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Physical Dependence vs. Drug Addiction: Is There a Difference?


If a person cannot control their substance use, others may refer to them as an "addict." And when people speak about addiction, they often state that the addict is "dependent" on the substance in question. Over time, these terms have come to be used interchangeably. However, while drug addiction and physical dependence often occur together, they are not the same thing and may have a different impact on an individual’s battle with drug abuse.

Recognizing Drug Abuse

Before you determine whether someone is struggling with addiction or physical dependence, you may first notice signs of their drug abuse. While every individual may display different signs, symptoms of substance abuse often include the following:

  • Using or drinking a greater amount of the substance or over longer periods of time
  • Unsuccessfully reducing drug or alcohol intake
  • Spending an excessive amount of time obtaining, abusing, or recovering from the substance
  • Intense desires and cravings for the substance
  • Ongoing use of substances that prevent maintaining responsibilities

A family doctor, psychiatrist, or another mental health professional can diagnose substance abuse. In a professional evaluation, clinical findings are dependent on which substance the person is abusing, how often they are abusing the substance, and how long they have been taking the substances. The clinical findings may include the following:

  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Constant fatigue
  • Red eyes
  • Poor hygiene and unkempt appearance 
  • Abnormalities in blood pressure or heart rate
  • Sleep issues
  • Depression
  • Anxiety

If it is a case of substance abuse, doctors will need to understand the root of the issue in the course of developing a treatment plan. This includes identifying the potential roles of physical dependence vs. drug addiction.

What Is Addiction?

The definition of addiction is relatively straightforward. When people have addictive tendencies, they are driven to excessively use a particular substance or perform a certain behavior. Someone with an addiction will continue to act on this impulse, even if their life begins to fall apart. Often, addicts’ relationships with loved ones crumble, they lose their jobs and homes, and their financial situation worsens.

Substance addiction generally occurs when a person performs an activity repeatedly to experience a "high" that puts their life and responsibilities at risk. Studies have shown that addicts' brains have a different chemical makeup than that of a non-addict. These differences hinder the addict's ability to control their impulses. 

Certain factors influence the likelihood that someone will become an addict, including obsessive tendencies, low self-esteem, poor social skills, and the presence of a mental health disorder. In addition, children whose parents are addicts and children who are abused are much more likely to become addicts.

What Is Physical Dependence?

As opposed to a behavior-driven addiction, when someone is physically dependent on a substance, it is because they have developed a tolerance to the substance, and their body needs it to operate normally or even stay alive. For example, people who have been prescribed opioids for pain management run the risk of becoming physically dependent on the drug, meaning that they no longer feel capable of having a good quality of life without it. People may develop physical dependence as a result of the following:

  • Taking a prescribed drug for longer than necessary
  • Increasing drug doses
  • Taking a drug for recreational purposes

In the throes of physical dependence, a person's body will signal them to continue taking a substance in order to function. If a person cannot use their substance of choice, they may experience the symptoms of withdrawal

The Difference Between Physical Dependence and Drug Addiction

The primary difference between physical dependence and addiction is that addicts take a substance to feel a heightened sense of pleasure. In contrast, people with physical dependence will take a substance to feel normal. As stated by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, "physical dependence in and of itself does not constitute addiction, but it often accompanies addiction." 

Essentially, addiction affects the user's ability to control themselves, rendering them unable to restrain their impulse to use a substance or perform a behavior. People addicted to a substance often become physically dependent on it over time. However, a person can also become addicted to a behavior, such as shopping or gambling.

It is important to note that physical dependence and drug addiction have unique treatments. If a person is addicted to a substance, they will need to undergo detox immediately. This allows addicts to cleanse all substances from their system to proceed with the subsequent treatment phases, including staying sober and seeking counseling. 

If someone is physically dependent on a drug, their treatment is slightly different. To end physical dependence, users must gradually decrease their dosage while under a doctor's supervision to avoid serious withdrawal. For some, this treatment plan is faster than addiction treatment because there may be less of a psychological component involved.

What Is the Treatment for Drug Abuse?

Each person's treatment plan is unique, based on their situation. The recommended treatment for substance abuse is dependent on the following:

  • The patient's age, health history, and current health
  • The extent of symptoms and dependence
  • The type of substance abused
  • The patient's tolerance for medicines, therapies, or procedures
  • The patient's expectations and preferences for the course of recovery

There are various recovery plans available for patients, including inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation. The best treatment plan will depend on which substance the patient abuses but typically entails detoxification (if necessary), counseling, and long-term follow-up management.

Identify Substance Abuse with Countrywide Testing

Physical dependence and addiction are not exactly the same. But if either condition is driving someone you know to abuse drugs or alcohol, it is important to diagnose and treat the issue as soon as possible. Early diagnosis and treatment greatly increase the chances of a successful recovery. So if you think a loved one may be struggling with drug addiction or physical dependence, get them medical help as soon as possible.

Of course, it’s not always easy to tell whether someone is abusing drugs. If you need answers, Countrywide can help. We offer easy, multipanel drug tests that can be used in the comfort of your own home, letting you know if and when your loved one needs support for substance addiction.

At Countrywide, we provide results you can trust. To learn more, explore our catalog of convenient, at-home drug tests or contact our team today!