The terms “chemical dependency”, “substance use disorder”, and “addiction” are often used interchangeably. Even the term “substance abuse”, which was widely used for years but recently has fallen out of favor due to it being a term that can be stigmatizing and judgmental, is still sometimes used when describing substance misuse issues. However, each term is different and has a different meaning.


What is chemical dependency?


The term “chemical dependency” often is used when discussing substance use or substance misuse, but it is not exactly the same as substance use disorder or addiction.  Chemical dependency is “the body’s physical and/or psychological dependence to a psychoactive (mind-altering) substance, such as narcotics, alcohol, or nicotine. Physical dependency on such chemicals as prescription drugs or alcohol stems from repetitive use followed by the gradual increase in the body’s tolerance to, or ability to assimilate, that drug. Thus, increasingly larger doses must be consumed to maintain the drug’s desired effects, which may include the temporary alleviation of depression or anxiety, or the induction of euphoria. Without an increase in the dosage, it is possible for actual or anticipated drug withdrawal symptoms to occur.” In short, chemical dependency is the physical or psychological dependence on a substance. If you give any person enough of a physically addicting substance (think opioids, alcohol, benzodiazepines) that person will develop a physical tolerance and thus become chemically dependent on that substance to feel “normal” or function.


What is substance use disorder?


The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (often referred to or called the DSM-V) is the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) gold-standard text regarding names, symptoms, and diagnostic features of every recognized mental illness, substance issue or behavioral health issue. The DSM-V recognizes 10 separate diagnostic disorders based on specific substances or classes of drugs: alcohol, caffeine, cannabis, hallucinogens, inhalants, opioids, sedatives, hypnotics, stimulants, tobacco, and other or unknown substances. There is also polysubstance use disorder, which is when an individual uses or misuses more than one substance. Substance use disorder is defined as “patterns of symptoms resulting from the use of a substance that you continue to take, despite experiencing problems as a result. Substance-induced disorders, including intoxication, withdrawal, and other substance/medication-induced mental disorders, are detailed alongside substance use disorders.” Each substance use disorder has criteria, and individuals misusing substances meet these criteria based on their use and experience, with the overall understanding of substance use disorder being a spectrum, with varying degrees of severity (such as mild, moderate, or severe.)


What is addiction?


The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as “a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences. People with addiction use substances or engage in behaviors that become compulsive and often continue despite harmful consequences.” ASAM goes on to say that “prevention efforts and treatment approaches for addiction are generally as successful as those for other chronic diseases.” Addiction (and also alcoholism) has a bit of a different definition with regard to how it is defined by recovery communities or programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA.) These 12-Step fellowships define addiction (and alcoholism) as a three-fold disease, a physical allergy to the substance, a mental obsession with the substance, and an underlying spiritual malady or disconnect. These 12-Step Fellowships define a person with an addiction or a person with alcoholism as being an individual that displays all three traits in relation to their use or misuse of a substance.


So chemical dependency, substance use disorder, and addiction are three different terms with three different definitions, all having to do with the use or misuse of substances. However, the most important thing to remember is, regardless of which of these defines a person’s use or misuse of substances or how an individual chooses to identify themselves and their relationship with substances, the answer for anyone in overcoming their issues is to seek professional help. Detox, rehab, addiction treatment, and ongoing clinical support is key to overcome issues with substances, whether it is a person with no history of substance issues but has become chemically dependent and physically addicted to opioids or benzodiazepines through a doctor’s prescription; a person that meets criteria for mild substance use disorder or moderate substance use disorder; or a person that self-identifies as an alcoholic of “the hopeless variety.” Regardless of issue or definition, the answer is in asking for help, seeking appropriate clinical help, and engaging in ongoing treatment and recovery support.


If you or someone you know needs help for addiction or co-occurring disorders, please give us a call. Innovo Detox offers the latest in evidence-based medical, psychiatric, and clinical care for those in need of detox and medical stabilization in Pennsylvania and the surrounding Mid-Atlantic area. If we aren’t the best fit for you or a loved one, we will take the necessary time to work with you to find a detox, rehab, treatment center or provider that better fits your needs. Please give us a call at (717) 619-3260 or email our team at For more information on our company or services, please visit our website at