If you are currently suffering from a substance use disorder or are close to someone who does then you’re probably curious about the exact definition of addictionology.
You may have heard the term thrown around on internet chat groups or have seen it mentioned in your research of what exactly goes into treating these types of disorders. And while you feel like you might have a pretty good sense of everything the term represents, you may not know about how this type of research has helped to change the concept of addiction treatment entirely.
Below, we’ll help you better understand what addictionology really is and how it’s changed over the years.
Historically, addiction has been treated as the result of a choice, a lack of willpower, or some sort of moral failing. The modern (and scientifically backed) view, on the other hand, has shown that addiction is more akin to an actual physical disease.
Addictionology, then, is the scientific study of addiction using this approach to substance use disorders. Instead of simply tackling the psychological and social branches that contribute to addiction, this type of study and treatment encompasses the entire spectrum of the disorder, what the American Society of Addiction Medicine calls the bio-psycho-social framework.
This shift from a behavioral disorder to a more complex one has helped to encourage new treatment options that are actually proven to work.
So, What Is an Addictionologist?
Also known as an “addiction medicine physician,” an addictionologist is a physician that specializes in the providing of medical care for anyone with a substance use disorder. They take into account the full spectrum of addiction (bio-psycho-social) rather than just the behavioral or spiritual aspects such as with 12 step programs or narcotics anonymous.
These individuals are highly educated medical doctors and are normally considered experts in their fields. Certification (the Addiction Medicine or ADM certification) has traditionally been granted by the American Board of Addiction Medicine but has recently been switched over to the American Board of Medical Specialties, the largest physician-led specialty certification organization in the country. These certifications are nationally recognized by organizations such as the American Medical Association.
Due to their qualifications and extensive knowledge of the physical and psychosocial effects of substance use disorders, certified addictionologists can help ensure your treatment program is better equipped to deal with the difficulties that rehabilitation typically brings with it.
During physical detox, for example, an addictionologist with certification may be able to prescribe a patient with medication to help ease the symptoms of withdrawal and prevent them from relapsing during the detoxification phase of recovery. In that same vein, they’ll also be able to determine the proper dosage of such drugs since some, like Suboxone, can become highly addictive.
Ultimately, the benefit of seeking treatment at a rehabilitation center run by certified addictionologists is that the programs there will be more likely to incorporate evidence-based methodologies that have a proven track record of treating addiction.
What’s more, one of the characteristics of addictionology is that it will typically involve the study of the entire spectrum of addiction which includes the physical aspects and psychological aspects as well as the social side.
The Full Spectrum of Addiction: Physical
Over the years, the intense study of the effects a substance use disorder can have on the body has revealed that addiction is a combination of physical, social, and behavioral disorders.
On the physical side, a substance use disorder fundamentally alters the neural pathways in an addiction sufferer’s brain. Here’s how: first, one of the main effects of many addictive substances is that they produce an enormous amount of dopamine in the brain. This powerful and widely-used neurotransmitter is responsible for a variety functions like planning, motor function, and problem solving.
Most importantly though, dopamine is the pleasure neurotransmitter. Whether that pleasure comes from a stimulating conversation, a delicious candy bar, or a runner’s high while exercising, dopamine is responsible for all of the great feelings you experience during activities you enjoy.
And since many illicit substances can create 1 to 10 times as much dopamine as other natural activities, it’s no wonder an individual can become addicted so easily. As the substance abuse continues, the body reacts to these heightened levels of dopamine by stopping its own production of the pleasure chemical and begins building up a tolerance.
As a result, a substance abuser will need more and more of the drug to reach the same high and will typically feel intense physical cravings if they can’t attain it. Thus, they become physically addicted.
The Full Spectrum of Addiction: Psychological
Addictionology also focuses on the psychological side of addiction.
While the physical aspect of many substance use disorders can be broken down into identifiable chemical components and systems, the psychological aspect is a bit harder to pinpoint. In essence, addiction psychology tries to get at the root of the addictive behavior in the first place. It could be feelings of helplessness, boredom, or trying to cope with an emotionally destructive relationship.
