Many people view addiction as a disease, and there’s no current way to cure this disease in the way one may cure the flu, for example. There’s no medication or type of therapy that wipes out addiction and keeps it from coming back.
Instead, addiction is “a chronic brain disease that has potential for recurrence and recovery,” according to the U.S. surgeon general.
Chronic means a person has had the condition for a long time or that it can recur. The longer people have conditions such as addictions, the more difficult they can be to treat. Long-term active substance use increases risks because it exposes the brain and body to larger amounts of drugs or alcohol.
Addictions to drugs or alcohol can change the brain, sometimes for life. After they complete an addiction treatment program and work to stay sober, people might still feel compelled to use drugs or alcohol and relapse from their sobriety. If they don’t receive assistance or work to stay sober, the pull of addiction can be even stronger. Furthermore, relapses can immediately turn into complete addictions.
A hard truth: there is no cure for addiction
Relapses from sobriety are common. One study compared the relapse rates of substance use disorders to other diseases:
- Substance use disorders: Relapse rate of 40 to 60 percent
- Hypertension (high blood pressure): Relapse rate of 50 to 70 percent
- Asthma: Relapse rate of 50 to 70 percent
This means that about half of the people who seek treatment for addiction and become sober eventually use drugs or alcohol again.
It indicates that people who seek treatment don’t receive a cure that eliminates future substance use, because there is no such cure. It also underscores the need to treat addiction as the chronic disease it is.
What does it mean to be cured?
A cure would indicate that there’s an existing treatment that removes any current traces of addiction and eliminates the possibility of a recurrence.
That’s why discussions about curing addictions could be misleading. People could assume that once people seek treatment, they’ll be entirely free of addiction and never have to worry about facing the condition again.
Relapse rates show that this belief is far from true. Addiction is not curable. So instead of talking about curing addictions, it might be more realistic to talk about managing them.
Managing addictions can be difficult, but it is possible. Researchers have found that
- Around one-third of the people who have less than a year of sobriety will remain sober.
- Fewer than half the people who are sober for one year will relapse.
- People sober for five years have a relapse rate of under 15 percent.
This trend in lower rates of relapse among individuals who have spent longer periods in recovery, supports the notion that with practice, it can become easier to manage an addiction. Different forms of assistance can help people manage.
How to fight addiction
Many people find it easier to fight addiction if they have assistance. One study reported that people who received help to treat their alcohol addictions were more likely to stay sober three years after quitting.
Support comes in many forms:
- Loved ones can stage interventions, gatherings of concerned people, to help people with addictions realize the extent of their problems and help them find treatment options.
- Medical professionals can prescribe medications during detoxification (detox) procedures to help people withdraw from alcohol or drugs in safer, more comfortable ways.
- Therapists at rehab centers or treatment programs can work with people to explore the factors that trigger their addictions and how to address these triggers without turning to substances to cope.
- Members of sobriety support groups can meet with people to discuss their problems and develop ways to solve them while encouraging their ongoing sobriety.
No one expects people with high blood pressure, asthma, or other chronic diseases to treat their conditions by themselves. People shouldn’t expect people with addictions to go it alone. Trained professionals and evidence-based approaches can help people manage addictions and reduce the likelihood of relapses.
Recovery must be individualized – not “one size fits all”
The above options illustrate that there are many ways to address addictions and find recovery. Not all of them work for everyone.
A twenty-two year-old who has been addicted to methamphetamine (meth) for a year is different from a fifty-four-year-old with a decades-long addiction to alcohol.
They’re using different substances and have been using them for different amounts of time. There’s also a good chance that they have different life circumstances and medical conditions that could contribute to their addictions and possibly complicate treatments.
Effective rehab treatments take these factors into account. They acknowledge that people are different. So are their addictions and the way they might respond to various treatment methods.
Some people might need family therapy to examine their complicated relationships with their relatives and how these interactions have contributed to their addictions. Others might need medications to ease their withdrawal symptoms from certain drugs.
Due to these differing needs and circumstances, there isn’t a single definition of substance abuse treatment. In addition, researchers and treatment professionals are continuously modifying treatment options to incorporate new evidence and solve unique problems.
This gives individuals freedom, not restrictions, when it comes to managing addictions to drugs or alcohol.
No cure does not mean no hope
People can work with doctors, therapists, and professionals at rehab centers to determine which options might suit their needs. The options may not cure their addictions but they can help people manage them.
“All the long-term studies find that ‘treatment works’ — the majority of substance-dependent patients eventually stop compulsive use and have less frequent and severe relapse episodes,” stated the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment.
This means that treatment helps most people stop concentrating on drugs and alcohol and experiencing problems that arise from this focus. They’ll have the time, energy, finances, and health to focus on other things.
A “happy ending” is possible
By focusing on other things, people are broadening their worlds instead of narrowly concentrating on addictions.
This approach acknowledges that while people might experience cravings for drugs or alcohol or might face addiction triggers, they’re not passive victims. They can work with others to change their thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and lifestyles to manage their addictions and take control of their lives.
- addiction.surgeongeneral.gov – Key Findings: The Neurobiology of Substance Use, Misuse, and Addiction
- newsinhealth.nih.gov – Biology of Addiction: Drugs and Alcohol Can Hijack Your Brain
- drugabuse.gov – Media Guide – The Science of Drug Use and Addiction: The Basics
- drugabuse.gov – Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction – Treatment and Recovery
- researchgate.net – An Eight-Year Perspective on the Relationship Between the Duration of Abstinence and Other Aspects of Recovery
- ncbi.nlm.nih.gov – Rates and Predictors of Relapse After Natural and Treated Remission from Alcohol Use Disorders
- ncbi.nlm.nih.gov – Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 39 – Chapter 1 Substance Abuse Treatment and Family Therapy
- drugabuse.gov – Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition) – Types of Treatment Programs
- ncbi.nlm.nih.gov – A Guide to Substance Abuse Services for Primary Care Clinicians – Chapter 5 – Specialized Substance Abuse Treatment Programs
Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.
Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.