Is Addiction A Disease or A Disorder? 

Historically, addiction struggles were considered voluntary. Many, including medical and mental health professionals, believed those who abused substances were “choosing” to use illicit drugs, drink, or otherwise misuse drugs or alcohol. Fortunately, research and education have proven otherwise, and research proves that addiction is not necessarily a choice. Today most researchers and treatment professionals will agree that addiction is a disease or disorder that, like similar conditions, is entirely treatable. It is also a disease that does not discriminate based on age. Sadly, millions of adolescents and teens struggle with drug or alcohol addictions each year. Like adults, many of these go untreated. 

Disease vs. Disorder-Knowing the Difference

‘Disease’, ‘disorder’, ‘illness’, and ‘condition’ are all terms frequently used interchangeably that mean different things. There is a difference between a disease and a disorder, and understanding the difference is essential to helping your teen get the help they need to overcome addiction. 

A disease is a pathological process that occurs in the body. A medical provider can see, measure or otherwise trace the process the disease takes through the body. Diseases have specific signs and symptoms that medical or mental health providers look for to diagnose their patients adequately.

A disorder is different as it is not a pathological process. A disorder is a functional impairment (change in or alteration in functioning) and disruption to the normal structure and function of the body. A good example would be rheumatoid arthritis or RA. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder that causes the immune system to attack the body itself (specifically the joints) rather than bacteria or viruses that invade the body. RA is a disorder because it is a failure of the immune system to function correctly. 

Is Addiction A Disease?

How society views addiction continues to evolve. The definition of addiction varies (sometimes significantly) between individuals, organizations, the medical community, and society in general. Addiction is considered a disease by some organizations and a disorder by others. Many in the mental health and addiction treatment community note that addiction changes how the brain responds in certain situations and sometimes changes the brain structure. These long-term changes can persist until well after a person has attained sobriety. Because addiction changes how the brain and body function, it could be classified as a disorder. 

But, some organizations suggest addiction is a disease. The best way to understand how addiction is classified as a disease is to compare it to another disease process, such as cardiovascular disease. Both addiction and cardiovascular disease affect or inhibit the regular functioning of an organ in the body- the heart for cardiovascular disease and the brain for addiction. They both lead to decreased quality of life and increased risk for premature death. Addiction and cardiovascular disease are largely preventable by making healthy lifestyle choices and avoiding bad habits, and they are both treatable.

Addiction is also marked by periods of recovery and relapse, as with many other disease processes that may affect the human body. Consequently, it mimics illnesses such as hypertension and type-2 diabetes in this regard. These lifelong illnesses require ongoing effort to manage; however, symptom mitigation can occur with treatment. However, if compliance or effort wanes, symptoms are likely to return. 

Today there are very few nationally recognized addiction treatment-focused organizations whose views have not evolved to view addiction as a disease or disorder. Fortunately, like other chronic disease processes, addiction is treatable and lasting recovery is possible. When selecting a treatment program, it is essential to choose one that tailors therapy models to the specific needs of the individual. At our teen-focused treatment center, we understand that the journey to recovery is different for everyone. We also understand that addiction symptoms may be different for teens than for adults. For this reason, our treatment programs are designed with each individual in mind to ensure success both during rehab and after. 

Addiction as a Disease and a Disorder

As previously mentioned, addiction is indeed defined as a disease or disorder by most reputable organizations, including the American Society of Addiction Medicine and the American Medical Association (AMA). As with diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and other chronic illnesses, the cause of addiction is not one specific thing. Addiction is caused by behavioral, psychological, environmental, and biological factors. Together, all of these contribute to both one’s risk for addiction and their “substance of choice.” It is also important to note that genetic risk factors account for approximately half of the likelihood of developing a substance use disorder or addiction to substances.

