Chemical addiction, which is more often phrased as chemical dependency, describes the development of physical or psychological dependence on mind-altering chemicals.

This dependence is typically treated with a medical detox program. Chemicals that can produce chemical addiction include alcohol, prescription drugs, illicit drugs, and even some over-the-counter medications.

How Does Chemical Dependency Develop?

Chemical dependency or chemical addiction is the normal reaction to the repetitive use of many different types of drugs or medications. Initially, when you first take the substance, you feel some type of reaction to it. However, as you continue to take the substance repeatedly, your body develops a sort of resistance to the effects of the substance (tolerance), and you need to take more of the substance to get the same effect.

Tolerance develops because your system produces other substances that counteract the effects of the drug. You then need more of the drug to get the same effect that you once achieved with smaller amounts.

Over time, as you continue to take more and more of the drug, your system produces higher levels of neurotransmitters, hormones, and other substances that counteract the effects of the drug.

Eventually, when you stop taking the drug, these increased levels of neurotransmitters and hormones lead to an imbalance in your system. This manifests in the opposite manner of the effects of the drug.

When this imbalance is so severe that you begin to experience withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking the drug, you have developed chemical dependency.

Can You Have Chemical Dependence Without Substance Abuse?

It is possible for you to develop chemical dependency (physical dependence) and never abuse the substance.

For instance, many people who have chronic issues with pain as a result of severe arthritis or some other disease may take powerful opioid drugs for extended periods. Some of these people will develop physical dependence on opioids, but if they only use the drug as prescribed and under the supervision of their physician, they would not be diagnosed with a substance use disorder (substance abuse or addiction).

Some people who use antidepressants for extended periods to treat depression may develop withdrawal symptoms if they abruptly discontinue them. However, these individuals would not be diagnosed with substance abuse issues if they use the medication to address their depression while being under the supervision of a physician.

Physical dependence on any chemical is often a normal process associated with repetitive use of a drug.

How Does Chemical Dependency Differ from a Substance Use Disorder?

A substance use disorder is a recognized medical disorder. It refers to the abuse of drugs or alcohol that leads to significant issues with normal functioning and/or significant distress in life. Chemical addiction (chemical dependency) is a normal reaction to the repetitive use of many different types of medications.

The American Psychiatric Association(APA) designated the term substance use disorder to describe what many people often referred to as substance abuse or addiction and to differentiate the psychological disorder of addiction from physical dependence.

Thus, the term chemical addiction is meant to describe the physical dependence that occurs in individuals with substance use disorders. Chemical dependency describes the overall process of the development of withdrawal symptoms in individuals.

However, the terms chemical addiction and chemical dependency are often used interchangeably to describe the development of withdrawal symptoms (physical dependence) in relation to any substance.

How is Chemical Dependency Treated?

If you have developed physical dependence (chemical dependence) on a medication as a result of using it to treat a disease or disorder while under the supervision of your physician, and you decide to discontinue it, your physician will likely taper you off the drug. This involves prescribing smaller doses over time to gradually wean you off the medication.

For individuals who develop physical dependence as a result of substance abuse, the process is often similar. One of the first steps in recovery is medical detox.

According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), certain medications are commonly used during medical detox.

  • For opioid use disorders, opioid replacement medications like methadone or buprenorphine (the active drug in Suboxone) are commonly used.
  • For alcohol use disorders, the most common medications used during medical detox are benzodiazepines like Valium (diazepam) and Librium (chlordiazepoxide).
  • For benzodiazepine abuse, long-acting benzodiazepines like Valium or Librium are often tapered off throughout medical detox.
  • Other drugs may be used for various substance use disorders.

Medication-Assisted Treatment

According to SAMHSA, medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is a broad term used to describe the use of medications in the treatment of substance use disorders. Although the medical detox process from many drugs of abuse requires the use of a similar drug and a tapering strategy, this is not the strategy used for all chemical substances.

For instance, if you have been diagnosed with stimulant use disorder as a result of abusing crystal meth, you would not be given increasingly smaller doses of meth during the medical detox process.

Instead, several different types of drugs might be administered to you to address the specific symptoms you are having.

These could include benzodiazepines to treat psychosis and potential seizures, specific drugs to address cravings for meth, and other drugs to treat lethargy, drowsiness, and increased appetite.

MAT often assumes different approaches for different drugs. It is typically very useful in addressing physical dependence on chemical substances.

Behavioral Interventions

In addition to using medications to address physical dependence, individuals in recovery need behavioral interventions.

Many different types of behavioral interventions can assist in the treatment of chemical dependency, including different methods to help you control cravings for drugs or alcohol, diaphragmatic breathing techniques, stress management techniques, progressive muscle relaxation, visualization, meditation, and exercise programs.

Behavioral treatments do not use medications to address physical dependency.

Ongoing Treatment

Typically, when a person is weaned off a drug after medicinal use, no further treatment is required since they were not abusing the drug.

Addiction is different. There is no cure for addiction. Even after a person is no longer chemically dependent on a drug of choice, they will still have an addiction.

A comprehensive treatment program addresses problems with substance abuse. These programs require active participation and abstinence from drugs and alcohol to achieve success.

Most often, individuals will spend significant time in therapy for substance abuse, peer support groups, and other types of interventions for years following their completion of a medical detox program.

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