Understanding Dependence Versus Addiction

By The Fix staff 10/28/20

Opioid dependence and opioid addiction are closely related, but two distinct conditions.

Young woman, thoughtful, looks out a window.
Addiction often results from using drugs to cope with underlying physical, emotional or mental health issues. Photo 183930330 © Anton Harets | Dreamstime.com

Opioids are powerful substances, whether they’re being used in a medically-sanctioned way or abused. Any opioid is likely to have an impact on your health and wellness, but how that plays out will vary greatly. Most people who use opioids regularly will experience some level of physical dependence, and others will develop opioid addiction.

Understanding the difference between physical dependence and opioid addiction can help you find the treatment that you need.

What is opioid dependence?

To understand physical dependence, you need to understand a bit about how opioids work in the body. Opioids attach to opioid receptors. Normally, these receptors can be used to send pain signals; having opioids bound to them prevents pain signals from being sent. That’s why opioids are commonly prescribed for pain.

However, over time your brain adjusts to the opioids that you’re taking — even if you’re following doctor’s orders. You might need more opioids to experience the same pain relief.

The brain changes that happen as a result of taking opioids can lead to opioid dependence. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines dependence as experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking an opioid medication or using illicit opioids. Symptoms of opioid withdrawal can include anxiety, nausea, diarrhea and sweating.

Over time, if you continue to take opioids — whether prescribed or illicit — you’ll likely need more and more opioids to feel normal and avoid the symptoms of withdrawal. This is because your opioid tolerance has increased. That can lead to addictive behaviors.

What is opioid addiction?

Opioid dependence is a physical condition brought about by brain changes, whereas opioid addiction is a condition that can happen as your physical dependence becomes more acute, according to Waismann Method® Opioid Treatment Specialists.

Addiction to opioids is a pattern of physical and emotional responses that stem from your physical dependence on opioids. As you try to avoid withdrawal symptoms, your behaviors can change. This can have a devastating impact on your life and impact your career, friendships and family relationships.

People who are experiencing opioid addiction can display uncharacteristic behaviors, like:

  • Ignoring responsibilities to family or work because you are focused on obtaining opioids.
  • Having trouble controlling your emotions or behaviors.
  • Fixating on how and when you will next be able to obtain opioids.

With time, these symptoms of addiction can erode the bedrock of your life.

Treatment for opioid dependence and addiction

Whether you are struggling with opioid dependence or full-blown opioid addiction, the first step toward treatment is detoxing from opioids. Detox is the process of removing opioids from your body, so that you no longer need opioids to function at a normal level.

Detox can be painful, because it brings about the symptoms of withdrawal. However, there is a medical detox option that provides the highest level of comfort available. Rapid detox allows your body to be flushed of opioids while you are under anesthesia in a fully-accredited hospital. Because you’re sedated, you don’t feel the acute symptoms of withdrawal. Using a combination of medications, detox can happen much more quickly than it would under normal circumstances if you tried to detox on your own.

Addressing physical dependence is only one step toward recovering from opioid addiction. After you have detoxed from opioids, you can address the pain — whether physical or emotional — that drove you to use opioids in the first place.

At Waismann Method®, people who undergo detox receive continued care at Domus Retreat, where they can make a plan for an individualized approach to life in recovery. There are no set schedules or required meetings, but there is space to rejuvenate and recover, and guidance toward the next steps that are right for you.

A dignified approach to treating opioid dependence and addiction

Waismann Method® understands that opioid addiction is rooted in the physical brain changes that take place when opioids enter your body. Furthermore, addiction often results from using drugs to cope with underlying physical, emotional or mental health issues. There is no shame or blame in treating opioid addiction — just an understanding that no matter your past, you can have a new opioid-free beginning.

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