The Disease Model of Addiction Explained

Addiction is a disease related to the brain. It is recognised as a chronic disease that must be treated, managed and monitored over a person’s lifetime. Addiction involves changes in the functioning of the brain and body. The disease theory of addiction defines addiction as a compulsive disorder that occurs due to chemical changes in the brain, which is induced by regular abuse of drugs and or alcohol rather than a conscious decision.

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The Disease Model of Addiction and Defining Addiction

The disease model of addiction focuses on a user’s loss of control, which is primarily caused by substance abuse. It suggests that addicts don’t have the ability to discontinue their substance use on their own without the appropriate treatment or tools. The disease model of addiction states that addiction is a relapsing and chronic brain disorder, with rates or relapse at around 40% to 60% – similar to relapse rates of other chronic medical conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, and asthma.

The Disease Model of Addiction: History and Explanation

The traditional medical model of disease only requires the presence of an abnormal condition that induces distress, discomfort, or dysfunction to the affected person. However, the contemporary medical model states that addiction occurs due to changes in the mesolimbic pathway in the brain. It also addresses the fact that such disease may be influenced by other sociological, psychological or biological factors, even though the mechanisms of these factors are not completely understood. Using the contemporary medical model, addiction was categorised as a disease.

What Are the Sources of Addiction in the Disease Model?

The disease model of addiction describes an addiction as a disease with environmental, genetic, neurological, and biological sources of origin.

Biological Sources of Addiction

This suggests that a person’s unique physiology can contribute to addiction. Some people may enjoy a substance so much that it becomes difficult to quit, whereas another person would not experience such difficulty because they do not experience similar enjoyment from it.

Neurological Sources of Addiction

Advances in neuroscience have provided a lot of support for the brain disease model of addiction. It has shown that people have varying levels of abilities and brain function to control impulsive urges with rational thought.

Genetic Sources of Addiction

Genetic factors can influence the severity of substance abuse. Approximately 50% of an individual’s likelihood to develop an addiction can be connected to genetic factors. Because of their genetic make-up, some people are more prone to the disease than others.

Environmental sources

Environmental factors also contribute to the development of substance use disorder. High levels of stress, childhood trauma, peer pressure and low parental involvement can all influence an individual to experiment with addictive substances. Studies show that early use of alcohol and/or drugs increases the chances of developing an addiction later in life.

Classifying addiction as a brain disease

Most of the activities surrounding addiction takes place in the brain and affects it directly.
Drug abuse induces changes in the brain’s structure and the way it functions. Over time, these changes, which are caused by the repeated abuse of a substance, affect the user’s self-control and decision-making ability, whilst simultaneously sending impulses to take more of the drug.

Continuous exposure to a substance desensitises the reward pathways in the brain, thereby affecting the way the brain feels motivation and pleasure. The intensity and strength of conditioned responses are increased by the presence of the substance, which further leads to cravings as well as negative feelings when the substance is not taken.
Upon cessation of drug use, there are emotional-motivational withdrawal symptoms. The brain region responsible for decision making, executive functioning, self-regulation and impulse control is weakened, thereby increasing the relapse potential of the user.

How Substance Use Physically Changes the Brain

Alcohol or drug abuse causes physical changes in the brain by creating long-lasting impairments to key functions and regions. These changes are responsible for establishing the brain disorder that makes substance abuse difficult to discontinue.

Drugs and alcohol bind to the receptor cells in the brain, leading to a release of certain neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, which in turn gives rise to an all-round feeling of relaxation, euphoria, and pleasure. Once these substances enter the brain, the brain is less likely to produce its own. Because of this, the brain reduces its production of dopamine, serotonin and other neurochemicals, as they are being released unnaturally due to substance use.

This affects the receptors and the brain’s risk/reward system, and the excess neurochemicals produced leads to tolerance and dependence and subsequent physical or psychological addiction to the substance. These processes change the physiology of the brain and it takes a significant amount of work to get it back to its normal state.

Signs of an Addiction

  • Alcohol or drug cravings
  • Tolerance
  • Emergence of withdrawal symptoms when the use of the substance is reduced or discontinued
  • Failed attempts to quit the substance abuse
  • Substance abuse interfering with obligations
  • Withdrawal from activities previously enjoyed because of substance abuse
  • Repetitive use of substance despite negative physical or social consequences
  • Spending excessive amounts of time and resourcing in obtaining and using the substance

Treatment under the Disease Model of Addiction

The disease model of addiction recognises that adequate treatment is possible. The treatment programme largely depends on your exact needs and goals. Rehab facilities offer two types of programmes: outpatient and inpatient treatments. In inpatient treatment, patients live at the rehab centre full-time ranging from a few weeks to a few months. In outpatient treatment, patients commute from their homes or sober living houses.

Finding Reliable Rehabilitation Centres

The majority of people find relief and support in residential treatment centres. They provide immediate support and quality aftercare to ensure excellent results. To find a reliable centre, ensure they are accredited and have all the tools designed to address your addiction.

Research into the Disease Model of Addiction

Addiction is a disease affecting the incentive circuitry in the brain as related to motivation and pleasure, creating changes in behaviour, emotions and cognition. The debate over whether addiction is a disease or a behavioural problem has led to much research and garnered many criticisms both for and against it. Research on the neurological basis of addiction has proven that some people may have traits that make them more prone to addiction. This research has helped scientists understand what parts of the brain are involved in addiction, and what functions they perform among healthy individuals.

Controversy about the Disease Model of Addiction

There is much controversy surrounding the idea that drug addiction is a disease. The criticisms are largely by those who subscribe to the life-process model of addiction. The life-process model of addiction is the opinion that addiction is a source of gratification and habitual response and not a disease.
They believe that addiction shouldn’t be called a disease or disorder since the biological mechanisms that point to addictive behaviour have not been confirmed. They are of the opinion that an addict can defeat addiction through personal willpower and by repairing relationships.
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Yes. Addiction is a chronic, relapsing brain disease.
What is Addiction Psychiatry?
It is a subspecialty of medicine in the field of psychiatry that deals with the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of individuals suffering from disorders relating to substance use disorder.
Does the Disease Model Reduce the stigma of Addiction?
Yes. Understanding that addiction is a brain disorder has reduced the stigma attached to the disease.
Can I get insurance cover for treating addiction?
Even when people have insurance coverage, there may be difficulties in getting insurance to pay for certain aspects of drug rehab and treatment. It is important you check with your insurance provider.

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