that it is simply a matter of personal choice and highlights the importance of evidence-based treatment and support in facilitating recovery and improving overall well-being.

Is Addiction a Choice?

The question of whether addiction is a choice has been a topic of debate and misunderstanding. 

Viewing addiction as solely a matter of personal choice oversimplifies the complex nature of this chronic condition.

While individuals may initially make a choice to use drugs or engage in addictive behaviors, the progression from substance use to addiction involves a multitude of factors that extend beyond making decisions. Addiction involves biological, psychological, and environmental factors that contribute to the development and maintenance of the condition.

The brain’s reward system plays a crucial role in addiction. When substances or addictive behaviors activate this system, they release neurotransmitters like dopamine that create pleasurable sensations and reinforce the behavior. Over time, repeated exposure to drugs or addictive behaviors causes fundamental changes in the brain, altering its structure, function, and chemistry. These changes impair the individual’s ability to exert control over their drug use, leading to compulsive drug-seeking and drug-taking behaviors.

Beyond this, addiction has a genetic component. Research has shown that certain individuals may be more predisposed to developing addiction due to genetic variations that affect how their bodies respond to drugs or regulate reward pathways in the brain. This genetic vulnerability, combined with environmental factors such as stress, trauma, and peer influence, further contributes to the development of addiction.

The Mental Health Component of Addiction

Additionally, addiction is often accompanied by co-occurring mental health disorders. Individuals may turn to substances as a means of self-medication to cope with underlying mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, or trauma. These co-occurring disorders can further complicate the decision-making process and make it challenging for individuals to break free from the cycle of addiction.

The belief that addiction is solely a choice can perpetuate stigma and hinder people from seeking the help they need. Recognizing the multidimensional nature of addiction encourages a shift from blame and judgment to a focus on providing effective interventions that address the underlying biological, psychological, and social factors contributing to addiction.

While individuals with addiction bear responsibility for their recovery, it is crucial to approach addiction with a compassionate and understanding perspective. By offering support, access to treatment, and opportunities for rehabilitation, we can empower individuals to make positive choices and regain control over their lives.

A woman sits on a hill watching a sunset to represent the question, "is addiction a choice?".

How To Explain That Addiction is a Disease

Addiction should be viewed as a disease for the following reasons:

  • Medical and scientific consensus: Reputable organizations like NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse), NIH (National Institutes of Health), and APA (American Psychiatric Association) all recognize addiction as a disease based on extensive research, empirical evidence, and a deep understanding of the biological, psychological, and social factors contributing to addiction.
  • Brain changes and neurological impact: Addiction causes profound changes in the brain, altering its structure, function, and chemistry. Substance use disorder also affects the brain’s reward system, impairing the individual’s ability to control their impulses and making it difficult to resist the overwhelming craving for drugs or addictive behaviors. Beyond this, addiction also disrupts other brain functions related to decision-making, impulse control, and emotional regulation.
  • Similarities to other chronic diseases: Addiction can be compared to chronic conditions like heart disease or diabetes, which are characterized by long-lasting changes in the body’s normal functioning. Just like these diseases, addiction can have severe consequences on an individual’s overall health, well-being, and quality of life.
  • Genetic and environmental factors: Genetics and environmental factors play a role in the development of addiction. Genetic variations can influence susceptibility to addiction, while environmental factors like trauma, stress, and social influences also contribute to its onset.
  • Chronic and relapsing nature: Addiction is a chronic and relapsing condition. The brain changes caused by addiction persist even after the substance use has stopped, making individuals vulnerable to relapse. This illustrates the need for ongoing treatment, support, and management of addiction as a long-term condition.
  • Treatment and recovery: Like other diseases, addiction can be effectively treated and managed. Treatment approaches include MAT (medication-assisted treatment), counseling, therapy, and support groups.

FAQs

Is drug addiction a disease?

Yes, addiction (substance use disorder) is widely recognized as a brain disorder or disease.

When was addiction classified as a disease?

In 1956, AMA (American Medical Association) officially recognized alcoholism as a treatable illness. AMA expanded its definition of addiction to include other substances beyond alcohol in 1987. The third edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III) was third edition) published in 1980. This diagnostic tool included the category of substance use disorders, further establishing addiction as a clinically recognized condition.

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Get Treatment for Drug Addiction at Renaissance Recovery

In our commitment to providing comprehensive addiction treatment, Renaissance Recovery Center in Southern California specializes in outpatient programs tailored to address various types of addictions and co-occurring mental health conditions. Our range of outpatient treatment programs ensures that individuals can choose the support and structure that best suits their needs. These programs include:

  • PHP: Our partial hospitalization program offers a highly structured and intensive level of care for individuals who require a more immersive treatment experience while still benefiting from the flexibility of outpatient treatment.
  • IOP: Our intensive outpatient program in California provides a comprehensive and supportive treatment approach that allows individuals to receive intensive therapy and support while still being able to maintain their daily routines and responsibilities.
  • Dual diagnosis treatment program: For individuals struggling with both addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders, our dual diagnosis treatment program addresses both conditions simultaneously, providing integrated and specialized care.

At Renaissance, we believe in an individualized approach to addiction treatment. Our programs incorporate a variety of evidence-based and holistic interventions to support the recovery process. These include:

To take the first crucial step toward a life of recovery, reach out to our admissions team at 866.330.9449. Our compassionate professionals are ready to guide you toward a personalized treatment journey that supports your unique needs and goals.

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Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.

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