The Connection Between Drug Addiction and Brain Damage

drug addiction and brain damage

It’s probably no surprise to hear that drug addiction can cause brain damage, but the other link between brain damage and drugs is perhaps less obvious. Having brain damage as a result of an accident, combat wound, or some other non-drug-related incident can increase a person’s chances of developing a serious drug addiction.

To the average person, dabbling in the dangerous world of substance abuse when your brain health is already compromised might seem counterintuitive. In many ways, though, it is no different from people with mental illness using drugs. It is easy for them to blur the line between drugs that are controlled by a doctor and meant to help, and drugs they administer themselves that make the mental and emotional pain go away.

It is easy for people suffering with severe brain injury to lose hope of ever recovering the functions they’ve lost or living a comfortable, happy life. This despair often gives way to a desire to get high.

The link between brain damage and drug addiction is important to understand because substance abuse in brain-injured individuals keeps the brain from healing to the fullest extent possible.

The Relationship Between Drug Abuse and Drug Addiction

You may have heard this excuse or uttered it yourself: just because I take drugs (or drink) doesn’t mean I’m an addict. There is a difference between abuse and addiction when it comes to drugs, but they are closely related. Strictly by definition, abuse is taking more than you need or taking drugs for non-medical purposes. Addiction is the inability to stop. Some recreational drug users claim they could stop any time they choose. Sadly, that’s probably not true.

drug addiction and brain injury

In some scenarios, drug addiction causes drug abuse. The easiest way to see this is in the case of pain medications. To deal with the pain following surgery, a patient is often prescribed narcotic pain relievers. Even when taking the drugs according to the doctor’s instructions, the patient develops an addiction. This is a perfectly plausible scenario given the fact that everyone’s tolerance for drugs is different and some narcotics are highly addictive.

As the patient’s surgery recovery progresses and the pain fades, his desire to continue taking the meds increases. Eventually, this individual lies to the doctor about the amount of pain he is experiencing so he can get more pills. Now he is actually abusing these pain relievers by taking them when they are not medically necessary. When the prescription runs out, he is forced to find another accessible alternative. He may turn to some form of illicit drugs or begin abusing an over-the-counter medication that satisfies his craving.

The abuse doesn’t always follow the addiction, however. Sometimes it is the other way around. A person starts out abusing drugs as a recreational user. Perhaps she’s experimenting with different substances. She may not think it is a big deal because several of her friends do the same thing. Maybe she only does it once in a while.

Over time this drug-abusing behavior becomes a habit, and she becomes addicted. She may not be physically addicted to a substance, but she is addicted to the behavior of getting high. She might quit one substance only to take up another or a combination of things she thinks are less harmful. Her desire to get high chemically alters her feelings, takes over her life and becomes her primary focus.

Drug abuse and addiction are linked. The probability that abuse becomes addiction is very high, and addiction resulting in drug abuse is inevitable. It is always safe to assume that when you are dealing with one, you are dealing with both.

Drugs and Behavior

There are many reasons for drug abuse, but we tend to focus on the recreational user — someone who uses drugs for non-medical purposes. The recreational user is usually a thrill-seeker who is not adverse to risk-taking behaviors. He hears about a substance that makes people high and he wants to try it. He may think, “If one dose of this cold medicine makes me forget the pain in my head, what will three doses do?”

Rather than drug abuse, we should probably call it self-abuse when someone takes an illicit drug or purposely ignores the dosing instructions on their medication. Some people resort to drug abuse out of a desire — conscious or subconscious — to harm themselves. There are also the people who are trying to escape their own reality. They want to stop the emotional pain they are feeling and cannot find any other means.

Drugs alter people’s feelings and affect the way they think. Ultimately, drug use affects behavior because seeking a high becomes the most important thing in his life. All of his behaviors eventually revolve around getting more drugs.

Brain Damage due to Drug Abuse

Excessive drug use, permanent brain damage, and addiction are all related to how pleasure is processed in the brain. Drug users seek mental escape through what they call a “high.” Although they describe this sensation differently, it has the same chemical definition in their brains.

The brain uses chemicals called neurotransmitters to send signals, so the feelings you have are a result of neurotransmitters moving through the central nervous system and connecting with receptors. Pleasure messages are carried by a neurotransmitter called dopamine.

Drugs act on brain chemicals in a number of ways. Some mimic certain neurotransmitters; others interfere with receptors. No matter what the mechanism, a drug that produces a high causes the brain to sense dopamine. The more dopamine your brain senses, the better you feel.

brain damage due to drug abuse

If you can get over the fact that you are interrupting the natural flow of chemicals in your brain, artificially flooding your brain with the feel-good chemical dopamine sounds harmless. But you should know that manipulating brain function can yield severe results. There are a lot of neurotransmitters running through the brain, some carrying vital messages required for survival.

When the brain is flooded with dopamine from an artificial stimulus, the natural means of producing the feel-good chemical are diminished. This makes it harder to feel pleasure without the assistance of the drugs. When nothing else gives you pleasure, you spend more time getting high; it’s just a natural reaction.

