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Addiction, a Chronic Disease

September is Recovery Month, but for many individuals the road to recovery is filled with landmines that blows up the pathway to recovery.

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Addiction, a Chronic Disease

September is Recovery Month, but for many individuals the road to recovery is filled with landmines that blows up the pathway to recovery. Although there are many reasons that people relapse, let’s focus on how the disease is treated and a strategic shift that needs to happen to improve recovery results.

If you have a heart condition and go into the hospital for a cardiac catherization or bypass surgery, your immediate risk of dying from a heart attack goes way down. You likely developed heart disease over time, and now know that if you don’t have a long-term plan to modify your diet, exercise regularly, take your medicine and take care of yourself the chance of having another heart attack and going back to the hospital becomes inevitable.

After the hospital stay heart disease is treated as a chronic condition that requires a lifetime of lifestyle changes, medication management and diet and exercise to stay healthy and out of the hospital. The acute condition you were admitted for was resolved, but there was also a long-term plan in place to stay healthy.

Much in the same way conditions like heart disease or diabetes are managed as chronic conditions, we need to look at the disease of addiction the same way.

Rehab only addresses the acute symptoms of the disease. You entered the hospital with chest pains and it’s the hospital’s job is to stabilize you and treat the acute symptoms of your condition to keep you alive. Rehab is also set up to treat the acute symptoms of addiction by getting drugs and alcohol out of your system through safe detox, stabilizing you, and starting to educate you about the disease. Rehab is not designed to manage the chronic condition, only the acute care needed short-term.

Longer term treatment is needed to manage the chronic condition. When someone leaves the hospital after having heart surgery, they often go to another rehabilitation program to regain their strength and begin their recovery process. The same philosophy should be true with addiction management. Once the acute symptoms are behind you from time in rehab, a longer-term treatment plan has to be in place to maintain the disease and prevent relapse and readmission.

Lifestyle changes are part of long-term disease management. A heart patient knows he has to change his diet, exercise, manage his stress and adjust his lifestyle. The same is true for someone suffering with addiction. Certain foods like sugar should be avoided and regular exercise is helpful to manage stress. Keeping a healthy routine and avoiding the triggers that lead to relapse are critical.

Strategies to manage co-existing disorders are critical. Because addiction is a brain disorder, it often occurs side by side with other brain disorders like depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder. Managing addiction without a plan to manage the other disorders will result in a greater struggle to stay healthy and in recovery.

My Takeaways

My daughter Laura had many visits to rehab, but never a good wellness and disease management plan to keep her chronic disease at bay. For 15 years, she entered treatment, had her acute symptoms addressed, then relapsed and readmitted over and over again. She was in good company as 85% of patients relapse in the first year after treatment. Unfortunately, if left untreated or treated improperly, addiction often results in death as it did with Laura when she relapsed, overdosed and died in December 2017.

Reframing and thinking about addiction as a disease that requires long-term management is the first step in improving what are clearly substandard results in how it’s treated.


September, Recovery, Recovery month, Treatment, Relapse