Recent studies have shown that other mental disorders tend to coincide with substance use disorders as well. For instance, a whopping half of all people with a diagnosable mental disorder are also addicted to alcohol or other substances. Specific psychological conditions also tend to carry with them some surprising substance use disorder statistics such as almost half of schizophrenics will concurrently have a substance use disorder.
The takeaway here is that a surprising amount of substance abusers may actually be using drugs to self-medicate. These disorders tend to feed on and exacerbate each other, making diagnosis difficult and relapse all the more likely if only one disorder is treated.
The Full Spectrum of Addiction: Social
The social aspect of addiction has long been touted as one of the most important and treating substance abuse disorders requires both active social re-evaluation and involvement.
We all know that particular social settings can lend themselves more towards abusing substances than others. Bars, for example, carry with it not only a supply of alcohol for purchase but also the connotation of conversation, excitement, and sometimes just a familiar face. Being in physical environments like these make abstaining from substance abuse much harder than if, say, you’re sitting in bed with a good book.
These settings are classified as what’s known as a “trigger.” A trigger is any physical setting or sensation that has been so strongly connected with substance use that experiencing them even a bit can bring on intense cravings.
Triggers can be absolutely anything and vary from person to person. You might experience a longing to use again from, say, returning to an old hangout. Or it could be a certain smell that you’ve associated with using. Even simply seeing a particular person might be enough to trigger the cravings.
An addictionologist will likely be better equipped to provide a you with the tactics and strategies you need to cope with or avoid entirely such triggers.
Another social aspect to addiction recovery is the necessity of incorporating and maintaining social connections in order to aid in the rehabilitation process. These may come in the form of rebuilt relationships that may have been fractured while the patient was addicted. Or they could be the continued support of and involvement with substance abuse support groups.
Regardless of where the social connections come from, it’s important to recognize that continued support is an integral factor in the probability of full recovery.
What an Addictionologist Can Do for You
By recognizing the full spectrum of addiction rather than simply identifying it as a moral or spiritual failing, an addictionologist will be able to create a multi-faceted treatment program that can make rehabilitation not only less difficult, but also more effective.
Here are a few other reasons you should look for rehabilitation centers with a certified addictionologist when you’re exploring your treatment options.
- Their knowledge of the full spectrum of addictionology will help them better identify codependent disorders (such as alcoholism and depression) and offer what’s called a dual diagnosis.
- These centers will likely incorporate extensive behavioral therapies and stress management techniques in order to reduce the chance of relapse.
- While they will be able to prescribe you powerful medications to help mitigate the effects of withdrawal, an addictionologist’s treatment methods don’t rely solely on medical detox. Instead, they’ll be more likely to include extensive counseling to truly get at the heart of your addiction.
Addictionology Treatment: The Future of Rehabilitation
The concept of addiction has gone through a lot of changes in the past few decades. Many outdated modes of thought are now becoming less frequently integral parts of treatment programs and evidence-based methodologies have taken their places.
The full spectrum approach to substance abuse that addictionology provides is quickly improving how patients are being treated for their addiction. By tackling the physical, psychological, and social aspects of substance abuse, these types of treatment plans make a drug-free life all the more possible.
American Board of Addiction Medicine (2016, April). FAQ: Recognition of Addiction Medicine by the American Board of Medical Specialties. Retrieved from https://www.abam.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/4-11-16-FAQ.pdf
American Board of Addiction Medicine (2017). How Does a Physician Become ABAM Certified in Addiction Medicine (ADM)? Retrieved from https://www.abam.net/become-certified/the-new-candidate-portal-and-application-process/faqs/faqs-18/
American Board of Medical Specialties (2017). About ABMS. Retrieved from https://www.abms.org/about-abms/
National Institute on Drug Abuse (2016, July). Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/treatment-approaches-drug-addiction
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (2017, April). Behavioral Health Treatments and Services. Retrieved from https://www.samhsa.gov/treatment