How Is Addiction Diagnosed?

addiction, symptoms of addiction, what is addiction, diagnosing addiction

What Is Addiction?

Addiction is such a personal condition, and it’s something that affects many people, both directly and indirectly. Because of personal associations with addiction and its effects, there is a tendency to forget that it is, in fact, a diagnosable disease.

First, what is addiction?

According to the American Psychiatric Association, addiction is a brain disease that leads to compulsive or out-of-control substance use, even when there are harmful effects and consequences resulting from that use. When someone struggles with addiction, whether to drugs or alcohol, it controls their life. Someone who has an addiction disorder will keep using drugs or alcohol no matter the problems it causes in their life.

Some of the drugs people commonly become addicted to include:

  • Alcohol
  • Hallucinogens
  • Prescription pain medications
  • Heroin
  • Cocaine
  • Crack cocaine
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Sedatives
  • Methamphetamine
  • Tobacco

When someone is addicted to any substance, it changes the way they think and behave. It also affects their physical health.

Over time with repeated exposure to certain substances, the function and structure of the brain begin to change, and this is one part of what leads to such strong and overpowering drug and alcohol cravings.

There have been research studies done that look at the brains of people with addictions versus those people who don’t have an addiction disorder, and the differences are significant. People with addiction disorders show differences in multiple areas of their brains including the areas responsible for decision-making, judgment, control, and memory.

Symptoms of Substance Use Disorder

Based on currently available research, the symptoms of substance use disorder can be grouped into one of four categories. These categories include:

  • Impaired self-control
  • Social problems
  • Dangerous or risky use
  • The physical effects of the drug

Diagnosing Addiction

If someone believes they may have an addiction, or their loved one believes they do, they need a formal assessment. Assessments for diagnosing addiction can be done by a medical professional such as a primary care doctor, a mental health care provider such as a psychologist, or someone who is a drug or alcohol specialist.

There are physical components that come with diagnosing an addiction. For example, certain drug tests may be done. These don’t necessarily show that a person is addicted or not addicted to a particular substance, but they do create a baseline that can be used to monitor that person’s progress as they go through treatment.

Along with urine or blood tests, the criteria used to diagnose addiction comes from the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). This is published by the American Psychiatric Association.

Some of the criteria that might indicate a person has a substance use disorder include:

  • There are physical and/or psychological withdrawal symptoms that occur if the person stops using the substance suddenly, or even cuts down on the amount they’re using
  • Someone with an addiction disorder will be unable to stop using the substance without professional treatment, despite wanting to
  • Continuing to use a substance despite negative outcomes is a symptom of addiction
  • People addicted to drugs or alcohol will give up other interests because of their drug use

These are just some of the many symptoms that are used to diagnose addiction. Addiction can also be diagnosed as mild, moderate or severe based on the number of criteria a person demonstrates.

For someone to be diagnosed with a substance use disorder, they must meet at least two of the diagnosing criteria within a 12 month period. If someone has two or three of the criteria, they will likely be diagnosed as having a mild substance use disorder. Anywhere from four to five criteria would lead to a diagnosis of a moderate substance use disorder. Six or more criteria would likely lead to a diagnosis of a severe substance use disorder.

If someone is diagnosed with a substance use disorder, there are many treatment options available including inpatient and outpatient rehab, certain medications, and options such as 12-step programs.

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