Addiction or Dependence: A Life and Death Difference

In the 1980s, when addiction science professionals sat down to agree on terminology for the DSM-IV, the room decided by only one vote to call addiction “dependence.” The issue did not rest there. The latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM-5, labels addictions as “substance use disorders,” because “dependence” does not quite cover what addiction really is.

Addiction and Dependence : Apples and Oranges

Dependence is when a person becomes physically reliant on a substance, and experiences withdrawals without it. While dependence often happens as addiction develops, full addiction is much more complex, and is defined by continuing to use drugs or engage in behaviors despite negative consequences.

As an example, physical dependence can happen with many different medications. People who take antidepressants, for example, become dependent on them and undergo withdrawal symptoms if they stop taking the medications. In this case, these patients are dependent on antidepressants but are not addicted to them, and antidepressants are not considered to be addictive.

People in pain go to their doctors for relief, take pain medicine as prescribed, and if they take it long enough, their bodies get used to the medication, expect it, and throw a fit without it. When (if) their chronic or acute pain is over, doctors know to taper patients from pain medicine if physical dependence happens, and to treat withdrawal symptoms to ease the process. The patients may or may not know they are feeling sick because of withdrawal, but if they are otherwise happy in their lives they won’t bother with trying to find opioids illegally on the streets.

They do not persist in using the drug despite negative consequences, which defines addiction. They were dependent on the drug, but not addicted to it.

(Note: Among pain patients prescribed pain medication, only 8-12% develop addiction. Maia Szalavitz reports for Scientific American that “75 percent of all opioid misuse starts with people using medication that wasn’t prescribed for them—obtained from a friend, family member or dealer.”)

Addiction develops in 10-20% of people when multiple risk factors coincide with drug use (whether prescribed or recreational). If people have genetic predispositions, a history of trauma, and/or mental illness(es), they will be vulnerable to developing addiction. Even for these individuals, addiction takes time as they learn to associate the substance or activity with pleasure or relief, and the absence of the substance or activity with misery.

Individuals addicted to opioids are usually also physically dependent on them. Often a first line of treatment is to enter people with opioid substance use disorders into detox, where withdrawal symptoms may be treated while the person is monitored by medical staff. What happens next unfortunately depends on which doctor is managing the case (not all treatments are equally effective).

But to whatever treatment they are referred, individuals with opioid use disorder are at risk for relapse long after withdrawal symptoms are gone. This is why addictions, or substance use disorders, are very different from physical dependence. Once a person has gone through withdrawals and been abstinent from the substance for a period of time, the body readjusts and is no longer dependent on the substance. But people with substance use disorders still crave the drug.

Moreover, with certain drugs, like opioids, the body builds up tolerance with repeated use, which means the drug no longer affects the body unless the dose is increased. When a person enters a period of abstinence, their tolerance drops substantially.

Sadly, people with opioid use disorders often relapse and die when trying abstinence-based treatment, because they’re still addicted and their tolerance is gone. When they take the opioid at their usual dose, they overdose. What was once an okay amount is now fatal. Buprenorphine and methadone maintenance are recommended to keep people alive by keeping tolerance stable (without being high). Life-long maintenance may be necessary. If a person is tapered or otherwise terminates maintenance treatment, they are at higher risk of fatal overdose.

In the case of addiction, distinguishing between “substance use disorder” and “dependence” is a life and death debate. Understanding that substance use disorders – addictions – are more than physical dependence means we will help these individuals long after withdrawals are gone and for as long as they need treatment.

This post was last updated 5/4/17.

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  1. […] dependent on an opioid, for example, but they do not persist using despite negative consequences so they are not addicted. Babies born dependent to substances are weaned off, and there is no evidence of adverse effects […]

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