Posted by Sharon Schendel on Apr 01, 2018
Dr. Carolyn Ross uses integrative medicine to treat a range of addiction disorders
Opioid addiction is a growing problem in American society.  According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 64,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2016- more than were killed in the Vietnam War. In the last three years in particular, the death rates from opioid addiction increased dramatically. Each day, over 90 people in the United States die due to drug abuse.
Dr. Carolyn Ross began her presentation at our March 29, 2018 meeting with the story of Billy- he was the second of five children and had a close relationship with his father.  Sadly, Billy’s father died unexpectedly from a heart attack. The loss hit Billy particularly hard- he felt the need to take his father’s place in the family. In addition to being bright, Billy was also sensitive, and this trait, which is common among addicts, together with the stresses associated with the loss of his father led Billy to begin experimenting with drugs.  Although he spent time in prison on drug-related charges, and relapsed several times, Billy was able to overcome his addictions, eventually marrying and having children. 
The problem of opioid addiction is widespread and affects all socioeconomic classes. Nearly 50% of the American population has some connection with an individual who has experienced opioid addiction. Opioids are now prescribed more frequently- around 29% of patients receive prescription pain medications, and of these, 12% develop a full-on addiction and 4% turn to heroin. More than 80% of heroin addicts first misused prescription drugs. These addictions have both an economic cost in terms of lost productivity as well as health care and criminal justice expenses, but also a human cost through effects on family and community relationships. 
Dr. Ross is part of the medical community that is seeking to change the conversation about addiction. Traditionally drug addiction was seen as a moral failing. Now, the perspective is changing to see addiction as a chronic disease, and that individuals who suffer from drug addiction are subject to the same relapses and remission that a cancer patient might face. Many addictions can be traced to a childhood trauma, or adverse childhood event, such as physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. Some individuals who struggle with addiction have impairments in production of the neurotransmitter dopamine that can affect the amount of pleasure they gain from usual activities (e.g., spending time with friends, having a nice dinner, physical activity) and opioids can supply that pleasure. Dr. Ross referenced a study by Volkow et al. that showed drug addicts can recover normal dopamine levels, but as they transition away from drugs their dopamine levels are low, leaving them particularly vulnerable to relapse. 
In her practice, Dr. Ross uses Integrative Medicine, a holistic approach that incorporates traditional and alternative treatment approaches that address both the physical and psychological challenges that addiction poses. In particular, medication-assisted treatment (MAT) that involves medications such as buprenorphine can help ease symptoms of withdrawal and increase the likelihood of success. Dr. Ross’s approach to healing drug addiction is to treat the trauma and realize that addiction is not a moral failing, but instead is an illness with a physiological basis. Dr. Ross ended her presentation by referring to the challenges that Billy overcame before his death last year, and noting her personal connection to Billy- he was her brother.