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The Spectrum of Alcohol Use Disorder

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Understanding Alcohol Abuse as a Spectrum Disorder

The terms “alcoholic” and “alcoholism” tend to conjure images of the most extreme cases of alcohol addiction.  But many people have a drinking problem that impacts their life enough to require treatment even if their substance abuse doesn’t look like the stereotypical idea of alcoholism.

Downplaying the shades of grey that exist within alcohol use disorder can prevent people from seeking help when they need it.  The medical community has now begun to recognize alcohol abuse as a spectrum disorder.  Like other spectrum disorders, this will help people to receive a diagnosis and treatment even though they’re not on the most severe end of the diagnostic spectrum.

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Psychiatrists and primary care providers have been utilizing what’s known as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) for decades. This handy book serves as a guide with specific criteria used to diagnose different mental health conditions, including alcohol use disorder. The most current version of this book describes alcohol use on a spectrum with varying degrees of severity, instead of the more traditional, black and white diagnosis of alcoholism.

What is Alcohol Use Disorder?

In previous editions of the DSM-5, there was a distinction between alcohol dependence and alcohol abuse, which has recently changed. Alcohol Use Disorder is defined as “a problematic pattern of alcohol use leading to clinically significant impairment or distress, as manifested by at least two of the following, occurring within a 12-month period:”

  • Larger amounts of alcohol consumed or over longer periods of time than intended
  • A persistent desire to cut back or unsuccessful attempts to control use
  • Spending a significant amount of time or resources to obtain alcohol, use alcohol, or recover from its effects
  • Craving or strong desire to use alcohol
  • Failure to fulfill obligations at work, school, or home due to alcohol use
  • Continued alcohol use despite having persistent social or interpersonal problems caused by use
  • Important activities are given up or reduced because of alcohol use
  • Continued alcohol use in physically dangerous conditions
  • Use is continued despite knowing that physical or psychological problems are caused by alcohol
  • Increased tolerance defined by either of the following
  • A need for an increased amount of alcohol to achieve intoxication or desired effect
  • A markedly diminished effect with continued use of the same amount of alcohol

The Problem with the Traditional Diagnosis of Alcoholism

In the past, alcoholism was a term used to describe someone who is struggling with excessive use. In society, people tend to associate the terms alcoholism and alcoholic with extreme alcohol abuse, and overlook problem drinking when it doesn’t appear to have completely overtaken a person’s life. The new concept of alcohol use is more of a sliding scale that allows doctors to help people get the help they need earlier and give clear criteria for problematic use.

The Drinking Spectrum—A More Accurate Picture

Recent research has shown that excessive alcohol use can cause physical and mental health issues that did not meet the DSM’s previous criteria. The Drinking Spectrum is intended to show the difference between “normal drinking” and disordered drinking. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) has guidelines for those who would like to partake in alcohol consumption while avoiding developing alcohol use disorder.

For women, this means no more than three drinks a day and less than seven alcoholic drinks a week, while men can consume no more than four drinks a day and no more than 14 in a week. Drinking more than these levels is on the other side of the spectrum and is considered problematic.

However, the criteria listed above also have bearing on whether or not treatment is recommended. Consuming alcohol at this rate has been shown to have serious impacts on mental and physical health and all areas of life. This spectrum includes those who may drink more than the recommended amount and do not consider their use to be disordered but may benefit from early alcohol interventions.

Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder

If you or a loved one struggles with alcohol use, there is hope for a better future. Legacy Healing Center in South Florida offers comprehensive treatment tailored to individual needs to teach you the tools you need to have a successful and complete recovery. Legacy offers medically supervised detox, residential treatment programs, family and individual therapies, and outpatient care to get the most of your treatment and help address the root causes of your struggles with alcohol.

If you are ready to begin your journey to a life free from the constraints of addiction, call to speak to one of our addiction specialists on our confidential hotline today. Legacy provides a personalized approach to ensure your unique needs are addressed. Call us today at 888.534.2295.