What is the physical/medical side of addiction?

Shelly Haberman
Physical medical side of addiction

Ann Frintner, CSAC, behavioral health inpatient addiction counselor

The medical side of addiction is what changes go on in the brain when addiction occurs. How do you recognize symptoms, and take care of them or help someone you love to recognize them?

The recognizable symptoms with any disease of the brain are not physical but behavioral. It is essential to understand that the behaviors that are out of character for the person can be and usually are the symptoms of the disease. They often follow predictable patterns, and there are ways of taking care of them and putting the disease in remission.

It is always easiest for me to understand and to help others understand if we can compare it to what it looks like in another disease. Let’s say a mother has a child with diabetes. Over time, the mother learns to recognize when the child’s blood sugar is off just by looking at the child. The child may look tired or cranky. The child may have extra energy and get “crazy” or sassy or be whining and tearful. The mother knows that the blood sugar is off and will check it to see how much medication to give.

Well the same thing happens with addiction. The person with the addiction, behaviors will change and those who know them well will be able to tell this only they think the person is using. The person may isolate or become agitated (cranky). The person may have more energy or be tired. As with the diabetic, the behaviors won’t be the same with every diabetic even if they are in the same family. Because it is the physical changes that cause the behaviors in the person not the “personality” of the person or the person “choosing to be that way.” With addiction, there is just no way to test the brain and see what is going on.

If you take someone with clinical depression, when the depression is active the person may stay in bed, not eat, not bath, isolate. All behavioral. Someone who does not understand clinical depression will say to that person…. Just get up, shower. I will take you to lunch, I will buy, and then we will go shopping and you will feel better.

Anyone who has experienced clinical depression knows that it does not work this way. If it would really work to just get out of bed shower and go to lunch, they would - of course - do that as no one would want to lie in bed all day, and not eat or socialize and be sick. So when someone says to an addict “just don’t use anymore,” it is usually felt as shame because if they really could do that of course they would. They would not choose to be sick.

If you would like to gain more education on the medical/physical side of addiction, you can talk with an addiction counselor or take the family addiction education class offered through the Health Resource Center at St. Agnes Hospital.

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