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Treating Addiction Like Other Chronic Diseases

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Rural Americans now cite the opioid addiction epidemic on par with jobs and the economy as the most pressing problems facing their communities. That's according to an NPR poll released this past week. A new NOVA special brings viewers face to face with that reality. 

NOVA's new special is called "Addiction." It explores the biology and chemistry of addiction as well as promising new discoveries and trends in treatment.

The stories in the documentary are very much on the minds of Americans across the country, and from all different demographics. So why make a documentary on this issue now? 

"I hadn't seen a documentary in quite a while that really tried to explain the science of addiction: How does the brain change when it's chronically exposed to drugs? Why do scientists say it's a brain disorder and not a moral failing? What can science tell us about what's the most effective treatment?" Sarah Holt, the writer, producer, and director of the series said.

One takeaway from the series that Holt emphasized was that there are incredibly effective medications that can help patients deal with withdrawal and cravings. She said that when people take drugs to help them treat their addiction, they're actually able to get up and go to work, and they're able to re-engage with their families and their communities. 

The medications that are shown to help are methadone and buprenorphine. According to Laura Kehoe, the medical director of theSubstance Use Disorder Bridge Clinicand an attending physician on the inpatient addiction consult team at Massachusetts General Hospital, they lower the overdose risk by 50 to 80 percent in people who are offered the medication.

“There are decades of irrefutable evidence that addiction is a brain disorder, a disorder of brain neuro circuitry," Kehoe said. 

But unfortunately, stigma is still an issue that those with addiction can face, even from organizations aiming to help. 

"For years, one of the only treatments available was the 12 step approach of Alcoholics Anonymous and they really shunned the use of any drugs - and the fact now that we have medications that are highly effective - oftentimes they will say you're just trading one drug for another. In fact, that's not the definition of addiction, addiction is compulsively consuming a drug despite negative consequences," Holt said.

Treatment though, regardless of the type, can't be successful unless medical professionals truly listen to their clients. 

"Starting where the patient feels that they can start and really meeting them where they are and then helping to move them along,” Kehoe said, is key to real rehabilitation.


Web content produced by Liz Lerner. 

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Elsa Partan is a producer and newscaster with CAI. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.