Chronic alcohol and drug abuse affects every aspect of a patient’s life, relationships, and physical health. Abuse of these substances, and even the sudden withdrawal of alcohol or drugs, can manifest serious physical effects. Take alcohol abuse, for example. Permanent damage to the brain can be caused when a person who has been drinking excessive amounts of alcohol suddenly stops doing so. In general, the more alcohol is regularly consumed, the greater the chance of developing severe withdrawal symptoms. These serious signs of alcohol withdrawal include delirium tremens, in which a person becomes confused and has vivid hallucinations, often believing insects are crawling over their bodies. The person may also become hyperactive, anxious, hostile, and disoriented. In addition, they may have a fever, experience convulsions, and even have blackouts in which they do not remember the drinking episode.
In order to test for alcohol withdrawal, a healthcare provider will check for rapid breathing and heart rate, high temperature, abnormal eye movements, tremors in the hands and body, heart arrhythmia, internal bleeding, dehydration, and liver failure. Blood tests including a toxicology screening may be performed. The goals of treatment are to address the immediate symptoms, prevent life-threatening complications, and set the patient on the road to total abstinence from alcohol.
Unfortunately, there are cases in which the duration and extent of alcohol abuse have been too great and permanent brain damage is caused. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a brain disorder caused by thiamine deficiency. In this condition, damaging changes in the brain are brought about by a lack of Vitamin B1. Even if a heavy alcohol user follows a balanced diet, his or her body is unable to absorb the B1 the brain needs to function properly. As the syndrome advances to a stage called Wernicke’s psychosis, the person will begin to be unable to form new memories, experience severe memory loss, become uncoordinated, and have difficulty walking.
In many cases, he or she will make up stories that are not true, experience hallucinations, and have difficulties with vision. Treatment of this condition involves relieving the symptoms and taking steps to ensure that it does not worsen. Thiamine injections can sometimes help the patient to become less confused or delirious, and can minimize coordination problems. However, it usually does not reverse the damage to memory or intellect.
Alcohol is not the only substance whose abuse can lead to permanent organic brain damage. One of the keys to optimal brain health is a sufficient, continuous supply of oxygenated blood to its tissues. Substances such as cocaine and methamphetamine inhibit blood flow. In the worst case scenarios, users can experience hypoxia, convulsions, seizures, stroke, and permanent brain damage. Some studies also suggest that certain drugs disrupt the neural pathways of the brain, causing permanent changes in mood, judgment, and ability to concentrate.
When a drug user seeks treatment for the organic consequences of his or her behaviors, the primary goal is to help the person withdraw permanently from the substance. In some cases, doing so can lead to a cessation of symptoms; in others, the damage is irrevocable. For the latter, intervention will focus on helping the patient to minimize the effects of the damage, while continuing to find strategies to cope with the underlying addiction.