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Polysubstance Addiction

Identifying, Understanding, and Treating Polysubstance Addiction

Polysubstance dependence is officially defined as abusing three or more substances for a period of 12 months or more. Clinically speaking, there is not one predominant substance being abused. Therefore, someone may not meet the diagnostic criteria for addiction to a particular, single substance, but would meet the criteria if you consider the use of multiple substances as a whole. For example, someone may abuse cocaine, alcohol, and prescription painkillers for over a year or more. When evaluated, they may not be diagnosed as an alcoholic or with an opiate addiction, but when you consider their alcohol, cocaine, and opiate consumption altogether, a polysubstance addiction is evident and can be properly diagnosed.

While polysubstance addiction could happen to anyone, it is most prevalent in two groups of people: teenagers and adults struggling with mental illness or other medical issues that require prescription medication. While it is difficult to pinpoint an exact reason for any addiction, it seems that adolescents who develop a polysubstance addiction do so in the course of experimentation with a wide range of substances, oftentimes in the name of “fun.” Essentially, it is a case of curiosity becoming chemical dependency. Adults, on the other hand, appear to develop polysubstance addiction as a means of coping with medical or mental health issues. It is a form of self-medication that quickly spirals into an even worse physical and psychological state.

Treating polysubstance addiction is complicated. First and foremost, many of those who struggle with a polysubstance addiction do not even realize they have multiple substance abuse issues. This can make the detox process more complicated. For example, someone who seeks treatment for a cocaine addiction may not realize he or she is also an alcoholic until they begin experiencing withdrawal symptoms. Of course, drug screens and medical tests can help anticipate these issues, but a high blood alcohol content level at the time of testing does not automatically mean someone is physically addicted to alcohol. In those instances, many treatment programs take preventative measures such as prescribing thiamine and folic acid. These vitamins will not hurt anyone, but can lessen the possibility and intensity of alcohol withdrawal syndrome.

Since the individual is pursuing multiple types of highs as opposed to trying to create a particular kind of feeling, it is not immediately obvious which biochemical and psychological triggers are involved. As with any course of treatment, it is important to identify the root cause of the polysubstance abuse. By exploring the origins of the addictive behavior, we can identify and address the true issues underlying the addiction. Once someone has fully detoxed, you are more likely to have an accurate medical and psychological evaluation, which will be the basis for the patient’s treatment and recovery program.

Polysubstance addiction is complicated, but it is not untreatable. While it interjects a unique set of issues into a successful treatment and recovery program, they are all issues that eventually can be recognized and treated. If you or a loved one are exhibiting the signs of a polysubstance addiction, seeking treatment is the best thing you can do for everyone.

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