Addiction involves changes in the functioning and sometimes the structure of the brain. It also results in changes to the body and functions of bodily systems due to continued use of alcohol or drugs. If addiction goes untreated, there are often significant consequences. These adverse effects include physical illnesses and the development of new (or exacerbation of pre-existing) mental health disorders that require medical attention. Similar to other chronic disease processes, addiction can become disabling and even life-threatening if left untreated. 

Is Addiction a Chronic Condition?

A chronic illness is a chronic condition that can be managed but not cured. Some people who engage in substance use do not develop an addiction. However, about twenty-five to fifty percent of those with a substance use problem will develop a severe, chronic addiction disorder. For these teens, addiction is a progressive, relapsing disease that requires treatment at a facility like Beachside in Los Angeles, CA, to recover and attain sobriety. For these individuals continuing aftercare, monitoring, and family or peer support are also essential after completing their stay at a treatment center.

How Substance use Changes the Brain

Addiction changes the brain, which is one of the main reasons it is often classified as a disease or disorder instead of “a choice.” People have basic human needs, including thirst and hunger. When these needs are met, feelings of pleasure generally result. These feelings of happiness are linked to the release of certain chemicals in the brain, reinforcing the need for these life-sustaining functions by providing an incentive (pleasure) to repeat these behaviors. Many addictive substances cause the brain to release high levels of chemicals connected explicitly with pleasure and reward from completing “natural” behaviors. 

As time passes, the continued release of these chemicals causes significant changes in the brain to the systems involved in reward, motivation, and memory. In turn, the brain tries to get back to a balanced state by minimizing its reaction to rewarding chemicals or by releasing stress hormones. Consequently, someone struggling with addiction may need to use increasingly higher amounts of the substance to feel (closer to) “normal.” One may experience overwhelming desires or cravings for the substance and will continue to use it despite adverse consequences to ensure repeated feelings of pleasure. In the most chronic forms of the disease, a severe substance use disorder can cause a person to stop caring about their well-being or that of others. They may also show a lack of concern for their survival. 

Why Some Say Addiction is not a Disease

For many years, the belief that addiction is not a disease or disorder but a voluntary behavior or choice has been at the forefront of discussions on addiction, mental health, and addiction treatment. Some people feel addiction cannot be a disease because it is often caused by the individual’s choice to use substances for the first time. While it is true that the first use may be by choice, once the brain has undergone changes related to addiction, most experts believe one loses control over their ability to decide. It is also important to note that not all substance dependency evolves from experimentation. For some, dependence occurs due to long-term prescription drug use that turns to addiction. 

Choice, or the ability to choose, does not determine whether something is a disease. In fact, personal preference is involved in a great many chronic diseases. Heart disease, some forms of cancer, and diabetes all involve some level of personal choice such as sun exposure, diet, exercise, etc. A resulting illness is what happens to the body due to those individual choices.

Others may argue that addiction is not a disease because some people may achieve sobriety without treatment. Those with a mild substance use disorder may indeed recover with little or no treatment. However, those who struggle with the most severe forms of addiction usually need intensive, medically supervised treatment at a residential addiction treatment facility such as Beachside to successfully attain sobriety. 

Addiction is Treatable 

People do not choose how their brains and bodily systems respond to substances. For this reason, people with addiction are often unable to control their use or acknowledge an unhealthy relationship with substances. People with addiction can and do stop using substances, but it takes a commitment to sobriety coupled with ongoing treatment and care. 

If your teen is struggling with a substance use disorder or addiction, it is never the wrong time to ask for help. Professional addiction treatment at Beachside is an evidence-based, effective way to address all elements of addiction. Addiction affects your entire body, including your physical and mental health. A treatment plan needs to consider both your addiction and any other medical or mental health issues you may be experiencing when creating a treatment plan. 

Addiction treatment cannot be cookie-cutter in nature. Each treatment plan must be carefully and thoughtfully designed for the person seeking treatment. Getting help may be intimidating, but we offer the resources, compassion, and empathy needed to make the process as easy to navigate as possible at Beachside. To learn more about our teen-focused treatment programs and how we can help, contact Beachside today.