What is Spontaneous Recovery?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Spontaneous recovery is a complicated term used in medicine, psychology and in other therapies. It sounds like it would always be a positive thing, since recovery can be related to getting well from some disorder or dysfunction. This is not always the case, and spontaneous recovery may be negative or positive, depending upon what is recovered. It can also prove deeply baffling to health professionals.

"Spontaneous recovery" related to alcoholism might not be meant positively.
"Spontaneous recovery" related to alcoholism might not be meant positively.

In certain types of psychology, particularly classical behavioral psychology, spontaneous recovery has to do with conditioning. In studies on animals, behaviorists could create an extinct behavior: one that no longer served any purpose. The assumption would be that that the animal being trained wouldn’t use the behavior any more because it was “extinguished.” Yet, in observation, these no longer used behaviors were still used, and the animal was said to have recovered them spontaneously, without any motivation to do so.

In spontaneous recovery, an addict may return to old habits including drinking and drug use.
In spontaneous recovery, an addict may return to old habits including drinking and drug use.

Anybody who has ever trained a dog might have noticed this from time to time. Even after long periods of training, especially to remove bad behaviors, every now and again, dogs will show spontaneous recovery. They may start doing the very things they’ve been trained not to do. Continued reinforcement of training could lower spontaneous recovery incidence, but there must always exist a sense that a behavior is not truly gone.

Spontaneous recovery can lead to more severe symptoms.
Spontaneous recovery can lead to more severe symptoms.

Many times people reference spontaneous recovery in addiction medicine. In some groups for alcoholics, it is made clear that alcoholism never fully dies, that it will always be there, even when a person is not drinking. Medical experts have labeled regression in alcohol and other drug addiction as a form of recovery that is spontaneous. Note, this is by no means positive, and the recovery referred to has nothing to do with recovery from addiction. Instead, the person recovers old habits and behaviors that may make them drink or use again, even if physical addiction has been extinguished.

There are more positive, if equally mystifying, definitions of spontaneous recovery. In medicine, if a person, especially without treatment, suddenly heals or gets well, the term may be used to describe the condition. Sometimes this concept is also used when wellness occurs in the early stages of any planned medical treatment that could not be reasonably expected to have lasted long enough to promote recovery.

Doctors may also discuss recovery of a spontaneous nature in things like strokes, where suddenly huge speech losses or physical deficits disappear. Alternately, there is medical literature that takes on recoveries from conditions like autism, stuttering, and many severe medical states where the body simply healed. Such instances may be studied to determine if there are any characteristics in the person that promoted sudden and unexpected healing, but they seldom reveal much. Many simply evaluate recoveries of this nature as medical miracles that will continue to defy explanation.

Some people experience spontaneous recovery after a stroke, when they suddenly regain muscle control.
Some people experience spontaneous recovery after a stroke, when they suddenly regain muscle control.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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