NIDA InfoFacts: Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction
Drug addiction is a complex illness. It is characterized by intense and, at times, uncontrollable drug craving, along with compulsive drug seeking and use that persist even in the face of devastating consequences. While the path to drug addiction begins with the voluntary act of taking drugs, over time a person's ability to choose not to do so becomes compromised, and seeking and consuming the drug becomes compulsive. This behavior results largely from the effects of prolonged drug exposure on brain functioning. Addiction is a brain disease that affects multiple brain circuits, including those involved in reward and motivation, learning and memory, and inhibitory control over behavior.
Because drug abuse and addiction have so many dimensions and disrupt so many aspects of a person's life, treatment is not simple. Effective treatment programs typically incorporate many components. Each is directed to a particular aspect of the illness and its consequences. Addiction treatment must help the individual stop using drugs, maintain a drug-free lifestyle, and achieve productive functioning in the family, at work, and in society. Because addiction is typically a chronic disease, people cannot simply stop using drugs for a few days and be cured. Most patients require long-term or repeated episodes of care to achieve the ultimate goal of sustained abstinence and recovery of their lives.
Too often, addiction goes untreated: According to SAMHSA's National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 23.2 million persons (9.4 percent of the U.S. population) aged 12 or older needed treatment for an illicit drug or alcohol use problem in 2007. Of these individuals, 2.4 million (10.4 percent of those who needed treatment) received treatment at a specialty facility (i.e., hospital, drug or alcohol rehabilitation or mental health center). Thus, 20.8 million persons (8.4 percent of the population aged 12 or older) needed treatment for an illicit drug or alcohol use problem but did not receive it. These estimates are similar to those in previous years.1
Basis for Effective Treatment
Scientific research since the mid–1970s shows that treatment can help patients addicted to drugs stop using, avoid relapse, and successfully recover their lives. Based on this research, key principles have emerged that should form the basis of any effective treatment programs:
- Addiction is a complex but treatable disease that affects brain function and behavior.
- No single treatment is appropriate for all individuals.
- Treatment needs to be readily available.
- Effective treatment attends to multiple needs of the person, not just his or her drug addiction.
- An individual's treatment and services plan must be assessed continually and modified as necessary to ensure that it meets his or her changing needs.
- Remaining in treatment for an adequate period of time is critical.
- Counseling — individual or group — and other behavioral therapies are the most commonly used forms of drug abuse treatment.
- Medications are an important element of treatment for many patients, especially when combined with counseling and other behavioral therapies.
- Many drug–addicted individuals also have other mental disorders.
- Medically assisted detoxification is only the first stage of addiction treatment and by itself does little to change long–term drug abuse.
- Treatment does not need to be voluntary to be effective.
- Possible drug use during treatment must be monitored continuously.
- Treatment programs should assess patients for HIV/AIDS, hepatitis B and C, tuberculosis, and other infectious diseases, and should provide counseling to help patients modify or change behaviors that place themselves or others at risk of infection.
Effective Treatment Approaches
Medication and behavioral therapy, especially when combined, are important elements of an overall therapeutic process that often begins with detoxification, followed by treatment and relapse prevention.
Easing withdrawal symptoms can be important in beginning treatment; preventing relapse is necessary for maintaining its effects. And sometimes, as with other chronic conditions, episodes of relapse may require a return to prior treatment components.
A continuum of care that includes a customized treatment regimen — addressing all aspects of an individual's life, including medical and mental health services — and follow–up options (e.g., community– or family-based recovery support systems) can be crucial to a person's success in achieving and maintaining a drug–free lifestyle.
Medications offer help in suppressing withdrawal symptoms during detoxification. However, medically assisted withdrawal is not in itself "treatment." It is only the first step in the treatment process. Patients who go through medically assisted withdrawal but do not receive any further treatment show drug abuse patterns similar to those who were never treated.
Medications can help re-establish normal brain function and to prevent relapse and diminish cravings during treatment. Currently, we have medications for opioid (heroin, morphine) and tobacco (nicotine) addiction, and are developing others for treating stimulant (cocaine, methamphetamine) and cannabis (marijuana) addiction. Most people with severe addiction problems, however, use more than one drug and will require treatment for all of the substances that they abuse.
Behavioral Treatments help patients engage in the treatment process, modify their attitudes and behaviors related to drug abuse, and increase healthy life skills. These treatments can also enhance the effectiveness of medications and help people stay in treatment longer. Treatment for drug abuse and addiction can be delivered in many different settings using a variety of behavioral approaches.
Outpatient behavioral treatment offers programs for patients who visit a clinic at regular intervals. Most of the programs involve individual or group drug counseling. Some programs also offer other forms of behavioral treatment such as:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy, which seeks to help patients recognize, avoid, and cope with the situations in which they are most likely to abuse drugs.
- Multidimensional family therapy, which addresses a range of influences on the drug abuse patterns of adolescents and is designed for them and their families.
- Motivational interviewing, which capitalizes on the readiness of individuals to change their behavior and enter treatment.
- Motivational incentives (contingency management), which uses positive reinforcement to encourage abstinence from drugs.
Residential treatment programs can also be very effective, especially for those with more severe problems. For example, therapeutic communities (TCs) are highly structured programs in which patients remain at a residence, typically for 6 to 12 months. Patients in TCs may include those with relatively long histories of drug addiction, involvement in serious criminal activities, and seriously impaired social functioning. TCs are now also being designed to accommodate the needs of women who are pregnant or have children. The focus of the TC is on the re-socialization of the patient to a drug-free, crime-free lifestyle.
For more information about drug abuse and addiction, visit the NIDA website.
* Data are from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (formerly known as the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse), which is an annual survey of Americans age 12 and older conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. This survey is available online at www.samhsa.gov and from the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information at 800-729-6686.