September 14, 2010 in Features

Dr. Hideg: Addiction has many far-reaching consequences

Alisa Hideg
 

September is National Alcohol and Drug Addiction Recovery Month, which reminds me of patients who have told me, “I love being sober.”

Hearing this and knowing I gave support to someone when they were ready for it is wonderful. But it is important to remember that substance abuse frequently hurts more than just the addict.

High-risk behaviors such as driving while intoxicated and unprotected sex can hurt or kill friends, family or total strangers.

A friend of mine was hit by a drunken driver a few years ago. She walked away from the accident, but her car was totaled and she was significantly injured.

So how do you know if you or someone you know is being hurt by addiction?

It is important to realize that addiction can happen to anyone. It happens unintentionally and people usually do not realize they are addicted to something until it has been going on for a while.

As complicated as addiction is, it boils down to an uncontrollable urge to swallow, drink, inject, smoke or sniff a substance that will cause unpleasant physical or psychological effects if stopped suddenly. Addiction research is aimed at gaining a greater understanding of the causes and how to use medications to help.

Many substances can overstimulate the pleasure center of the brain while others dull pain (emotional or physical) in abnormal ways, causing the addict to continue to crave those substances and “rewiring” the brain over time. The good news is that the brain can at least partially recover normal functioning with abstinence from use of drugs or alcohol.

There is a genetic component to addiction, and if there is an addict in your family you are at an increased risk of becoming addicted to a substance with even very limited exposure.

Habit is another aspect of addiction. A person may associate using with certain environments or people and being in one of those environments or with those people may trigger intense cravings, even after many years of abstinence.

Substances that people abuse include alcohol, marijuana, inhalants, cocaine, amphetamines, heroin and prescription medications.

Many young people think prescription medications are safe to use for nonmedical purposes because they are prescribed by doctors, but they can cause serious consequences, including death.

A good way to detect a substance abuse problem is to ask the “CAGE” questions. These questions were originally developed to detect possible alcoholism, but they can be reworded to check for any type of substance abuse.

The questions are, “Have you ever”:

• felt the need to cut down on your use

• felt annoyed by criticism of your use

• had guilty feelings about your use

• taken a morning eye opener?

“Yes” to one of these questions may indicate that there is a problem, and “Yes” to more than one almost always indicates a problem.

Once you know there is a problem, it is important to get help. The paths to sobriety are many and varied, but two common threads I have seen no matter how a person gets sober, are that the person must deeply want to quit and that support of professionals, friends and family make a big difference in a person’s success at quitting.

Your doctor can help with treating problems like depression, insomnia and anxiety that may be coexisting with addiction. A therapist or counselor can help with underlying psychological issues that may have paved the road to addiction.

Support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (www.aa.org, 509-624-1442) and Narcotics Anonymous (www.na.org, 509-325-5045) have helped hundreds of thousands of people become and stay sober.

Washington state has Alcohol/Drug Help Lines (adult: 800-562-1240, teen: 877-345-TEEN) that you can call for free, confidential referrals and information.

Al-anon and Alateen (www.al-anon.alateen .org, 888-4AL-ANON, 888-425-2666) can help family members of addicts cope and teach them ways to help without being hurt themselves.

Sobriety can seem like a long way off for people who are affected by addiction. Remember, the long road begins with first steps: Admitting there is a problem and seeking help can get you very, very far down that road.

Dr. Alisa Hideg is a family medicine physician at Group Health’s Riverfront Medical Center in Spokane. Her column appears every other Tuesday in the Today section. Send your questions and comments to drhideg@ghc.org.


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