Determining a Medical Diagnosis of Addiction

When does a drinking or drug habit turn into a problem or an illness that can be verified by a medical diagnosis? For most people, that is a tricky question that can be difficult to answer.

In 2011, Dr. Michael Miller, a past president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, helped develop a new standard definition of addiction. After a four-year process that involved over 80 nationally-recognized experts, Dr. Miller wrote, “At its core, addiction isn’t just a social problem or a moral problem or a criminal problem. It’s a brain problem whose behaviors manifest in all these other areas. Many behaviors driven by addiction are real problems and sometimes criminal acts. But the disease is about brains, not drugs. It’s about underlying neurology, not outward actions.”

What Are the Criteria for a Medical Diagnosis?

Per the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association, a medical diagnosis of addiction – more properly referred to as Substance Use Disorder – is appropriate when a person exhibits three or more of the following symptoms:

  • Tolerance – A need to constantly increase the amount of consumption, in order to achieve the same pleasurable effects.
  • Loss of Control – An inability to regulate the frequency or amount of consumption.
  • Failed Attempts to Quit — Broken promises, unsuccessful efforts, failed attempts at rehab, etc.
  • Excessive Time Spent Activities Related to Substance Use— Acquiring, using, and recovering from use, to the point that it interferes everyday life.
  • Abandonment of Responsibilities and Interests – Increased isolation, loss of interest in previously-enjoyed hobbies, social withdrawal.
  • Continued Use Despite Negative Consequences – Drinking and drugging even in the face of:
  • Health problems (overdose, disease, injury)
  • Relationship issues (arguments, separation, divorce)
  • Financial strain (demotion, termination, buying drugs with bill money)
  • Legal difficulties (arrests, jail time, fines)
  • Dependence and Withdrawal – Regular use of the substance disrupts the brain’s reward system, so the person becomes unable to function unless they are under the influence. And when the drug isn’t available, they experience painful – and sometimes dangerous – psychological and physical symptoms, including:
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Mood Swings
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Cramps
  • Headache
  • Irregular Heartbeat
  • Profuse Sweating
  • Seizures
  • Tremors
  • Hallucinations

What to Do after a Substance Use Disorder Diagnosis

“So, we have to stop moralizing, blaming, controlling or smirking at the person with the disease of addiction, and start creating opportunities for individuals and families to get help and providing assistance in choosing proper treatment.”

~ Dr. Michael Miller

While the bad news is a SUD diagnosis indicates the presence of brain disease, the good news is that disease is treatable. The best drug and alcohol rehab programs offer a variety of services:

  • Medically-supervised detox
  • Residential rehab
  • Intensive outpatient programs
  • Partial hospitalization
  • Treatment for co-occurring disorders
  • Medication assistance

If you are concerned that you might have moved beyond recreational substance use and may have developed an SUD, the next step is to contact a reputable rehab program for a confidential assessment. From there, you’ll discuss your options and your next steps.

In Southern California, one of your top resources for addiction recovery is Chapman House Treatment Centers. As one of the most-trusted rehab programs in Orange County, Chapman House has the resources and experience to help you regain your sobriety, sanity, stability, and serenity.

by Albert Fontenot