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Updated on September 27, 2022

Physical Dependence vs Addiction

Is There a Difference Between Physical Dependence and Addiction?

Though dependence and addiction are often used interchangeably, they aren't the same thing.

Addiction refers to biochemical changes in the brain that lead to psychological, and sometimes, physical reliance on a drug.

Dependence refers strictly to a physical need for a substance.

Psychological dependence is another way of saying a person is addicted to something. They might not experience physical withdrawal symptoms when they stop using — but their brain processes have changed.

It’s possible to be both physically dependent and psychologically dependent on a substance.

Because the "addiction" and "dependence" are so often confused with each other, some organizations prefer the term substance use disorder (SUD).

You can be addicted without being dependent and be dependent without having an addiction. However, it’s common for physical dependence to accompany addiction.

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Physical Dependence Definition

Dependence refers to physical symptoms associated with using or not using a substance.

When someone is dependent, his or her body adapts to a drug and requires more of it to achieve the same effect. No longer taking that drug produces symptoms, including withdrawal syndrome.

The desire to avoid withdrawal is what can eventually lead to addiction.

Withdrawal symptoms vary depending on the drug. Some drugs have more severe symptoms than others.

Some symptoms of withdrawal include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Restlessness
  • Insomnia
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Sweating
  • Shaking
  • Delerium tremens (severe cases)
  • Seizures (severe cases)

Addiction Definition

Addiction is a physiological or psychological need for a habit-forming substance, behavior, or activity. This need is chronic and compulsive and has harmful physical, psychological, or social effects.

When addicted to a substance, a person cannot stop using it despite the negative consequences it has on their life.

Some negative consequences of addiction are:

  • Missed work
  • Neglected relationships
  • Financial issues
  • Trouble with the law
  • Failure to attend to family obligations
  • Compulsive drug-seeking behavior
  • Physical dependency

These all indicate that the mind (and possibly body) is out of balance and is struggling to adjust to life without the substance.

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How to Determine if You Are Dependent or Addicted

Drug dependence is easier to determine than addiction. If you stop taking the drug and experience withdrawal symptoms, you are dependent.

It’s not as easy to know if you are addicted. It’s even possible to be dependent on a drug without being addicted to it.

A good example is someone managing cancer-related pain with opioids. That person might be dependent and experience withdrawal symptoms if they suddenly stop taking it. However, it’s not an addiction because there is no compulsion to use the drug despite harm.

The line between physical dependence vs. addiction blurs when someone is dependent on a drug because of chronic pain. The patient may seek pain medication to relieve their symptoms — but is it caused by addiction?

In most cases, the presence of an addiction is determined by noticeable negative consequences to one's life.

If the substance use is hurting you, damaging your relationships, interfering with school or work, or causing legal problems, and you continue to seek the drug, that's likely an addiction.

On the other hand, if you crave the drug or experience withdrawal when not using it (dependence), but you can prevent yourself from taking it, it’s probably not an addiction.

Treatment for Addiction and Dependence

Addiction treatment is the best way to get help and overcome your dependency or addiction.

Substance abuse treatment usually involves:

  1. Detoxification to help a dependent person cope with withdrawal symptoms
  2. Support and guidance for compulsive seeking of the drug

Treatment programs occur in a variety of settings for different lengths of time. They are based on different theories and incorporate different philosophies.

Treatment might include behavioral therapy, medication, or a combination of the two. It could also include support for dealing with addiction to prescription medications, illicit drugs, or alcohol.

Many treatment providers also address co-occurring disorders. Also known as dual diagnosis, this is when someone is experiencing both substance dependence and a mental health disorder.

There might be personal and group therapy, and the loved ones of the addicted person might attend counseling. Finding a treatment program that is right for you is an important part of recovery.

It’s also important to realize that addiction is a chronic disorder that can result in relapse. Short-term or one-time treatment options are rarely effective. Treatment must address withdrawal if it occurs, as well as addiction, relapse, and other issues.

Success is most likely when a person opts for a long-term treatment program with ongoing support.

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