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NIDA Home > Medical Consequences of Drug Abuse

Medical Consequences of Drug Abuse

Drug addiction is a brain disease. Although initial drug use might be voluntary, drugs of abuse have been shown to alter gene expression and brain circuitry, which in turn affect human behavior. Once addiction develops, these brain changes interfere with an individual’s ability to make voluntary decisions, leading to compulsive drug craving, seeking and use.

The impact of addiction can be far reaching. Cardiovascular disease, stroke, cancer, HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, and lung disease can all be affected by drug abuse. Some of these effects occur when drugs are used at high doses or after prolonged use, however, some may occur after just one use.

For more information on how various drugs of abuse affect different parts of the body, select an option on the right.

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Selected Research Findings on the Medical Burden of Drug Abuse

Burden of Medical Illness in Drug and Alcohol Dependent Persons without Primary Care
Little is known about the frequency, severity and risk factors for disease in drug and alcohol dependent persons without primary medical care. This article assesses the burden of medical illness and identifies patient and substance dependence characteristics associated with worse physical health in order to compare measures of illness burden in this population. Researchers conducted a cross-sectional study among alcohol, heroin or cocaine dependent persons without primary medical care admitted to an urban inpatient detoxification unit (mean age = 35.7 years; 76% male; 46% Black). Forty-five percent reported being diagnosed with a chronic illness, and 80% had prior medical hospitalizations. The mean age-adjusted SF-36 Physical Component Summary (PCS) score was significantly lower than the general U.S. population norm (44.1 vs. 50.1). In multivariable analysis, the following factors were associated with worse health: female gender, problem use of hallucinogens, heroin, other opiates, living alone, having medical insurance, and older age. Alcohol and drug dependent persons without primary medical care have a substantial burden of medical illness compared to age and gender matched U.S. population controls. While the optimal measure of medical illness burden in this population is unclear, a variety of health measures document this medical illness burden in addicted persons. De Alba, I., Samet, J.H. and Saitz, R. Burden of Medical Illness in Drug and Alcohol Dependent Persons without Primary Ccare. American Journal of Addiction, 13, pp. 33-45, 2004.

Medical and Psychiatric Conditions Prevalent among Alcohol and Drug Treatment Patients in an HMO
Prior research on health conditions related to substance abuse largely focused on alcohol and patients treated in publicly-funded programs, inpatients, and the general population. This study compares the prevalence of medical and psychiatric conditions among 747 substance abuse patients and 3,690 demographically matched controls from the same health maintenance organization, and examines whether any heightened prevalence for substance abuse patients (relative to controls) varies according to demographic subgroups and type of substance. Approximately one third of the conditions examined were more common among substance abuse patients than among matched controls, and many of these conditions were among the most costly. Researchers also found that pain-related diagnoses, including arthritis, headache, and lower back pain, were more prevalent among such patients, particularly those dependent on narcotic analgesics. These findings point to the importance of examining comorbid medical conditions and substance abuse in both primary and specialty care. Findings regarding pain-related diagnoses among patients dependent on narcotic analgesics highlight the need for linkages between primary care and substance abuse treatment. Moreover, optimal treatment of many common medical disorders may require identification, intervention, and treatment of an underlying substance abuse disorder. Mertens, J.R, Lu, Yun W., Parthasarathy, S., Moore, C. and Weisner, C.M. Medical and Psychiatric Conditions of Alcohol and Drug Treatment Patients in an HMO. Archives of Internal Medicine, 163(20), pp. 2511-2517, 2003.


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