Drugs and alcohol are relatively easy to access in the United States, where within the last 30 days, an estimated 48.4% of people used at least one prescription drug, and nearly 55% of people drank alcohol, report the CDC and National Institutes of Health. Given these statistics, it may not be too surprising to know that some people may use drugs and alcohol in an attempt to treat certain health problems on their own without seeing a doctor. This practice is known as “self-medicating.”
What Does It Mean to “Self-Medicate”?
Self-medicating is the act of using drugs, herbs, and home remedies to treat health problems without first consulting a doctor, according to a study in the Journal of Basic and Clinical Pharmacy.
Self-medicating isn’t necessarily a harmful practice, as many people do it regularly in a number of different contexts. For example, a person who uses herbal peppermint tea to relax before going to bed doesn’t necessarily need to consult with a doctor beforehand. However, self-medicating can become harmful when people misuse prescription drugs, or use illicit drugs and alcohol to try to “cure” their health problems.
What Is the Prevalence of Self-Medicating?
In a study published in Depression and Anxiety, researchers reviewed the prevalence of self-medicating among nearly 35,000 men and women with PTSD and found that approximately 20% of these individuals used drugs and alcohol to relieve their symptoms. The CDC reports that, in 2016, an estimated 62.3% of people who misused prescription opioids did so to relieve physical pain. In another Depression and Anxiety study, researchers learned that the prevalence of self-medicating among people with mood and anxiety disorders was 21.9% to 24.1%.
Why Do People Self-Medicate With Drugs and Alcohol?
There are many reasons a person may choose to self-medicate. For example, a person without access to health care may use inexpensive illicit drugs to reduce chronic pain or symptoms of mental illness. Some people are reluctant to see a doctor for reasons such as stigma and privacy, and so they use drugs and alcohol as a substitute for professional treatment. Regardless of the reason, self-medicating with drugs and alcohol usually only brings temporary relief, and it’s not a safe or long-term solution to most health problems.
How Can Self-Medicating Lead to Addiction?
Self-medicating with drugs and alcohol isn’t usually a safe way to treat your health problem, as it can cause you to get stuck in a never-ending cycle of substance abuse and poor health with no long-term resolution in sight. Drugs and alcohol may offer temporary relief, but your symptoms will come back as soon as the effects of these substances wear off.
Regular use of drugs and alcohol can eventually cause your tolerance levels to increase, which means that over time, you’ll need ever-increasing amounts of these substances to feel the effects. Increased tolerance can eventually lead to physical dependence, which is characterized by the manifestation of drug and alcohol withdrawal symptoms when you abruptly stop using these substances. Physical dependence then increases the risk for addiction, given the way chronic use of drugs and alcohol can alter brain neurotransmitters that regulate pleasure and cause compulsive behavior.
How Are Addiction and Self-Medication Treated?
Those who become addicted to drugs and alcohol after self-medicating can safely recover from their addiction at a drug and alcohol rehab facility. Many rehab centers use a variety of interventions that identify and address the root cause of the addiction, even if the root cause is self-medication. In these instances, doctors can connect patients with specialists who can treat the underlying health condition that led to the addiction.
The first stage of addiction treatment at drug rehab is detox. Drug and alcohol detox helps patients manage the physical symptoms of withdrawal. After drug detox, patients receive behavioral therapies that help them change the harmful behaviors associated with addiction and self-medication. For example, a person who started drinking to cope with PTSD may receive trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy to face and recover from the trauma. A person who started using heroin to relieve chronic pain may be introduced to alternative therapies like acupuncture and physical therapy that effectively relieve their pain.
If you are abusing drugs or alcohol to treat a medical condition, please understand that doing so may gradually worsen your condition and overall health. Seeking treatment from a health care professional at Baystate Recovery Services can often help you avoid addiction and its related long-term health consequences.