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Addiction FAQs

Published on 05. 01. 2014

Is substance abuse a voluntary behavior?

The initial decision to take drugs is usually voluntary. However, when addiction takes over, the ability to exert self-control becomes impaired. Brain-imaging studies from addicted individuals show physical changes in areas of the brain that are critical for judgment, decision making, learning , memory, and behavior control. Scientists believe that these changes alter the way the brain works and may help explain the compulsive and destructive behaviors of an addicted person.


How do drugs work in the brain to produce pleasure?

Most all abused substances directly or indirectly target the brain's reward system by flooding the circuit with dopamine, a neurotransmitter present in regions of the brain that regulate movement, emotion, cognition, motivation, and feelings of pleasure. The overstimulation of this system, which rewards our natural behaviors, produces the euphoric effects sought by people who abuse drugs and teaches them to repeat the behavior.


How many people die from drug use?

The CDC reports that there were almost 29,000 unintentional overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2009.


Comparison of Relapse Rates Between Drug Addiction and Other Chronic Illnesses

Percentage of Patients Who Relapse


Relapse rates for drug-addicted patients are compared with those suffering from diabetes, hypertension, and asthma. Relapse is common and similar across these illnesses (as is adherence to medication). Thus, drug addiction should be treated like any other chronic illness, with relapse serving as a trigger for renewed intervention.


Can addiction be treatedsuccessfully?

Yes. Addiction is a treatable, chronic disease that can be managed successfully. Research shows that combining behavioral therapy with medications, where available, is the best way to ensure success for most patients. Treatment approaches must be tailored to address each patient's abuse patterns and related medical, psychiatric, and social problems.


  • Individuals need to be engaged in treatment for an adequate length of time. For example, participation in outpatient or residential programs on a very limited basis will have little or no effectiveness.
  • Treatment for many chronic conditions involves daily decisions about issues such as diet, exercise, or medication. Similarly, “recovery” from addiction is a dynamic process that requires a person to decide to “stay sober” one day at a time. Recovery is a long-term effort, often requiring multiple episodes of treatment.
  • Addiction often occurs simultaneously with other physical or mental health problems. The treatment plan must take those into consideration.
  • Treatment programs work better if they are tailored to the person’s characteristics and needs. No single type of treatment is appropriate for everyone.
  • Treatment must be reassessed periodically so it can be adjusted as needed.



Source: McLellan et al., JAMA, 284:1689-1695, 2000.



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