Addiction and Drug-Induced Amnesia
Addiction and drug-induced amnesia is not a common co-occurrence, but it is more likely when a person uses drugs that are known to have the potential to cause memory loss. Anti-anxiety drugs, opioids, and alcohol are examples of substances that may trigger amnesia, and the more severe the substance use disorder the more likely it is to occur. Treatment for addiction is usually adequate to resolve amnesia, but it must be ongoing in order to prevent relapses.
What Is Addiction and Drug-Induced Amnesia?
Addiction, or substance use disorder, is a mental health condition that occurs in some people who misuse drugs or alcohol. It is characterized by use of a substance that gets out of control, that impairs the ability to function, that causes issues in relationships, and that triggers tolerance, cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Addiction is a chronic condition that can have multiple causes and risk factors and that can in turn cause many serious complications, from physical health problems and financial issues to brain and neurological damage.
Amnesia is a loss of memories. The mental illness known as dissociative amnesia can include short-term memory loss, loss of memories associated with a specific event, time period or person, or complete loss of biographical information. One of the diagnostic criteria for this condition is that it is not caused by substance use.
Although this specific type of amnesia is not considered to be the result of drug use, memory loss can be associated with and likely caused by substance abuse and addiction. Psychoactive drugs act in the brain and make significant changes there. In some cases, a person who misuses drugs will experience some degree of memory loss, known as drug-induced amnesia. In most cases, the amnesia is temporary and relieved when drug use is stopped. However, for someone with an addiction, stopping use is challenging and memory problems may continue.
Facts and Statistics
Approximately 10 percent of U.S. adults will have a substance use disorder at some point in their lives. Drug-induced amnesia does not mean that a person has an addiction, but it can be a serious complication of drug or alcohol abuse.
- Drug-induced amnesia can be caused by prescription drugs, even when used as directed.
- Prescription drugs that can trigger memory loss, whether when used as directed or when misused, include benzodiazepines, antidepressants, anti-seizure drugs, opioid painkillers, sleep aids, and dopamine agonists used to treat Parkinson’s disease.
- Anesthesia administration before surgery is a medically-supervised version of drug-induced amnesia.
- Since 2012, there have been more than 12 reported cases of users of opioid drugs, like narcotic painkillers and heroin, experiencing amnesia for up to a year.
- Alcohol is one of the most common substances of abuse to cause amnesia, more often referred to as blackouts. During these periods a person maintains normal skills but fails to make long-term memories and cannot remember the events later, when sober.
- One study found that more than half of surveyed college students experienced at least one blackout in the past two weeks.
Symptoms and Diagnosis of Addiction and Drug-Induced Amnesia
Amnesia is any type of memory loss that is not just normal forgetting of an event, person, or other external factor. Amnesia can be triggered by trauma, but it can also have physiological, neurological causes, like brain damage from a physical injury or from drug use. Drug-induced amnesia refers to any degree of memory loss that is triggered by using a substance.
It is not difficult to recognize or diagnose amnesia, but determining that it was drugs or alcohol that caused the memory loss may be more challenging. Signs of amnesia include forgetting specific periods of time, people or events, losing personal information, and feeling confused or disoriented. Someone experiencing amnesia may try to hide it and make up memories or stories that don’t make sense to others. Amnesia may be determined to be drug-induced if it occurs soon after using a drug or if the individual is a regular drug user or struggles with substance use disorder.
Substance use disorder can cause a number of symptoms and signs, but there are specific criteria, general symptoms, that are used to make a diagnosis. The number of criteria met determines whether an individual has a mild, moderate, or severe substance use disorder.
These criteria include:
- Inability to control substance use, either by taking more than intended or trying to stop using but failing
- Spending too much time on acquiring, using, or recovering from drugs or alcohol
- Having intense cravings for a drug or alcohol
- Not meeting responsibilities at home, work, or school because of drug use
- Sacrificing otherwise enjoyable or important activities in order to use
- Using drugs or alcohol even though it causes relationship difficulties
- Repeated use of drugs or alcohol even in dangerous or risky situations
- Using drugs or alcohol even when it causes physical or mental health issues
- Requiring more and more of a substance to get the same effect, known as tolerance
- Feeling withdrawal when not using a substance
Experiencing drug-induced amnesia is not necessarily an indication that an individual has a substance use disorder. But, these two things can commonly co-occur. The more often a person misuses drugs, the greater the risk that he or she will experience episodes of memory loss. And, if that person persists in using the substance even after experiencing amnesia, that can count as a criterion for substance use disorder.
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Causes and Risk Factors
Addiction has no single cause, but there may be multiple factors at work. Genetics, environment, personality, and past experiences may all conspire to cause an individual to misuse substances and to develop a substance use disorder. Not everyone who uses drugs or alcohol recreationally will become addicted, but there are some risk factors that make it more likely in some people than in others, including:
- A family history of substance misuse and addiction
- Peer pressure, or spending time with people who use drugs and alcohol
- Having a mental illness, especially one or more that are untreated
- Having an impulsive personality type
- Experiencing trauma, especially as a child, or going through very stressful life situations
- An unstable home life or lack of family or parental involvement as a child
- First experimenting with drugs or alcohol at a young age
- Using drugs that are highly addictive, like opioids or stimulants
Some types of amnesia do have an underlying cause. Dissociative amnesia, for instance, is known to be triggered as an involuntary coping mechanism for trauma. Drug-induced amnesia is another example. There is a clear cause: the use of a specific drug or repeated misuse of drugs or alcohol. Some people may be more susceptible to drug-induced amnesia, but why is not understood. The biggest and most important risk factor is using a drug that has the potential side effect of causing amnesia or memory loss. Also a risk factor is misusing substances, with the risk increasing with frequency, duration, and larger doses.
Withdrawal and Detox
A substance use disorder must be treated in order for a person to be in recovery, and the first step is to go through detox. This causes withdrawal symptoms that can make it very easy to relapse, which is why detox should only be done with supervision. Symptoms can be very uncomfortable, including pain, tremors, irritability, depression, and more. For someone who has experienced drug-induced amnesia, detox may relieve the issue, restoring memories. Treatment for addiction after detox is necessary and can help those patients who continue to have some memory loss.
Addiction and drug-induced amnesia are co-occurring disorders when a person experiences both during the same period of time. Other co-occurring disorders may accompany these, compounding distress and making diagnosis and treatment more challenging. Mental illnesses are common with addiction, especially depression and anxiety disorders. There also may be some type of trauma disorder, and the experience of a traumatic event may contribute to amnesia.
Treatment and Prognosis
For someone struggling with addiction, once detox is complete long-term treatment can begin. Therapy is the main component of treatment, which may occur in an outpatient setting or in a residential facility. Therapy types vary by an individual’s needs, but behavioral therapies are often the most useful. These help patients learn to recognize their negative thoughts and behaviors and to make positive changes, to set and meet goals, and to learn to use healthy coping strategies and relaxation techniques.
Therapy for substance use disorder also puts an important focus on relapse prevention. This involves developing concrete strategies for avoiding drug use triggers, making positive lifestyle changes, cultivating new hobbies and activities, relying on social support, and developing action plans in the event a relapse occurs. In addition to therapy, treatment may include medications when appropriate, as well as alternative therapies, health and nutrition, family education, and exercise.
Most types of amnesia, including drug-induced amnesia, resolve without treatment. In the case of substance use, when a person is no longer using the issue of amnesia usually goes away and memories return. If there is persistent memory loss therapy may help, but it also may just take time for those memories to reappear. The prognosis for someone with a substance use disorder with drug-induced amnesia is good if he or she is dedicated to long-term treatment and relapse prevention.