One of the most significant principles of modern addiction theory is that drug or alcohol addiction is a chronic, relapsing illness. So what’s meant by this, and does this mean that recovery isn’t possible? Details about the concept of drug or alcohol addiction as a chronic, relapsing illness are below.

What is Addiction?

Addiction is classified as a disease of the brain. When someone suffers from addiction, they have a compulsion to keep using a substance, whether it be drugs or alcohol, in spite of negative consequences they experience as a result of that use. When someone is addicted, they don’t have control over their use, and it becomes the primary focal point of their life. 

What a lot of people don’t understand about drug and alcohol abuse is how profoundly it can change the chemistry and wiring of your brain, and that’s why it’s considered a disease. 

Not everyone who uses drugs or alcohol becomes an addicted, but when someone does they have cravings that stem from the activity of their brain, putting them out of control of their substance use. 

There have been studies looking at the brain images of people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol, and there are changes in almost all areas including behavior control, judgment and decision making, memory and learning. 

The changes that happen in the brain of an addict aren’t the same as the intoxicating effects of the drug. For example, you can feel drunk from alcohol, but this doesn’t mean your brain wiring is changed and that you’re an addict. The changes in the brains of addicts are much more long-term and difficult to treat. 

Many people who suffer from substance use disorders know they have a problem, and they want to stop, but they can’t, and as their use continues, it causes problems in every area of their life. 

A substance use disorder has symptoms that fall into four categories. These are impaired control, social problems, risky use and drug effects which is a category that includes tolerance and withdrawal.

Why Is Drug or Alcohol Addiction a Chronic Relapsing Illness?

In the past, addiction was seen as a lifestyle choice, and not an illness, but with research, we have come a long way in gaining more understanding about addiction and what it does to a person.

It’s classified as a chronic illness because it’s the result of the effects of drugs on the brain, and as with other diseases of the brain, it includes both social and behavioral elements. 

There are particular neural circuits within the brain that influence addiction and scientists and researchers over the years have shown that there are profound differences in the brains of people who are addicted versus people who aren’t. 

Despite the scientific understanding that addiction is a chronic disease of the brain, society tends to lag behind in their perception, and they still continue to see it only as a social problem or a choice. 

Addiction has many characteristics in common with other chronic diseases, including the fact that some of the contributing factors are believed to run in families, and that environmental conditions can trigger the onset and determine the course of the disease. Also, as with other chronic diseases, treatments and management options are available, although there is no cure, and many of the treatments involve lifestyle changes.

Addiction and Relapse

Even after a person has sought treatment for addiction, there’s a lot of work that goes into making sure they stay in recovery and remain sober. This is the same as what’s seen with other chronic diseases. One example is Type 2 diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes arises from a combination of genetic and lifestyle factors, and there’s no cure necessarily, but there are medications and lifestyle changes that can be used in conjunction with one another to manage the symptoms and live a healthy, fulfilling life. If you were to go off your medicines or maybe your diet, your diabetes would spiral out of control, and you’d have to take steps to reign it back in.

It’s very similar to addiction.

Relapse is possible and within the first year of recovery, very common. The fact that addiction is a chronic disease is what gives rise to the nature of relapse, and the relapse rates for addiction are similar to the rates for other chronic medical conditions. 

When a relapse occurs, it doesn’t mean that you’ve failed or that you should feel shame. 

What it means instead is that you may need to seek professional help, and you will also likely need to adjust your treatment plan or make sure that you’re following it properly. In some cases, a relapse could mean that you need to seek out a different treatment approach, but as with other chronic diseases, you can get back on track following a relapse.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.