Despite all of the advancements that science has made over the past twenty years, there are still those who are resistant to the idea that addiction is a disease. There has been endless evidence presented that the thousands that die every year from the opioid epidemic aren’t merely making immoral choices, it’s much more complicated than that.
The Addicted Brain
The brain’s pleasure center is responsible for the release of dopamine, the chemical that carries signals from one brain cell to another using certain pathways. That’s one of the main areas these pathways go through, which functions to control reward-motivated behavior.
In a brain that is not affected by addiction, dopamine is released and travels through these pathways naturally for basic human functions like eating, resting, or engaging in feel-good activities like exercise or laughing and having fun. A brain that is controlled by addiction is altered as these pathways are taken over by drugs that release chemicals into the brain that are very similar to naturally occurring ones. They plug themselves into receptors to release dopamine about 10 times stronger than anything the body can naturally create, which is what makes these substances so dangerously addictive.
Stigma on Science
Before we knew more about the brain and how it works, people only based their knowledge of addiction on the behaviors exhibited by those who were struggling with substance misuse, believing those who have an addiction have a poor upbringing or have a behavior problem with no willpower or control. The truth is they don’t have control. That’s because addiction is a brain disease where the mind is essentially now hijacked by chemicals that are mimicking the natural actions of the body but at an enhanced rate. Those with addiction need medical treatment to help them reset and rewire their brains to a normal and healthy setting.
Learning about the complexities of the addicted brain and neuroplasticity is a relatively recent discovery in modern science, and there is still much more to learn. Though we’d like to leave addiction stigma in the past, many current doctors never took a single class about addiction during the course of their education. Some would say that it’s why the prescription opioid epidemic spiked so quickly, as doctors weren’t aware of the nature of these medicines in the first place.
With significant recent advancements, medication-assisted treatment has been available to those who have fallen victim to America’s opioid epidemic, but many are still suffering in silence. They’re often urged to seek non-medical or abstinence-based support to overcome their addiction, which may not be the best option, particularly for those with an opioid addiction. While addiction treatment medical providers may not be able to offer an instant “cure” for substance use disorder, they are able to help those who are inflicted manage the disease as they would any other chronic illness.
Treating addiction as a chronic condition means that those who need help will no longer be seen as undeserving of medical treatment. This may ultimately save many lives from being added to yearly overdose statistics. Science has provided us with enough evidence to support the theory that addiction is not a choice, and we owe the families and communities that are being devastated by the opioid epidemic a chance to recover.
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