The Difference Between Addiction and Dependence

Nearly 20 million Americans suffer from a substance abuse disorder each year. Substance abuse disorders include dependence and addiction to alcohol, illegal drugs, and prescription medications. They severely impact the health and safety of the people who are affected by them.

Though addiction and dependence are terms that are often used interchangeably, there are some important differences between them. Dependence means that your body has gotten used to the substance, while addiction is a disease that causes you to continue using the substance even if it causes ill effects in your life.

At Headrick Medical Center, Daniel J. Headrick, MD, and our compassionate team in San Juan Capistrano, California, are here to help you recover from substance abuse disorder. Offering a range of medications and counseling tailored to your needs, we can help you live a life free of substance abuse.

Read on to learn more about the key differences between addiction and dependence, and what recovery could look like for you.

Understanding substance dependence

In general, dependence is a physical change that occurs when you abuse a particular substance. Substances like alcohol and drugs change the way your body and brain work, which can cause physical dependence on the substance over time.

When you first start taking a drug, you might experience a “high,” or pleasurable effect, because the drug elicits different chemical production in your brain. Over time, your body’s tolerance to the drug increases and you might need to take more to experience the same effects.

Your body gets used to the presence of the drug and becomes dependent on it to function normally. If you suddenly stop taking the drug, it’s likely that you’ll experience symptoms of withdrawal that can include:

Signs of dependence include increased tolerance to the substance and withdrawal symptoms if use is halted abruptly. Substance dependence often comes along with addiction, which can make the two conditions difficult to differentiate. However, it’s possible to be dependent on a substance that isn’t addictive, such as prednisone. 

Understanding substance addiction

While dependence is a physical condition, addiction is both mental and physical. It’s a brain disease characterized by continued substance abuse despite negative effects to your health and personal relationships.

If you have an addiction, you might be unable to stop using a substance even if you want to. It’s common to have a physical dependence on the drug or alcohol, but you also experience an intense compulsion to use it or participate in other harmful behavior regardless of the consequences.

While alcohol and drug addiction are common, it’s possible to get addicted to activities like gambling or sex. Addictive substances and behaviors cause changes in your brain that can’t be reversed by simply wanting to quit.

Physical dependency can disappear with treatment, but addiction is often more difficult to treat. Someone who has been in recovery from a drug addiction can quickly relapse and undo years of progress quickly.

Getting help for substance abuse

Substance use disorders can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, or family history. Dr. Headrick and our team understand the deep impact that substance addiction and dependence can have on an individual and the people around them, and we’re here to help.

Dependency and addiction can be treated with medication. We work with you to slowly reduce your physical dependence and minimize withdrawal symptoms to set you up for success and ongoing health. Addiction is a disease that requires expert care and support, but recovery is possible.

At Headrick Medical Center, we combine medication and counseling with medication-assisted treatment (MAT) to help you transform your life. If you’re looking for help to overcome a substance abuse disorder, call our office today or book an appointment online.

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