Addiction treatment can go a long way to give someone their old life back – but more importantly, it ventures to help people give themselves a chance at a completely new, and better life.
Sometimes, however, things are broken during addiction that can’t be fixed. The repercussions of addiction are not always reversible. To understand what can and can’t be changed through addiction treatment, you have to know how addiction affects the mind, body, and brain.
One thing is for sure: addiction can be treated. And, with proper care and support, you can life a fulfilling life without relapsing. That being said, there are serious long-term side effects to recurring drug use – and not all of them can be reversed.
The Short and Long-Term Effects of Addiction
In short, drug use alters the brain temporarily. This change is reinforced through repeated use and leads to addiction. Other effects that are common are rising drug tolerance (the drug loses effectiveness) and withdrawal symptoms when sober (as the system tries to adjust and recuperate after the changes introduced by recurring drug use).
Drugs have different effects, both in the brain and in the rest of the human body. Alcohol, for example, is a carcinogen and is metabolized by the liver into acetaldehyde. Most of the acetaldehyde is then eliminated from the body. During the process, the liver is damaged. Long-term alcohol use can lead to permanent liver damage (liver cirrhosis), greatly increased risk of cancer throughout the body, as well as long-term to permanent damage to the brain.
Meanwhile, methamphetamine is neurotoxic and damages the serotonergic pathways in the brain, potentially leading to anhedonia – the growing inability to feel pleasure. Meth is also a powerful stimulant, causing loss of appetite, straining the heart, and increasing the risk of stroke (when blood is no longer flowing into the brain, causing brain damage and death).
The most common short-term effect of drug use is a high. But in high dosages, drugs can cause an overdose. Not all overdoses cause death, but they do greatly damage the body and leave a lasting effect. For example, a heroin overdose can potentially leave a person paralyzed or brain damaged due to oxygen deprivation.
Some drugs are harder to overdose on alone – like anti-anxiety medication – but in combination with another drug (alcohol, for example), the effects of both drugs combine and create a very potent and deadly mixture. Most street drugs are also cut and mixed with additives, including fentanyl in the case of heroin. Fentanyl is responsible for a serious rise in heroin overdoses in the last few years, due to its extreme potency.
In the long-term, drugs still kill – but slower. Long-term drug use causes a steady decrease in grey matter, leaving a person less capable of critical thinking, problem solving, risk assessment, and other cognitive functions. Meanwhile, addiction itself can lead to other health issues including malnutrition, sexually-transmitted diseases, IV drug-related diseases, rapid weight loss/weight gain, as well as cuts and lesions caused by incessant scratching and poor hygiene.
Some of these effects can be reversed – others cannot. This depends largely on the cause of the damage, the extent of the damage, and where the damage is. While drugs affect the body, mind, and brain, addiction begins in the mind and brain.
The Psychological Effects of Addiction
Addiction leaves a person more likely to struggle with another mental disorder. Long-term addiction can also expose a person to traumatic incidents and serious long-term emotional damage. However, most of the emotional effects of addiction are reversible with family support, professional counseling, and a long-term commitment to therapy.
Addiction itself is never necessarily ‘cured’, but it’s possible to go a whole lifetime without relapsing after a certain point. That ‘point’ is different for everyone, and the road to getting there – achieving comfort and confidence in sobriety – is different for every recovering addict.
The Neurological Effects of Addiction
Alcohol, cocaine, marijuana, meth, tobacco – these are all wildly different drugs, but they all have something in common: long-term use robs a person of cognitive capacity and slowly but surely changes and damages the brain. This accounts for loss of risk-assessment and increased risk taking, as well as general decreases in cognitive function. However, the good news is that this damage can be reversed.
Long-term research shows that abstinence and recovery help the mind and the brain recover from addiction. There are exceptions, of course. Damage done to the brain through oxygen deprivation or blood deprivation (stroke) cannot be reversed. When parts of the brain die, they can’t come back. The brain exhibits extreme amounts of plasticity, however, allowing it to rework sections of existing tissue to increase cognitive function. That being said, paralysis caused by severe cerebral hypoxia isn’t something that time can heal.
The Physical Effects of Addiction
Damage to your organs through drug use can be largely reversed through medical treatment, a good diet, and lots of time. However, there are cases when addiction can lead to extensive organ damage and eventual organ failure, requiring a transplant or medical intervention (such as dialysis in the case of kidney failure).
Whether or not the damage done to the body through drug use can be reversed depends on what kind of damage it is.
For example, IV drugs can cause rhabdomyolysis, which is a syndrome of symptoms caused by muscle fiber death and renal failure due to dead tissue in the bloodstream. Unless treated soon, this can cause a painful death. Meanwhile, opioid overuse can at times cause hyperalgesia – an increased sensitivity to pain, including chronic pain. Opioid-induced hyperalgesia may go away with reduced use or must be treated with a non-opioid painkiller.
The way your body responds to any given drug is highly individual. Meanwhile, indirect damage to the body caused by drug use (such as injuries suffered from a car accident) may or may not be permanent.
Life is worth living to the fullest, and the sooner a person seeks help for their addiction, the more of life they’re likely to enjoy. As fun as the ride might seem while it lasts, the long-term repercussions of severe drug use are nowhere near worth any time spent being addicted.
There is no good reason not to seek out help. Going cold turkey alone and trying to stay sober is not a good game plan, making a relapse highly likely. Meanwhile, withdrawal symptoms are often not just uncomfortable, but can be fatal in the case of alcohol and other depressants. Having medical professionals present while going through withdrawal and detox can save a life.
Drug rehab exists for the well-off and the less fortunate alike, and addiction doesn’t discriminate. Anyone can get addicted for a wide variety of reasons, regardless of willpower, moral compass, or overall happiness. Addiction is not something people openly choose, and it isn’t a condemnation of immoral actions – it’s a brain disease caused by interactions between the brain and the overuse of certain substances, alongside factors such as psychiatric health and frequency of drug use. And like other brain diseases, addiction needs to be treated by a trained professional, with time, and if needed, medication.
Regardless of whether you or someone you love is addicted, convincing them to seek out help is critical. While not all effects of addiction can be reversed, life is still best spent sober and in good health than struggling with addiction day in and day out.