New definition of addiction may lead to additional treatment options of pain medication abusers

Addiction is a problem that has been growing in the U.S. as drug abuse continues to rise, particularly in the area of pain medications.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in 2009 nearly 16 million Americans aged 12 or older admitted to using prescription pain medications such as Vicodin or Oxycontin for nonmedical reasons.

A follow up study conducted by the organization in 2010 found that 2.1 percent of 8th graders, 4.6 percent of 10th graders and 5.1 percent of 12th graders had abused OxyContin for nonmedical reasons at least once in the past year. These numbers show what a large problem pain medication abuse is in this country, along drug use in general.

Recently, The American Society of Addiction Medicine released a new definition of addiction, focusing on the opinion that it is a chronic brain disorder rather than a behavioral problem or simple lack of self-control.

"At its core, addiction isn't just a social problem or a moral problem or a criminal problem. It's a brain problem whose behaviors manifest in all these other areas," said Michael Miller, MD, former president of ASAM. "Many behaviors driven by addiction are real problems and sometimes criminal acts. But the disease is about brains, not drugs. It's about underlying neurology, not outward actions."

The new definition was created based on the work of 80 addiction experts and clinicians along with neroscientists. The idea behind the description aims to educate the public about the concept of a disease rather than the problem. According to experts, addiction is the primary disease, meaning it was not caused by emotional or psychological problems. The researchers are hoping that it will now be listed along with other chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart conditions.

Decades of research have determined that addiction affects neurotransmission and interactions in the part of the brain that controls reward response. This leads to people associating drugs, sex or alcohol as the only thing that will trigger the feeling of reward, rather than healthy behavior such as doing good deeds or succeeding in work or academic pursuits.

"The disease creates distortions in thinking, feelings and perceptions, which drive people to behave in ways that are not understandable to others around them. Simply put, addiction is not a choice. Addictive behaviors are a manifestation of the disease, not a cause," said researcher Raju Hajela, MD.

Scientists stressed that choice is still an important factor to addiction. Since there is no cure for this disease other than learning to make healthier decisions, addicts need to understand the condition they have and act accordingly. Defining addiction as a disease and a neurological problem does not take all of the responsibility off people who abuse drugs.

Researchers state that they are hoping this will open the door to more discussion on how to treat addicts, and encourage friends and family members of drug abusers to understand the problem on a deeper level.  

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