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Updated on September 28, 2022
3 min read

Physical Dependence vs Addiction

Is There a Difference Between Physical Dependence and Addiction?

While dependence and addiction are often used interchangeably, they are different. Because of this confusion, some organizations prefer substance use disorder (SUD).

Addiction refers to biochemical changes in the brain. On the other hand, dependence refers strictly to a physical need for a substance. 

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

Several factors determine whether a person has a dependency or addiction, such as:

  • Length of use
  • Failed attempts at stopping
  • Method of use
  • Types of drugs
  • Causes of addiction
  • Combination of drugs

The longer a person uses a drug, the more likely their dependency will become an addiction. They become accustomed to using the drug every day to function. 

It can be hard to stop when the pattern becomes ingrained into a user’s psyche. The problem may even reach the point where they feel like they can’t live without it. Furthermore, they can’t quit even if they want to.

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Physical Dependence Definition

Dependence refers to physical symptoms associated with using or not using a substance. Psychological dependence is another way of saying a person is addicted to something. 

When someone is dependent, their 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.

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. 

Addiction has harmful physical, psychological, and 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

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How to Determine if You are Dependent or Addicted

There are clear distinctions between addiction and dependence. However, it’s not always so cut and dry. 

Some nuances can make it difficult to determine if someone is addicted or dependent on a substance. 

The line between addiction and dependence blurs when someone is dependent on a drug because of chronic pain. The person may seek pain medication for relief, but does addiction cause it?

Here are a few factors that can help identify addiction or dependence:

Addiction

In most cases, addiction is determined by noticeable negative consequences to one's life. If a substance harms you, your relationships, and your obligations, it’s most likely addiction.

Here are a few other signs of addiction:

  • Family history of addiction
  • Sudden changes in mood
  • Aggression
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Apathy
  • Inability to quit
  • Using a substance despite the consequences
  • Bloodshot or glazed eyes
  • Constant illness
  • Unexplained injuries
  • Abrupt change in weight
  • Bad skin, hair, teeth, and nails 
  • Memory problems 
  • Slurred words or rapid rambling

Dependence

Dependence is easier to determine than addiction. You are dependent if you stop taking the drug and experience withdrawal symptoms.

However, the desire to avoid withdrawal is what can eventually lead to addiction.

Here are a few signs of dependence:

  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Glaucoma
  • Some or all the symptoms of addiction
  • High tolerance for the substance
  • Requiring larger or more frequent doses
  • Physical symptoms of withdrawal 

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Treatment for Addiction and Dependence

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

However, treatment programs occur in various settings for different lengths of time. 

Treatment programs are often based on different theories and philosophies. So, it’s important to consult a doctor to find the best program for your needs.

Substance abuse treatment usually involves:

It’s 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 symptoms and potential relapses if it occurs. Success is most likely when a person has access to long-term treatment and ongoing support.

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Updated on September 28, 2022
8 sources cited
Updated on September 28, 2022
  1. Difference between Addiction and Dependence.” Cleveland Clinic, 2019.
  2. Elkins, Chris. “Addiction vs. Dependence.” Drug Rehab, 2020.
  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Is There a Difference between Physical Dependence and Addiction?” Drug Abuse, 2019.
  4. Jaffe, Adie. “Physical Addiction or Psychological Addiction – Is There a Real Difference?” Psychology Today, 2010.
  5. National Institute on Drug Abuse. “What Is Drug Addiction Treatment?” Drug Abuse, 2019.
  6. The National Alliance of Advocates for Buprenorphine Treatment.” Addiction vs Physical Dependence - An Important Distinction.
  7. Substance abuse and mental health services administration “Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders.” SAMHSA, 2015.
  8. NIDA. "Is there a difference between physical dependence and addiction?." National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2020.

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