What Is Evidence-Based Addiction Treatment?

By Kristance Harlow 04/02/19

12-step programs are an incomplete approach and do not meet the requirements for evidence-based treatment because they lack biomedical and psychological components, and they use a one-size-fits-all approach.

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Thoughtful woman with doctor or therapist, getting evidence-based addiction treatment
In evidence-based practice, the treatment process individualizes care and uses a holistic perspective to see what combination of resources will work best for a particular patient. ID 128979187 © motortion | Dreamstime.com

When looking for treatment for addiction, there is a lot of information out there and countless opinions. Friends, family, doctors, researchers, and people in recovery all have their own beliefs about what you need to do to get well. Unlike in other areas of healthcare, addiction treatment is often deemed “effective” based on anecdotal reports. In fact, most people who seek or are forced into treatment do not receive health care that is aligned with evidence-based practice.

A frequently-cited definition comes from a 1996 article in the BMJ Medical Journal: evidence-based “means integrating individual clinical expertise with the best available external clinical evidence from systematic research.” Other definitions also include the patient’s individual circumstances, preferences, expectations, and values.

These variables are not necessarily constant, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution; any list of evidence-based treatments is going to include a wide variety of approaches.

What is Addiction?

In the United States, addiction is still treated more as a crime than as a chronic illness or disorder. Until that perspective changes, treatments will not meet their full potential and will not be as effective as they could be. Addiction, or substance use disorder (SUD), is a chronic medical condition that has remissions, relapses, and genetic components.

Are Relapses Normal?

A relapse is not a failure but a symptom. The brain of a person with SUD has gone through neurobiological changes that increase the risk of relapse because the damaged reward pathways stick around much longer than the substances stay in the body. Stressful events and other painful life experiences can trigger that maladaptive coping mechanism and cause a relapse.

For other chronic illnesses we would consider a relapse to be an unfortunate symptom of the disease, and we might call it a recurrence instead of a relapse. When successfully managed, the condition is considered to be in remission. Remission is a term that is relatively new in addition treatment; substance use disorder was not always believed to be a disease but rather a moral failing and a problem of willpower. We now understand that addiction is a chronic medical condition and that remission is the goal of treatment. Remission, as defined by the American Society of Addiction Medicine, is “a state of wellness where there is an abatement of signs and symptoms that characterize active addiction.”

What Is Successful Addiction Treatment?

Let’s take a look at what it means to have an effective treatment outcome in terms of addiction. The primary goal is usually abstinence or at least a “clinically meaningful reduction in substance use.” To measure effectiveness, we must look at how and if treatment improves the quality of life for the patient. Improving quality of life is the aim when treating all chronic conditions that have no cure.

Evidence-based therapies do not support the notion of “hitting bottom.” As with any chronic disease, early intervention is going to provide the best outcomes. Even more effective than early intervention is prevention because SUDs are both preventable and treatable.

Pharmacotherapies to Treat Substance Use Disorders

Addiction is an overstimulation of the brain's reward pathways, and as the condition progresses, the brain becomes less sensitive to the rewarding effects of a drug and requires more of the substance to get the same effect. This overstimulation can play tricks on memory recall, turning experiences that were not good into ones that seem better than they actually were. It creates false memories to encourage re-indulging in the addictive substance or behavior.

From a medical standpoint, this disparity needs to be interrupted and corrected. Akikur Mohammad, the author of The Anatomy of Addiction, argues that successful treatment of addiction “must first address the biological component and correct the brain’s chemical imbalance in the process.”

Pharmacotherapy is used in medication-assisted treatment and recovery. Depending on the patient’s individual drug history, different medications may be used to mitigate the brain’s compulsive race to stimulate the reward loop.

Therapy for Substance Use Disorders

Most research on therapy for substance use disorders has been done on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)—a form of typically short-term psychotherapy that combines talk therapy with behavioral therapy. Patients are taught how to adjust their negative thought patterns into positive thoughts. There is clinical evidence that CBT can be as effective as medications for many types of depression and anxiety. For treating SUD, CBT has been shown to have a “small but statistically significant treatment effect” but doesn’t necessarily have a long-lasting effect. As it’s a chronic illness, it stands to reason that SUD requires further maintenance beyond any short-term treatment.

Are 12-Step Programs Evidence Based?

Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs use a social model of recovery. They are built on the basic notion of peer support in a safe environment. There is research on the efficacy of 12-step programs, which shows it works for some people and that there are benefits to this social model of recovery. The steps, or rather the principles of the steps, must be internalized into a person's psyche in order for the person to achieve lasting abstinence. 12-step programs are an incomplete approach and do not meet the requirements for the classification of evidence-based treatment because they lack biomedical and psychological components, and they use a one-size-fits-all approach.

One central tenet of the 12-step solution requires turning one’s will over to the care of a higher power. Certainly, letting go of the notion that force of will can change the trajectory of addiction is necessary for any treatment. It’s a disease, and willpower will no sooner cure addiction than it will cure diabetes or heart disease. An evidence-based approach could mean that a doctor recommends a patient attend a 12-step program, or other support group, as part of a maintenance regime.

The addiction treatment world is overrun with rehabs that primarily utilize 12-step programs, which are touted as the only treatment for addiction. That simply isn’t true. Addiction researchers have found that individually, cognitive and behavioral therapies, including social supports like 12-step programs, are incomplete treatment for a chronic disease that is both physiological and genetic in origin. From a treatment perspective that is grounded in evidence-based practice, involvement in a support group would be merely one piece of the puzzle.

Holistic Care

In evidence-based practice, the treatment process individualizes care and uses a holistic perspective to see what combination of resources will work best for a particular patient. The combination of treatment tools depends on a clinician’s specialized knowledge, the patient’s values and preferences, and the best research evidence. We need more specially trained addiction clinicians who can help people with SUDs make informed treatment decisions.


Are you in recovery from addiction? What worked for you? Tell us in the comments!

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Kristance Harlow is a freelance writer and mental illness advocate. She fights stigma and writes about uncomfortable experiences. She lives in a foreign land with her husband and rescue pupster. Find Kristance on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, or her blog.

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