When Did People Begin to Consider Addiction a Disease?

When Did People Begin to Consider Addiction a Disease?

When Did People Begin to Consider Addiction a Disease?

Addiction is not a recent disease, but it is a recently clinically defined disease. Substance use, and therefore substance abuse, has been in existence for millennia, but our understanding of it and addiction has been slow to develop.

Addiction in Antiquity

According to “Historical and Cultural Aspects of Man’s Relationship with Addictive Drugs,” an article published in the December 2007 issue of Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, drinking was recognized as problematic as early as 323 BC when Alexander the Great’s death was connected to his heavy drinking. Addiction was even labeled a disease during this time, when, “the Roman physician Celsus held that dependence on intoxicating drink was a disease.” Although the idea of addiction as a disease has been proposed, discussed and developed for millennia, the clinical definition of addiction has remained contentious.

The Term “Addiction”

The term “addiction” originally referred to a tendency towards obsessive behavior or weakness or moral failing. The word did not gain medical context until the late 1800s when doctors began to recognize the effects of opium and morphine on patients. Addiction began to, “include the notion of an exogenous substance taken into the body” (“The DSM Gets Addiction Right,” The New York Times, June 5, 2012), but it did not exclude the original reference to personal character. Addiction came to be defined by the experience of withdrawal symptoms but shaped by the notion of lack of willpower.

Medical professionals came to realize that withdrawal symptoms were not the defining characteristic of addiction. Some drugs such as marijuana do not cause immediate or extreme physical withdrawal symptoms, and problematic behaviors such as gambling and eating disorders do not involve the use of an external substance. As The New York Times explains, “a burgeoning body of scientific evidence has indicated that an exogenous substance is less important to addiction than is the disease process that the substance triggers in the brain.” Psychologists and scientists changed their approach to and attitude towards addiction, as more information about dopamine, genetics and brain changes became available.

Defining Addiction

Addiction is more than a word, term, label or medical health condition. It is a devastating experience that harms families, communities and individual lives. No one chooses to become addicted; it is a disease beyond individual control. However like any chronic disease, it can be treated and managed, and individuals can live long, healthy and drug-free lives when they get the professional and personal help and support needed for recovery. If you or a loved one is struggling with this disease, do not worry about labels or definitions. Get help today. Call our toll-free helpline, anytime 24 hours a day, to learn more about personalized options for long-term addiction recovery.