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The Disease Model of Addiction

Looking at The Disease Model Of Addiction

Addiction has been a fact of life since humans began to use alcohol and drugs. The effects of addiction were poorly understood. Misuse of alcohol or other substances was sometimes seen as the work of dark supernatural forces. In other societies, those who “drank too much” were said to have made bad moral choices. In the 20th century, scientists began to study the effects of drug and alcohol use on the human body. Today, the medical community has largely adopted the disease model of addiction. This model identifies addiction to drugs and alcohol as a disease requiring medical treatment. What is the disease model of addiction? What are the other models used to explain how addiction works? Here we will explore:

  • How addiction affects the body
  • The role of treatment
  • Other addiction models in studies

How Addiction Affects the Body


The human body is controlled entirely by the brain. In a healthy body, the brain sends out pleasure/reward signals for activities like exercise, sleep, and eating. Addictive substances hijack the brain’s functions to reward substance use. When the substance is first used, the brain sends out these pleasure/reward signals in the form of a “high.” Over time, continued use rewires the brain to depend on the substance to function. This dependence is called addiction. When the brain no longer detects the presence of the substance, it sends out distress signals. These signals are known as withdrawal. Withdrawal symptoms can vary based on the substance, but generally they include:

  • Anxiety or depression
  • Fever
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Tremors
  • Sweating

Addiction As A Disease

Research in the field of substance misuse and addiction is ongoing. However, most medical experts agree that addiction meets the definition of a disease. Alcohol addiction is known as Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) and substance addiction as Substance Use Disorder (SUD).  Simply put, no one can simply choose not to live with a disease once they have it. This also means that the patient struggling with addiction is not at fault. No one deserves to be shamed or punished simply for living with a disease.

The Role Of Treatment

Like other diseases, medical treatment options are available for patients living with AUD and SUD. Taken together, these treatments are as effective as treatments for other medical conditions.  Treatment efforts generally focus on the following three phases:

  • Medically Supervised Detox
  • Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT)
  • Therapy

Medically Supervised Detox

The first step to successful treatment is to rid the body of substance. The safest and most comfortable way to detox is with medical supervision. Medical staff will administer medication to lessen withdrawal symptoms while the body purges itself. Generally, this process lasts 1-2 weeks, but can vary based on each patient’s needs.

Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT)

Addiction can cause a variety of health problems. Often, patients with SUD or AUD have other health problems as well that have gone untreated. In MAT, patients will continue to see a doctor and take medication as needed during treatment. The patient’s days will be spent either with the medical team, in therapy,  or in 12 step meetings. In a residential program, the patient will stay on site 24 hours a day. This allows a medical team to provide constant care if needed. In a  Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP), patients will go to treatment  and stay at a sober living house at night. Here they will have all of the comforts of home without the stress of staying away from substances.


To successfully treat patients for addiction, therapy must be used along with medication. In therapy, patients learn their triggers and develop coping strategies. Many programs, such as the one at Midwood Recovery, offer trauma informed therapy. Most patients living with addiction have experienced some form of trauma in their lives. Trauma therapy allows care teams to help patients deal with these root causes.

Other Models Of Addiction

Today, the disease model of addiction is the generally accepted model for treatment. There are other models that have been studied as well. The moral model of addiction generally states that patients have a choice whether or not to use. This model is generally considered outdated. However, some do consider the first use of an addictive substance as a choice. Other models include:

  • The Psycho-Dynamic Model – problems from childhood inform actions taken as adults
  • The Socio-Cultural Model – addiction is a product of the society where the patient lives
  • The Public Health Model – drug use in society cannot be stopped, but can only be managed

Contact Us Today

If you are currently living with SUD or AUD, you are not alone. Your medical condition is not your fault, and there are effective treatment options available. Contact us today to get the level of care you deserve.

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