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The Kindling Effect of Addiction

The Kindling Effect of addiction and alcoholism is a progressive problem that addicts and alcoholics experience after multiple relapses. In simple terms, the kindling effect can be stated as the worsening of symptoms related to Acute Withdrawal and Post Acute Withdrawal, with progressive relapses that ultimately result in a higher propensity for a future, more severe return to drug or alcohol use. This is critical to understand in order to help addicts get clean and stay clean and prevent the kindling effect altogether.

To understand the kindling effect, you must first understand what happens to a person when they become addicted to a substance and then subsequently stop using. First, Acute Withdrawal Syndrome sets in within 12 to 24 hours of the last use of the drug in question (including alcohol). Symptoms of AWS include insomnia, severe drug cravings, anxiety, depression, physical discomfort and in some cases, seizure, pulmonary complications, and even coma and death. All of these symptoms are a result of neuronal hyperactivity as the brain and central nervous system “withdraw” from the drug and eventually return to a state of normalcy.

Once the process of physically withdrawing from a substance – known as Detoxing – is complete, recovering addicts generally feel much better and are able to function somewhat normally again. However, soon after symptoms of Post Acute Withdrawal will likely set in, causing another entire set of physical, mental and emotional problems that can drive some addicts to return to drugs as means of self-medication.

The kindling effect refers to the progressive worsening of acute withdrawal, post acute withdrawal, and relapses. In general, symptoms are worse each time an addict relapses. They suffer more pronounced and longer lasting symptoms during detox, their PAWS symptoms are more severe, and each progressive relapse is worse than the last.

The kindling effect is not entirely understood, but many experts in the field of addiction have speculated that it is the result of overly sensitive neurons. Neurons that service addictive behavior are permanent once developed and cause powerful cravings. With each progressive relapse these neurons become more and more hypersensitive. This means that even small triggers can cause an immediate return to aggressive drug use. In an article for ScienceBlog, a team of prominent researchers write;

“”Kindling” occurs when the nervous system develops increased sensitivity to a stimulus such as withdrawal from alcohol. When a nerve cell is repeatedly exposed to a stimulus that is initially too small to cause full nerve excitement, it can become more sensitive, or kindled, to the stimulus and begin to react at lower thresholds. This sensitivity persists over time and can become stronger with continued exposure to the stimulus.” (1)

When addicts do relapse, the kindling effect tends to cause each episode to be worse than the last. Addicts troubled by the kindling effect will return to using more quickly, use more heavily and for longer than each time before. While this may not be true for every person in every case, it does seem to be a pattern that warrants serious attention, because each new time an addict uses could be their last. The risks are simply too high.

If you or someone you love has been struggling with repeated relapses and you think the kindling effect is to blame, call the number at the top of your screen now for an immediate consultation. The best defense against this condition is to arrest addictive behaviors by intensely treating post acute withdrawal symptoms and denial. It’s imperative that you take action now.

(1) Joseph P. Reoux, M.D., Richard K. Ries, M.D. Searching for new detoxification strategies September 2001 ScienceBlog

About The Contributor
The editorial staff of Recovery First is comprised of addiction content experts from American Addiction Centers. Our editors and medical reviewers have over a decade of cumulative experience in medical content editing and have reviewed thousands... Read More