What is Addiction?

“Addiction is a chronic disease of the brain and it’s one that we have to treat the way we would any other chronic illness: with skill, with compassion and with urgency,”

Former Surgeon General, Vivek H. Murthy, M.D.

Addiction is a Chronic Disease, Not a Moral Failing

In a November 2016 report, former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, M.D., publicly confirmed what researchers have known for years: Addiction is a chronic illness accompanied by significant changes in the brain. Addiction does not occur because of moral weakness, a lack of willpower or an unwillingness to stop. This finding stems from decades of work investigating the effects of substance use on the brain.

Medical Definition

According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, 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 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.

Three other things to know about addiction:

  • It's progressive - if unaddressed, it often will get worse
  • It's a chronic disease - there is no cure, but it can be managed successfully
  • It can be fatal