Substance abuse is an unfortunately pervasive issue today, with drug overdoses surpassing car accidents to represent the most common form of accidental death nationwide in 2016. Many view substance abuse and addiction as problems that only concern particular pockets of society. Derogatory terms like “junkie” and “drug addict” provide a connotation stigmatizing those suffering from substance use as deviants outside the general population.

In reality, substance use disorder affects people from all walks of life. Substance abuse does not discriminate with regard to racial, ethnic, income, or social demographics, and can impact the lives of anyone who may develop a pattern of drug use, either through illicit means or prescribed medication.

So, what is a substance use disorder, and what is substance abuse treatment? These are questions that anyone with a physical dependency, or with a relative who has one, may need to ask themselves.

Read on as we look at substance abuse treatment in America, and what it involves for patients.

What Exactly Is Substance Abuse?

The World Health Organization defines substance abuse as “the harmful or hazardous use of psychoactive substances.” Therefore, abuse can exist in the absence of physical dependency. However, abuse without dependency is easier to manage, as the person in question won’t likely suffer withdrawal symptoms when they stop consuming the substance.

For those with a physical dependency or addiction, this process is more complex. Withdrawals, whether physical or mental, are very unpleasant, and can even be dangerous.

Alcohol, which is the most widely used psychoactive substance in the world, causes severe withdrawals. Heavy drinkers who suddenly stop consuming alcohol can suffer a range of symptoms, including nausea, headaches, and hallucinations. In some extreme cases, they may even die.

Other substances may cause users to undergo intense cravings after their initial high has subsided. Issues with such physically addictive drugs can be particularly difficult to treat.

However, some substances, such as marijuana, cause no withdrawal symptoms. While users may have a strong mental dependency, they will not suffer any significant physical symptoms from the cessation of use.

What Constitutes an Addiction?

Addiction takes many forms and involves an array of substances and behaviors. Alcohol, cannabinoids, tobacco, and opioids are the most popular substances that lead to addiction, but various other substances and patterns of action can open the door to drug abuse disorder. According to the CDC in 2014:

  • Approximately 17.6 million Americans suffer from alcohol abuse
  • 913,000 individuals suffered from cocaine abuse
  • Opioid deaths have jumped 265% for men, and 400% for women, since 1999
  • 1.6 million individuals polled used stimulants for recreation
  • 4.2 million were cannabis users
  • 546,000 abused inhalants
  • Hallucinogens accounted for 246,000 cases of drug abuse

These statistics fail to reflect the entirety of the drug abuse problem in America but do shed light on some of the more common and urgent causes of substance abuse, which may signal the need for treatment.

What Substances Most Commonly Lead to Substance Use Disorders?

One of the determining factors for specialists setting out approaches to treatment is the substance in question. Treatment styles vary considerably from one substance to another. Below are the most commonly abused substances treated.


Alcohol is both the most used and most abused psychoactive drug in our community today. Most adults consume alcohol to some extent. However, for many, drinking will never be a source of serious trouble.

For those with alcoholism, however, that’s not the case. WIth alcohol addiction, various treatments are used. As mentioned before, alcohol causes especially unpleasant withdrawals. For this reason, more severe cases of alcoholism are usually treated with medication.


Opiate abuse is a particularly problematic trend in the United States in recent years. Many addiction experts have called the scale of opioid use here an epidemic.

Heroin is an especially strong opioid. Heroin addiction causes extreme cravings in those who attempt to stop using.

Many milder opiates also cause substance abuse problems. These are legally prescribed for pain management in many cases. Patients are given prescriptions for medications like codeine or oxycodone to treat pain, but find themselves unable to stop using the medication when required to.


Drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine have strong addictive properties. The path to addiction with stimulants can be different for different people. Some may start using them in social settings. Others may use them to increase their energy levels during work. Those with addictions to stimulants will typically feel tired and depressed after they stop using them.

How Is Substance Abuse Treated?

There are a number of approaches to substance abuse treatment. Here are a few of the most common methods.


Detoxification is a common early approach. The majority of treatment facilities require patients to be completely sober during rehabilitation.

It is important to note that detoxification is rarely the only form of treatment used. Patients also usually undergo counseling and may be prescribed medication as well.

Detox will be easier for some patients than others. For those with more advanced addiction issues, withdrawals and cravings may be severe at first. These patients will require particularly close monitoring and support by medical professionals during treatment.

Certain medications are often provided to offset the chemicals which cause cravings and withdrawals. For addiction to heroin and other opioids, methadone is commonly used to ease cravings. It is first introduced at a relatively high dose, and the patient is gradually weaned off, taking smaller and smaller amounts.


For many patients, the psychological aspect of rehabilitation is the key. This is typical of issues with less physically addictive drugs. Counseling has a major role to play in the treatment of all addictions, accompanying other treatment tactics.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a common form of counseling. It helps patients to identify situational triggers and avoid them.

Counseling programs also generally feature an outpatient component. This allows patients to continue with monitored treatment as they readjust to life outside a facility. As relapse is a major issue in substance abuse treatment, this is hugely important.

Treating Substance Use Disorders the Right Way

So, what is substance abuse treatment?

By now, you can probably see that this question doesn’t have a straightforward answer. Substance abuse treatment consists of something different for everyone.

If you’re concerned about your own substance use, or that of someone close to you, don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Contact us today, and we’ll answer any questions you have about the recovery process.