Meanwhile, the damage continues in the brain. As it senses increased amounts of dopamine, some of the dopamine sensors shut down. Nature has a way of seeking balance, and the brain can only process so much pleasure at one time. With some dopamine sensors shut down, it will take more drugs to reach the same level of pleasure. This concept is at the heart of addiction because it triggers the user to use more and more, potentially overdosing.

The old myth about brain cells not regenerating after they are killed off by drugs has been replaced by a scarier reality. The brain continues to produce new cells throughout life, much like skin cells or other parts of the body. In the brain, however, there is no one-to-one replacement of cells. When a dopamine receptor cell dies, it is not necessarily replaced with another. Instead, the brain adapts to its new environment. If it is getting used to too much dopamine, it may grow a different type of cell, permanently reducing the number of dopamine receptor cells.

It’s all a very complicated process that doctors are just beginning to understand fully. Brain damage is caused by drug abuse and the brain’s natural tendency to seek balance and adjust itself to new conditions. However, when the drugs are removed from the system and addiction recovery commences, there is no guarantee that the damage can be reversed.

Drug Addiction and Brain Injury

The connection between drug addiction and brain damage has been most recently studied with military personnel. Since the 1990s more brain injuries have been reported as a result of active military duty, giving researchers an opportunity to study the cause-and-effect relationship.

brain damage causing drug interactions

In general, it is understood that drug and alcohol abuse often begin as a coping mechanism for people in high-stress situations. The danger, isolation from family and friends, and uncertainty associated with war-time military service make soldiers more vulnerable to drug addiction than many other segments of the population.

When you factor in brain injury, military personnel were more likely to be discharged from the service as a result of alcoholism or drug abuse than their counterparts who had not sustained such an injury. Those with a mild brain injury developed a drug addiction 2.6 times more often than the non-injured personnel, and a moderate brain injury resulted in 5.4 times more incidents of drug addiction. When the brain injuries were more severe than that, the rate of addiction declined. The assumption was that disability made it difficult or nearly impossible for those people to access drugs.

You wouldn’t think that someone with a brain injury would risk losing more brain functioning by abusing drugs. However, it is likely the escape factor that they seek. Human nature moves us to protect ourselves. When there is too much trauma or pain — either emotional, physical or both — it is natural to seek avoidance. In many cases of brain injury there are no clear answers about how or when the brain might recover. Faced with the possibility of not regaining full function, having to rely on others for help indefinitely, or continually experiencing the emotional pain of reliving the incident, people turn to desperate means of escape.

While getting high may initially provide relief from a painful situation, it actually causes more problems. First, it is only a temporary escape. No one can stay high all the time, and reality doesn’t get any better while you’re away. Drug abuse also detracts from the brain’s ability to heal, possibly making a bad situation permanent when it doesn’t have to be.

The other factor to consider in brain damage cases is that many drugs used for pain relief are potentially addictive. Pain can be a serious problem when left untreated. The pain itself can create a condition that interferes with the healing of the underlying injury. But pain medications can be dangerous to the brain, fostering addiction.

Many head injury cases include a need for pain management. Without clear communication between doctor and patient and a strict observance of prescription protocols, there is a significant risk of drug addiction. It is easy to understand, then, that once the addiction begins to take hold, if the patient is reasonably mobile, he or she may be driven to seek illicit drugs to feed the addiction.

Treatment for Brain Damage and Drug Addiction

Brain damage may be unavoidable, especially in certain lines of work. Obviously, every physical precaution should be taken to protect your brain from injury. It is the command center for all body functions, as well as thoughts and memories. While brain cells do regenerate, it is difficult to predict the rate and quality of those new cells.

drug use permanent brain damage

Damaging your brain with drugs is a much more avoidable situation. Self-medicating for any reason or using any substances for non-medical purposes is not recommended for maintaining good brain health. When it comes to prescription medications, you should always follow doctor’s orders and communicate any issues immediately and honestly. Over-the-counter medications can be safe when used for their intended purpose and according to package instructions.

If you have already experienced drug abuse, or are dealing with addiction, and not sure if you’ve sustained damage to your brain, the first thing to do is stop. Whatever damage you may have incurred will only get worse if you continue using drugs. This is not a risk you should take with your irreplaceable brain. Stop inflicting the damage and seek help.

It is possible that whatever damage you have done to your brain can be reversed over time. However, you are going to need some help quitting your addiction, and for that you should contact 12 Keys.

We can help you better understand the addiction process. At 12 Keys we can take you from detox through rehabilitation and show you what a happy, healthy life without drugs.

There should be pleasure in life, but that doesn’t have to include drugs or alcohol. If you’ve damaged your brain’s pleasure sensors with drugs, you no longer know how to be happy without them. Let us show you how it is done. At 12 Keys we create a comfortable environment for detox and recovery. Through individualized treatment programs we help people reset their pleasure centers to work without drugs, naturally.

Contact 12 Keys today to start healing your brain and your life. You’ll be amazed at the happiness available to you without substance abuse. Take a risk that has only positive rewards. Leave your drug addiction behind and come to 12 Keys.

View Our Accommodations

Speak to an Expert





Stay in Touch