Understanding The Drug and Alcohol Addiction Treatment Medical Model

Monday, April 11, 2016 | By JP Emerald Coast

There are a number of methods of treatment or treatment modalities used by doctors and other health professionals. This term is often used when describing psychological or psychiatric concerns. Drug and alcohol addiction is no different, and one of these approaches is known as the medical model of addiction.

What Is the Medical Model of Addiction?

 The medical model of drug and alcohol addiction categorizes it as a disease. The American Society of Addictive Medicine defines it as follows:

“Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.

Addiction is characterized by an inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response. Like other chronic diseases, addiction often involves cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death.”

This treatment model means that drug and alcohol addiction is something that can be diagnosed based on the affected person’s behaviors. The course of the disease can be observed by physicians and other experts and its physical causes can be understood.

Addiction, often referred to as a brain disease, is a chronic illness that is often characterized by one or more relapses. Over time, a person who abuses drugs or alcohol will experience changes to the brain that make it difficult for them to think clearly and make decisions in the same manner as a person who is not addicted.

How Does the Medical Model of Addiction Treatment Assist Patients?

 For a number of people who struggle with drug and alcohol addiction, the first contact they have with the medical model of treatment is when they visit the emergency room. The Drug Abuse Warning Network (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) gathered statistics on national estimates of drug-related emergency department visits in 2011 and found the following:


  • Approximately 5 million emergency department (ED) visits were required as the result of medical emergencies due to drug use or abuse. Just over half — 51 percent — of these visits involved illicit drugs. Another 51 percent involved prescription medications being used for non-medical purposes, and 25 percent were due to people combining drugs and alcohol.
  • Of the close to 440,000 ED visits made by individuals in the under 20 age group, more than 40 percent involved alcohol use.
  • According to DAWN, there were more than 200,000 visits to emergency rooms as the result of drug-related suicide attempts. In almost every instance, a prescription drug or an over-the-counter (OTC) medication was used. The vast majority — 80 percent — of people who attempted to end their own life received some type of follow-up after their visit to the ED.
  • About 250,000 ED visits involved people seeking either detox or substance abuse treatment services. Close to 60 percent of those seen in the ED who were classified as those seeking detox services received some follow-up: 30 percent were admitted, 20 percent were referred to another treatment facility and seven percent were transferred to another facility for care.


Since this way of approaching drug and alcohol addiction treatment sees addicts as people who have a disease, doctors in the ED treat their symptoms to ensure they are medically stable. This part of the health care system is meant to deal with acute symptoms and is not set up to cope with people who are living with a chronic illness.

How the Medical Model Works

The medical model of addiction recognizes that once the crisis that brought a person to the ED for help has passed, the client is still living with a drug and alcohol addiction. The drug use — and alcohol is considered to be a drug — is a symptom of brain disease. Without appropriate treatment at a rehabilitation center, the person who leaves the ED will likely start using their drug of choice again relapsing back into active addiction.

Use of Medications

 This treatment approach may include the use of medications at times when deemed appropriate. During the detoxification or detox stage of treatment, which is supervised by medical personnel at a treatment facility, clients undergo the process of becoming free from the influence of chemicals.

During this time, they will likely experience withdrawal symptoms. Symptoms of withdrawal can range from ones that resemble the flu — nausea, stomach upset, body aches, sweating, insomnia — to more serious ones including— anxiety, depression, seizures, and suicidal thoughts.

Clients who are going through detox must be monitored closely. When appropriate, medications can be administered to treat the physical withdrawal symptoms and help a client feel more comfortable throughout this process. Medically supervised detox also helps to ensure that clients are safe during this process. In rare instances where clients experience severe withdrawal symptoms, medical personnel are available to intervene and arrange transportation to a hospital.

Medication is also used to treat clients with co-occurring mental health challenges and drug and alcohol addiction. It’s not uncommon for people living with a mental illness to also have a substance abuse problem and vice versa. Some disorders that are commonly associated with addiction are:

Our treatment facilities conduct detailed evaluations of all clients on arrival. This assessment evaluates their condition and assists in developing a detailed treatment plan. When a dual diagnosis is identified is it essential to treat both conditions concurrently. This is the way to get the best possible outcome. Medication can be prescribed to treat the mental health challenges while the client is receiving holistic treatment for drug and alcohol addiction designed to address their physical, emotional and spiritual needs.

Benefits of the Medical Model

The medical model of treating drug and alcohol addiction provides a number of benefits to clients and their families. This approach puts addiction squarely in the category of health concerns and focuses on helping clients move toward recovery.

Helps to Remove Stigma About Drug and Alcohol Addiction

 There is still a stigma around drug and alcohol addiction that is not present when discussing diabetes, heart disease or cancer. All of these health challenges have a lifestyle component attached to them in the same manner that addiction does. It is much less likely that a client who is diagnosed with one of them will be told they are responsible for their health concern or that it is the result of a “bad habit” and not a real disease, as some people living with addiction have heard from friends and family members.

