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Substance Use Disorder

What is substance use disorder?

The main words used medically to describe substance abuse or addiction include the following:

Substance (drug) abuse (alcohol or other drugs)

Substance abuse is the medical term used to describe a pattern of using a substance (drug) that causes significant problems or distress. This may be missing work or school, using the substance in dangerous situations, such as driving a car. It may lead to substance-related legal problems, or continued substance use that interferes with friendships, family relationships, or both. Substance abuse, as a recognized medical brain disorder, refers to the abuse of illegal substances, such as marijuana, heroin, cocaine, or methamphetamine. Or it may be the abuse of legal substances, such as alcohol, nicotine, or prescription medicines. Alcohol is the most common legal drug of abuse.

Substance (drug) dependence

Substance dependence is the medical term used to describe abuse of drugs or alcohol that continues even when significant problems related to their use have developed. Signs of dependence include:

  • Tolerance to or need for increased amounts of the drug to get an effect

  • Withdrawal symptoms that happen if you decrease or stop using the drug that you find difficult to cut down or quit

  • Spending a lot of time to get, use, and recover from the effects of using drugs

  • Withdrawal from social and recreational activities

  • Continued use of the drug even though you are aware of the physical, psychological, and family or social problems that are caused by your ongoing drug abuse

What substances are most often abused?

Substances frequently abused include:

  • Alcohol

  • Marijuana

  • Prescription medicines, such as pain pills, stimulants, or anxiety pills 

  • Methamphetamine  

  • Cocaine

  • Opiates

  • Hallucinogens 

  • Inhalants

What causes drug abuse or dependence?

Cultural and societal factors determine what are acceptable or allowable forms of  drug or alcohol use. Public laws determine what kind of drug use is legal or illegal. The question of what type of substance use can be considered normal or acceptable remains controversial. Substance abuse and dependence are caused by multiple factors, including genetic vulnerability, environmental stressors, social pressures, individual personality characteristics, and psychiatric problems. But which of these factors has the biggest influence in any one person cannot be determined in all cases.

What are the symptoms of drug abuse or dependence?

The following are the most common behaviors that mean a person is having a problem with drug or alcohol abuse. But each person may have slightly different symptoms. Symptoms may include:

  • Using or drinking larger amounts or over longer periods of time than planned.

  • Continually wanting or unsuccessfully trying to cut down or control use of drugs or alcohol.

  • Spending a lot of time getting, using, or recovering from use of drugs or alcohol.

  • Craving, or a strong desire to use drugs or alcohol.

  • Ongoing drug or alcohol use that interferes with work, school, or home duties.

  • Using drugs or alcohol even with continued relationship problems caused by use.

  • Giving up or reducing activities because of drug or alcohol use

  • Taking risks, such as sexual risks or driving under the influence.

  • Continually using drugs or alcohol even though it is causing or adding to physical or psychological problems.

  • Developing tolerance or the need to use more drugs or alcohol to get the same effect. Or using the same amount of drugs or alcohol, but without the same effect.

  • Having withdrawal symptoms if not using drugs or alcohol. Or using alcohol or another drug to avoid such symptoms. 

The symptoms of drug or alcohol abuse may resemble other medical problems or psychiatric conditions. Always consult your doctor for a diagnosis.

How is drug abuse or dependence diagnosed?

A family doctor, psychiatrist, or qualified mental health professional usually diagnoses substance abuse. Clinical findings often depend on the substance abused, the frequency of use, and the length of time since last used, and may include:

  • Weight loss

  • Constant fatigue

  • Red eyes

  • Little concern for hygiene

  • Lab abnormalities

  • Unexpected abnormalities in heart rate or blood pressure

  • Depression, anxiety, or sleep problems 

Treatment for drug abuse or dependence

Specific treatment for drug abuse or dependence will be determined by your doctor based on:

  • Your age, overall health, and health history

  • Extent of the symptoms

  • Extent of the dependence

  • Type of substance abused

  • Your tolerance for specific medicines, procedures, or therapies

  • Expectations for the course of the condition

  • Your opinion or preference

A variety of treatment (or recovery) programs for substance abuse are available on an inpatient or outpatient basis. Programs considered are usually based on the type of substance abused. Detoxification (if needed, based on the substance abused) and long-term follow-up management or recovery-oriented systems of care are important features of successful treatment. Long-term follow-up management usually includes formalized group meetings and psychosocial support systems, as well as continued medical supervision. Individual and family psychotherapy are often recommended to address the issues that may have contributed to and resulted from the development of a substance abuse disorder.

Substance Abuse/Chemical Dependency - WellSpan Health

Online Medical Reviewer: Holloway, Beth, RN, MEd
Online Medical Reviewer: Stock, Christopher J., PharmD
Last Review Date: 2014-10-09T00:00:00
Last Modified Date: 2016-02-10T00:00:00
Published Date: 2016-02-10T00:00:00
Last Review Date: 2007-06-30T00:00:00
© 2016 WellSpan Health. All Rights Reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

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