This week we are thankful to have a guest blogger, Mark A. McGrail, M.D., Director of Addiction Medicine, Cherokee Health Systems. 

Addiction Medicine is the specialty of medicine that is focused on treating patients who suffer from the disease of addiction. While that description may sound very limited, treating the disease of addiction means treating everything about the disease. This includes treatment that specifically targets the person’s addiction, such as using methadone or buprenorphine in the treatment of opioid addiction, but also includes addressing and treating the medical and psychological conditions that often accompany addiction and those that affect, or are affected by, addiction. Not only are the targets of addiction treatment broad, so are the types of treatment. Forms of treatment include psychological therapy and counseling; social interventions such as obtaining safe, stable housing and transportation for medical appointments; participation in mutual and self-help groups (for example, Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous and Celebrate Recovery); and medications for certain addictive diseases as well as for medical and psychological conditions that may also be present. Every person who suffers from addiction is a unique individual; therefore, treatment for that person is also unique. The practice of Addiction Medicine means developing a treatment plan that is right for that individual and is the product of an honest and trusting partnership between the patient and the treatment team. Addiction Medicine treats the whole person, mind and body.

In 1849, a Swedish physician named Magnus Huss wrote this about alcoholism: “These symptoms are formed in such a particular way that they form a disease group in themselves and thus merit being designated and described as a definite disease….” Despite being written nearly 200 years ago, considering alcoholism and other addictions as diseases has not always been the case. Even today, some people consider addiction nothing more than a weakness or character flaw; if an addicted person wanted to stop using alcohol and/or other drugs, he or she should just simply stop. Thankfully, we now fully understand that is not the truth – just ask anyone who suffers from addiction. Over the last fifty years, extensive research has dramatically improved our knowledge of the complex interaction between genetics, biology, and environment in the development of addiction. We now confidently define addiction as a chronic brain disease that has periods of remission and relapse, and is a disease much like other diseases with which people may be more familiar. For example, many people know that diabetes is a chronic disease that is affected by genetic, lifestyle, and environmental factors just like addiction. Diabetes is best treated with behavioral therapy to support lifestyle changes that lead to increasing exercise and weight loss and with medications like insulin; behavioral therapy and medications are also the standards of care for treating addiction. As we have specialists who treat diabetes and all of the conditions that go with it, we also have addiction medicine specialists who provide that same level of comprehensive care to the patient with addiction.

Every patient who suffers from addiction is entitled to compassionate and professional care delivered by a team of expert healthcare providers and Addiction Medicine provides that care. If you or someone you know suffers from addiction, talk to your healthcare provider about finding the right care for this treatable chronic disease.