The Landscape of Addiction in 2017

addiction opioidsOne of my favorite activities is reading. I read a wide variety of things, some of the most interesting things come from magazines that are not medical. Time magazine regularly has interesting stories of health.  Science, a bi-weekly publication, routinely has articles on a wide range of subjects that challenge the core of what one thought was fact. National Geographic regularly throws in medical stories. A couple years ago they had a great summary on marijuana, and recently now they had a great article on addiction. Medical journals are often a somewhat dry and boring read, but they do allow one to keep up-to-date with current research. Sometimes these other magazines have extremely valuable information as well.

The September 2017 National Geographic lead story is on The Science of Addiction. The problem is more than just opioids, it is a vast variety of problems from smoking to gambling and including all kinds of drugs. Addiction is a very complex process in the brain, and is definitely a disease and not a moral failing. Different types of addictions may affect a variety of brain regions. The processes involve disruptions in pathways responsible for learning, emotion, desire, regulation, and cognition among many neural events. It can change chemical, hormonal, and electrical paths in the brain. Addiction becomes abnormal learning in the brain with the reward being the addictive activity.

Addiction And Our Brains

All addiction has its roots in the primitive regions of the brain. They have to do with our need to survive, and they all involve our senses like sight, smell and taste. Critical in addiction is the neurotransmitter dopamine and that stimulates brain motivation. Those lacking dopamine often are depressed. Further, Parkinson’s disease has a lack of dopamine, and when given to some patients, it causes problems with an addiction like gambling. When something is addictive, it stimulates the dopamine pathways in the brain and is a very positive reward. The dopamine reward is so strong in the brain, people lose the control of impulses and the ability to inhibit behavior even if it is self-destructive.  

Since there are many things that are now considered true addictions, it is likely there are many different strategies to treat them. For drugs, often there are medications that can block the pleasure from the drug and prevent withdrawals. For alcohol, there are drugs that make drinking nauseating. There are also numerous counseling strategies and psychological-type interventions to deal with the behavioral components of addiction. There are also some new novel strategies including electrical and magnetic stimulation of specific areas of the brain to treat addiction.

The problem of drug addiction or any type of addictive behavior is caused by abnormal function and rewards in the brain. Pain and the problems associated with the medications taken can cause addiction, but this isn’t always the case. Taking opioid medications does lead to dependence and tolerance of the drugs that cause them to lose effectiveness. Opioids can also change a person’s sensitivity to pain and make a person perceive pain sensations more intensively. Therefore, in general, opioid medications have many downsides.

Lastly, opioids can be addictive and cause typical addiction issues in pain patients, but it is in only in a small percentage, somewhere between 5-20%. In most chronic pain patients, addiction and problems with opioids are generally not a typical problem. Treatment in pain patients is the same as with any other person who has opioid problems, and is often best handled by a pain care specialist.  If you are a pain patient on opioids, and taking your medication has become the focus of your life, then it is probably time for one to be treated for addiction and be off of these medications.

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Thomas Cohn, MD

Interventional pain doctor helping Minnesotans manage back, neck, foot, and other pain. Board-certified in physical medicine and rehabilitation with additional board-certification in pain management from the American Board of Anesthesiology (ABA), the American Board of Interventional Pain Physicians (ABIPP) and the American Board of Pain Medicine (ABPM).