Understanding the Difference Between Drug Dependence and Drug Addiction
With more and more Americans taking powerful medications, it is important for them to be aware of the danger of drug dependency. At the same time, it is also important to recognize that drug dependency is not the same thing as drug addiction. Dependency describes a physiological response to drug use while addiction describes a potential psychological response.
Drug dependency is really a physical dependence upon a chemical substance. It occurs because the body is wonderfully designed to automatically self-adjust in order to maintain normal, healthy body function. When chemicals are introduced to the body system, the body’s auto-adjust reaction kicks in. The body involuntarily seeks to maintain healthy function and balance, a state known as homeostasis.
The body’s ability to compensate and accommodate for the presence of outside chemicals can lead to a physical dependency. If, for example, the drug/chemical triggers heavy dopamine responses, the body will compensate by producing less dopamine itself in an effort to maintain homeostasis. Patients on pain medication often find that over time, greater doses of the drugs are needed to achieve the same level of pain relief. This is known as drug tolerance. Again, this is because of the body’s amazing work in adjusting. If the drug intake ceases abruptly, the body cannot immediately adjust. Withdrawal symptoms will eventually pass, but they signal the body’s physical dependency on the substance.
Drug addiction describes a psychological dependence upon a chemical substance. While dependency plays a role in addiction, the difference lies primarily in the person’s psychological attachment to the chemicals. Tolerance and withdrawal are symptoms of addiction, but it is chiefly diagnosed by a person’s mental relationship to the drug. When a person attempts to wean themselves off the drug and repeatedly fails or when their craving for the drug overrides other important aspects of life (social/professional/recreational) they meet the criteria for addiction. Most often the person addicted to chemicals will continue to misuse them despite negative consequences which result.
Drug dependence can happen with legal or illegal substances. It can happen even when the person is taking the drugs according to his/her doctor’s orders. Dependency is not the equivalent of addiction. A person who suspects that they may have become drug dependent can and should speak with their doctor about switching medications or weaning off the drug under their physician’s care. Physical reactions may occur, but the body will eventually make the necessary adjustments.
Drug addiction can also take place with the use of either legal or illegal substances. It may happen while using medications as prescribed, although the likelihood of that is greatly reduced. Checking in regularly with the prescribing physician is the best way to avoid forming an addiction. Since addiction includes a psychological connection to the chemical, it will often require the help of a counselor or therapist in addition to the help of the person’s medical doctor. Once drug tolerance and withdrawal symptoms are present, the person should consult with their physician.