Understanding and treating polysubstance abuse presents a unique set of challenges. Because a person with this addiction uses multiple drugs, they experience different symptoms and impairments depending upon the combination of drugs used. In addition, the effects of each drug can become more severe when used in combination with others.
Polysubstance abuse can be intentional or accidental. Intentional abuse has a variety of driving factors including social pressures, lifestyle preferences, pain management, and so forth. Accidental abuse commonly occurs when individuals mix multiple prescription medications from different doctors or combine alcohol with one or more medications not knowing it creates a dangerous combination.
Compounding an already bad situation is the reality that helping individuals withdraw from addiction to multiple substances is more complex. Treatments used for single substance detox may be ineffective when dealing with a combination of drugs.
Response to an overdose is also complicated because the caregivers may have difficulty determining which substance caused the overdose. Standard drugs for single substance overdose might not work in these situations. For example, naloxone is an effective drug for an opioid overdose but can become ineffective if other substances are contributing to the emergency.
What is Polysubstance Abuse?
A person with polysubstance dependence is psychologically addicted to being in an intoxicated state. This dependence makes the individual indifferent to the substance they use as long as it creates the pleasure they receive from intoxication.
The three most common substances involved in these cases appear to be alcohol, cocaine, and heroin, although any combination of drugs can lead to a polysubstance addiction. The most common drug among all polysubstance abusers is generally thought to be alcohol, due to its availability.
To be diagnosed as having a polysubstance addiction, a person must use at least three addictive substances other than caffeine and nicotine and exhibit three or more of the following symptoms or behaviors over a 12-month period:
- Tolerance: Use increasingly larger amounts of a substance or they find the same amount less and less effective (the amount has to be at least 50% more of the original amount needed.)
- Withdrawal: Experience withdrawal symptoms when not using the drug or they use the drug to prevent withdrawal symptoms.
- Loss of control: Cannot control the amount or the length of time the substances are used.
- Inability to stop using: Have tried and failed to reduce or eliminate the use of the drugs or continually express a desire to quit.
- Time: Spend a lot of time studying, obtaining, using, being under the influence, and recovering from the effects of drugs.
- Interference with activities: Give up or reduce the amount of time involved in activities that were important to the user in the past.
- Self-harm: Continuing to use the drugs despite their use creating negative physical, psychological, family, career, and other problems.
One effect of polysubstance abuse is impairment of cognitive functions. Depending upon the combination of substances used, abusers experience problems with their learning ability, memory, decision making, and reasoning. Data for the impairments caused by polysubstance abuse is currently limited to a handful of studies because most research has looked into the impairments caused by single substance abuse.
The studies that have looked at polysubstance cases found that the combined use of cannabis and cocaine affected the verbal part of working memory, correctly completing reasoning tasks, and decision making. The combined use of cocaine and heroin had a similar negative effect on successful completion of visual and spatial tasks. In all cases, it appears that the impairment is greater when substances are used together than when used individually.
The long-term effects on cognitive abilities are still under study as are the recovery effects following treatment. In one study, the results show that there is a negligible improvement in the areas of visual and verbal memory, knowledge of words, abstract reasoning, inhibition, and attention even over the course of long-term abstinence. The bottom line is this: polysubstance abuse produces serious and apparently permanent damage to cognitive abilities.
Understanding and Treating Polysubstance Abuse
Understanding the complex interactions of the drugs being abused directly impacts the course of treatment a recovery service provider must use. Detox is a mandatory first step. The complexity of detoxing from multiple substances is something that cannot be accomplished safely on your own.
Following a successful detoxification process, the patient needs carefully tailored therapy. Experience in the field shows that the use of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is very effective for individuals recovering from polysubstance abuse.
Other therapies can be used according to the needs of each individual. What is most important is that the therapies be tailored to the patient and that the treatment program has the flexibility to change and adapt as the individual progresses. The needs of the patient and therefore, the objectives of therapy typically change over time in these cases.
Seek Immediate Help
If you need assistance understanding and treating polysubstance abuse, we can help. Acting promptly is important in every case of addiction, but speed is especially important when polysubstance abuse is involved. Drug interactions are unpredictable and can create life-threatening reactions in a single instance. Contact us today or call 877-225-7724. We are ready to help you through this complex and difficult recovery process.
Note: This article is provided for information purposes only. Only a trained professional can help address polysubstance abuse.