Relapse, or the recurrence of drug or alcohol addiction following a period of remission or recovery, is common among those with diagnosed substance use disorders (SUDs). Rates of relapse for drug addiction (40 to 60 percent) generally align with those for other chronic diseases, such as diabetes, asthma and hypertension, according to a fact sheet from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. However, SUD treatment can help those with a diagnosed addiction reduce their risks of relapse and successfully manage their illness. This article will summarize the latest research on relapse rates and addiction recovery, so that readers and their families can make educated decisions regarding treatment options (such as length and type of treatment and whether to get professional help in the first place).
SUD Treatment and Relapse Rates
A number of variables can govern rates of relapse for addiction. For example, participation in a 12-step recovery group like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is one evidence-based buffer against relapse. So is length of participation in AA. One study found that 72 percent of individuals who participated in AA for 27 weeks or more in years two to three were abstinent at 16 years, which is twice as many as those who did not participate.
Nevertheless, two general trends emerge from an overview of the current research regarding SUD treatment and relapse rates: SUD treatment can significantly reduce relapse rates, and relapse rates are highest during the first year of sobriety but decline greatly with each subsequent year of successful abstinence.
With respect to the first trend, there is evidence to show that even a few days of SUD treatment can greatly reduce relapse rates, on the basis of data from the Substance Abuse and Health Administration. A press release from the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids summarized those findings as follows: “Patients who received addiction treatment within 30 days of going through detoxification took 40 percent longer to relapse if they fell off the wagon at all.”
Additional research has confirmed the second trend. A 2007 study published by the National Institutes of Health compared relapse rates during the first year of recovery with those in succeeding years. The conclusion? That whereas only about a third of those in their first year of recovery will remain abstinent, the success rate goes up to more than 50 percent after the one-year mark. For those who have attained five years of sobriety, the projection is dramatically lower: “If you can make it to five years of sobriety, your chance of relapse is less than 15 percent,” an article in Psychology Today concluded, summarizing the results of the same study.
Rates of alcohol relapse are high for those with alcohol use disorders, and are comparable to rates of relapse for nicotine and heroin. The National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse has cited evidence that 90 percent of alcoholics will experience at least one relapse following treatment, noting that aligns with nicotine and heroin relapse rates.
Still, statistics regarding alcohol relapse follow the same general trend of rewarding those who successfully ward off relapse for at least one year. Strikingly, whereas relapse rates for alcoholism and alcohol abuse during the first year of recovery reportedly start as high as 80 percent, after two years that frequency falls to 40 percent.
What is more, research has found that individuals who seek help for an alcohol use disorder are more likely to be in remission at the third-year mark in recovery than individuals who do not get help for their disease. That was the conclusion of a study in the journal, Addiction. In the study, researchers examined recovery outcomes for those in alcohol treatment and those not in alcohol treatment, by assessing relapse rates at the one-year, three-year, eight-year and 16-year mark. They found those who sought treatment did better.
Cocaine and Meth Relapse Rates
Relapse rates for the stimulant drugs cocaine and methamphetamine reinforce the same impression that addiction treatment makes a positive difference and can be a significant predictor of recovery. A national study by researchers at the Institute of Behavioral Research at Texas Christian University followed people who had gone through treatment for cocaine addiction over the course of one year post-rehab. They found that 377 (23.5 percent) of 1,605 individuals were using cocaine weekly within one year of treatment — a significant drop from the 73 percent who were using cocaine weekly before treatment.
The statistics regarding meth relapse rates also favor choosing detox and treatment over detox alone. In one study cited by Reuters, 48 percent of meth users who followed detox with drug rehab were still sober after three months; and 20 percent of those who attended treatment were still abstinent after one year, in contrast to only 7 percent of people who had undergone only detox or received no treatment.
Relapse Rates for Opiate Addiction
Like alcohol, opiate addiction exhibits high relapse rates — more than 80 percent among those who receive behavioral treatments alone, according to the research. However, when used in conjunction with behavioral treatments, medication-assisted treatments like Suboxone (buprenorphine) have significantly lowered relapse rates.