Am J Psychiatry 163:5, May 2006
What’s in a Word? Addiction Versus
Dependence in DSM-V
T he revision of DSM–III was the result of a great deal of work by a committee set up
by APA in the 1980s. This committee worked over several years and coordinated its ef-
forts with the World Health Organization. The result was the completely revised diag-
nostic classification published in 1987 known as DSM-III-R. This was an important con-
tribution to the mental health field because it provided a clear way of defining addiction
as compulsive drug-seeking behavior using criteria that turned out to have excellent in-
terrater reliability and applicability to all forms of drug addiction. The classification was
adopted with only minor changes in DSM-IV.
One of us (C.O.) was a member of the committee who attended every one of the
committee meetings throughout the 1980s. There
was good agreement among committee members
as to the definition of addiction, but there was dis-
agreement as to the label that should be used. The
proponents of the term “addiction” believed that
this word would convey the appropriate meaning of
the compulsive drug-taking condition and would
distinguish it from “physical” dependence, which is
normal and can occur in anyone who takes medica-
tions that affect the CNS. Those who favored the
term “dependence” felt that this was a more neutral
term that could easily apply to all drugs, including
alcohol and nicotine. The committee members ar-
gued that the word “addiction” was a pejorative
term that would add to the stigmatization of people
with substance use disorders. A vote was taken at one of the last meetings of the com-
mittee, and the word “dependence” won over “addiction” by a single vote.
Experience over the past two decades has demonstrated that this decision was a seri-
ous mistake. The term “dependence” has traditionally been used to describe “physical
dependence,” which refers to the adaptations that result in withdrawal symptoms when
drugs, such as alcohol and heroin, are discontinued. Physical dependence is also ob-
served with certain psychoactive medications, such as antidepressants and beta-block-
ers. However, the adaptations associated with drug withdrawal are distinct from the ad-
aptations that result in addiction, which refers to the loss of control over the intense
urges to take the drug even at the expense of adverse consequences. For example, re-
search has shown that when opiates are administered to a naive animal, adaptation be-
gins to occur after the first dose so that the second dose has a discernibly decreased ef-
fect from the first. After several days of taking the medication, abrupt cessation
produces a withdrawal syndrome varying with the duration of treatment and the dose
level. This is an expected pharmacological response, and although it may occur among
addicts, it is quite distinct from compulsive drug-seeking behavior. This has resulted in
confusion among clinicians regarding the difference between “dependence” in a DSM
sense, which is really “addiction,” and “dependence” as a normal physiological adapta-
tion to repeated dosing of a medication. The result is that clinicians who see evidence of
tolerance and withdrawal symptoms assume that this means addiction, and patients
requiring additional pain medication are made to suffer. Similarly, pain patients in need
“Clinicians who see
evidence of tolerance
symptoms assume that
this means addiction,
and patients requiring
medication are made
Am J Psychiatry 163:5, May 2006
of opiate medications may forgo proper treatment because of the fear of dependence,
which is self-limiting by equating it with addiction.
The authors are now in the planning stages for DSM-V. There will be careful reviews of
the criteria, but in the case of substance use disorders, the medical world drastically needs
a change in labeling. Addiction is a perfectly acceptable word. It is used by the American
Society of Addiction Medicine, the American Association of Addiction Psychiatrists, the
American Journal on Addictions, and the oldest journal in the field, simply known as Ad-
diction. It is clear that any harm that might occur because of the pejorative connotation of
the word “addiction” would be completely outweighed by the tremendous harm that is
now being done to the patients who have had needed medication withheld because their
doctors believe that they are addicted simply because they are dependent.
We urge APA to consider these patients as well as the numerous clinicians in other
fields who look to DSM for the classification of mental disorders. The current labeling is
not only confusing and misleading, but it contributes to suffering.
CHARLES P. O’BRIEN, M.D., PH.D.
NORA VOLKOW, M.D.
T-K LI, M.D.
Address correspondence and reprint requests to Dr. O’Brien, University of Pennsylvania/VA Medical Center,
3900 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19104-6178; email@example.com (e-mail).