The medical model explains that not everyone who experiments with drugs and alcohol becomes addicted. Similarly, not everyone with the same risk factors will develop diabetes, heart disease or cancer. There are a number of factors determining who will ultimately become symptomatic. Some of these factors are present in a person’s genetic makeup, while others have to do with their upbringing and the types of experiences they had while growing up.

Another factor that must be included is each person’s personal makeup, which includes their ability to deal with stressors in their environment. Some people develop different coping methods that do not involve turning to chemicals, or they try them and for whatever reason don’t find them effective. Others will use chemicals and be attracted to this method of dealing with stressors and continue using it to the point where they become addicted.

Calling Addiction a Disease Opens Door to Treatment

 When addiction is referred to as a disease, it allows doctors and counselors to address it as an illness to be treated. By the time a client gets to the point where they are getting detoxification services or going to a drug and alcohol treatment center, several years may have passed. During this time, the addiction has had time to take hold and develop into something the affected person no longer has control over. Unless they get professional treatment, they are unable to stop drinking or using drugs on their own.

With Treatment Comes Hope for Controlling the Disease

 Part of the disease of addiction is denial about how their actions affect others. Treatment assists clients as they learn to take responsibility for their actions when they were actively using. The goal of treatment is not to punish an addict, but rather to help them understand they need to adopt a new way of thinking and living in recovery.

Addiction affects many different types of people. These are not bad people who are so deeply flawed that they are beyond hope, but people who have a disease that can be treated.

The medical model of addiction stresses that addiction is a chronic disease that can be controlled in recovery, but that addicts can never say that they are “cured.” Recovery is described as a journey, not a destination.

Other Addiction Treatment Models

There are a number of other treatment models of addiction and recovery used to explain why certain people develop substance abuse challenges.

Education Model of Addiction

The education model of addiction puts forward the idea that the lack of information about the possible dangers that could be caused by ingesting harmful substances is behind the number of people who become addicts. If more people had this knowledge, they would make better choices about their personal behavior and their health.

While this model of addiction does address the important subject of education as a deterrent to trying harmful substances before they can become a problem, it doesn’t say anything about what happens after a person starts using. The medical model explains why some people become addicts and offers them hope that recovery is possible.

Developmental Model of Addiction

The developmental model states that immaturity is the underlying cause of addiction. Humans continue to develop throughout life. However, their most important segment of development happens during childhood and adolescence. As they move through these stages, they develop the skills they need to:

  • Delay acting for immediate gratification of impulses
  • Learn to think about situations rationally to make wise decisions
  • Consider their actions in terms of their relationships with others and their impact on society

For some people, a lack of development results in a failure to mature and rise above the level of pursuing selfish desires. They focus on achieving immediate pleasure, which is the payoff that results from addictive behavior. Another concern with this type of person is that they often fail to consider the consequences of their choices on themselves or the people around them.

This lack of “big picture” thinking indicates the person’s lack of maturity or development and needs to be addressed in treatment.

The developmental model of addiction assumes that if an addict can somehow accelerate their emotional maturity, or “grow up,” they can learn to make better choices and the addiction will not be a problem any longer, while the medical model states that the addiction is a chronic brain disease the addict has no control over.

Sociocultural Model of Addiction and Recovery

The sociocultural model of addiction looks at the cultural standards of a society to get clues to the way it may cause addiction. The U.S. tends to tolerate entertainment featuring performers portraying people under the influence of drugs and alcohol in popular culture. Someone can be arrested several times for DUI or DWI in several states before the penalties become very serious.

One of the risk factors for addiction is poverty. In communities where people have fewer chances to advance in life, they are more likely to be bored and frustrated at their personal situation. Daily living is a stressful experience that does not ever end, and a person caught up in a constant struggle to survive is more likely to be looking for some type of “escape,” which can be in the form of checking out by using drugs or alcohol.

This model relies on the environment and the culture as the reason for the addiction, as opposed to something in the addict’s makeup. It doesn’t fully explain why someone who comes from a “good” area or neighborhood would become addicted since we know that addiction affects people from all socioeconomic groups and not just those from areas where money may be a problem. The medical model is one that could be applied to people from all backgrounds since it does not rely on a person’s background or income level to come into play.

Find a drug Treatment Center for Yourself or a Loved One

If you are looking for addiction treatment for yourself or a loved one, ask plenty of questions before you make your choice. One of the things you should not be hesitant to ask about is the center’s approach to treatment. You’ll want to understand the facility’s philosophy about how addiction services are provided in order to make an educated decision. To find out more about JourneyPure Emerald Coast’s programs, contact us today.

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