What Is the Common Comorbidity in Substance Abuse?
Learn about the common comorbidities in substance use and how to manage the conditions.
Table of Contents
What Is Comorbidity?
Comorbidities are any two or more co-occurring illnesses. With substance abuse, this involves dependency and health complications connected to drug use. Comorbidities are one of the main barriers between dependency and sober living.
Historically, western medicine overlooked co-occurring illnesses, often resulting in ineffective recovery care and fewer people going to recovery. Thankfully, in the last couple of decades, medical professionals began researching the comorbidities in substance abuse, which has led to dual diagnoses treatments.
Nonetheless, diagnosing and treating comorbidities still come with unique challenges. For example, many substance abuse-related comorbidities share similar symptoms. So, it can be difficult for a medical professional to diagnose where one condition begins, and another ends.
How Is a Comorbidity Different from a Complication?
The difference between complication and comorbidity is that a complication is a medical condition that’s unrelated to the primary illness. For example, a person with substance abuse issues and a sprained ankle would be described as having a complication. Comparatively, substance abuse issues and mental illness would be comorbidity as mental illness directly correlates to substance use.
Comorbidities are also much harder to treat, diagnose, and monitor than complications. There is also a difference between morbidities and comorbidities, as morbidities apply when a severe condition occurs by itself.1
Who’s More Likely to Have Comorbidities?
People with underlying health conditions and older adults are more likely to suffer from comorbidities; however, everyone is susceptible to dual illnesses. Individuals without a medical history of illness may experience greater difficulty obtaining the correct dual diagnoses as doctors will have to start from square one.
Examples of comorbidities include:
- Substance abuse
- Alcohol abuse
- Liver/kidney issues
- Nicotine addiction
- Respiratory conditions
- Heart disease
- Mood disorders
This list serves as a small portion of possible comorbidities. Also, the symptoms associated with comorbidities vary in intensity.
What Are Comorbid Conditions: Common Comorbidities
Common comorbidities change based on environment, race, and other individual factors. Here’s a list of common comorbidities:
Obesity is one of the most common ailments among Americans. This is due to attributes of an American diet such as greasy foods, processed foods, and larger serving sizes. In addition, obesity also has genetic origins as some people are far more prone to gaining weight than others.
Obesity, in its worst form, impairs breathing, puts additional strain on the heart, impacts self-image, which leads to mental illnesses, and can even limit specific job opportunities.
Unfortunately, obesity is one of the leading causes of preventable death. One of the biggest issues with obesity is that the general public has only a vague perception of what it is. The physical attributes aren’t necessarily signs of obesity, but rather the percentage of overall body fat and diet discern whether or not one can be considered medically obese.
Diabetes is a common comorbidity that impacts how the body processes food, sugar, and glucose. Severe symptoms of diabetes include comas, amputation, poor blood flow, and lethargy.
Diabetic comorbidities include mental illness issues, eating disorders, renal failure, and hypertension.
While it’s most common to have one to two conditions at a time, it’s possible to have multiple medical comorbidities. Each comorbidity will add another layer of difficulty when diagnosing the conditions. It will take time and specialists to figure out where one illness ends and another begins.
Comorbid medical conditions often involve mental illnesses. This is especially true in cases of substance abuse. Substance abuse comorbidity disrupts the production of brain chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, and other mood-related chemicals.
Mental illnesses can impact virtually every bodily system. As such, it’s important that mental illness and any major comorbid condition be treated.
A dual diagnosis is a medical term referring to having a mental illness and substance use disorder. Studies have shown that 50% of those with mental illness also have substance dependency. The overlap is because individuals with underlying mental health issues often cannot maintain a positive, healthy mindset.
Substance dependency makes it difficult for the brain to make positive chemicals naturally. Over time, a person may begin to rely entirely on a drug or alcohol to feel positive. Once that point comes, dependency has fully set in and leads to comorbidities and mental health issues.
Depression and Anxiety
Is depression a comorbidity? Yes. Depression and anxiety are mental illnesses that impact how a person views life. Both diseases can limit a person’s ability to feel positive and maintain upward mobility in their career and personal life.
Over time, depression and anxiety can increase gray matter in the brain—an excess of gray matter can block and slow neurological pathways needed for clear thought. The result is that it becomes difficult to think of positive thoughts or overcome the challenges of daily life. As common causes for comorbid disorders, depression and anxiety treatment are essential to most recovery forms.
How Does Comorbidity Affect Treatment Plans?
Comorbid medical conditions change how both disorders are treated. For example, treating only depression in a person with comorbid substance use disorder may ease the symptoms of depression momentarily; however, without a healthy way to deal with their drug cravings, the substance use disorder will still persist. Continued substance use will worsen the mental health disorder and vice versa. This circular nature of substance use and mental illness is what leads many to relapse.
Functional limitations are cognitive disabilities that prevent a person from logical thinking. Without logical thinking, a person may lack the forethought needed to avoid drug use. These limitations often arise from long-term drug and alcohol use in terms of comorbidities. It will often take a combination of medicine and therapy to overcome this setback.
Physical disabilities can cause a person to develop depression, anxiety, or other mood disorders. Instead of curing the disability, the focus is on a person gaining a more positive perspective. Also, physical ailments are considered complications as opposed to any comorbid disorders.
Frailty makes a person more prone to injury and increases the body’s time to heal. From a diagnostic perspective, a doctor is less likely to do invasive surgery and prevents specific prescriptions.
Adverse Drug Reactions
Drug allergies can occur in anyone. Without a medical history, a patient or doctor will be unaware of the allergy. This can lead to a comorbid medical condition and otherwise disrupt a correct diagnosis.4
Tips to Manage Comorbidities
Treating comorbidity requires specialized care. Any major comorbid condition runs the risk of causing long-term symptoms. That’s why different doctors are needed for either illness. If you suffer from multiple conditions, consulting multiple specialized doctors will give you the best chance for recovery. Here are a few tips for treating comorbidities:
Counselors help treat comorbid medical conditions by teaching healthy coping mechanisms and providing resources. Counselors also have experience with comorbidities, mental health, and other factors.
Physical therapists help retrain fine motor skills. Long-term drug use and/or trauma can limit mobility, causing complications down the line, although it isn’t comorbidity.
Occupational therapists (OT) help ensure a person performs at their best. An OT is available to those who need help completing everyday tasks, especially when suffering from mental illness and a comorbid medical condition.
The healing process may seem difficult, but you do not have to take the journey alone. To learn more about the recovery process, reach out to our team at Alta Centers.