Getting to the Basics: What Is Substance Use Disorder?

What is substance use disorder? What are the symptoms and risk factors? What treatment options are available? Find out here.

How Black Horse Health’s Substance Use Disorder Treatment Helps You Recover

At Black Horse Health, we understand that substance use disorders can often have devastating effects on an individual’s well-being – mentally, physically, emotionally, socially, and even financially.

Our team of skilled and compassionate specialists have over 100 years of combined experience, and we are committed to helping you or your loved one get the substance use disorder treatment you need.

With holistic and evidence-based wellness services like medical detoxification, medication-assisted treatment, yoga and meditation, and individualized therapy, we will create a treatment plan that best meets your unique set of symptoms.

Next Steps Toward Recovery

Learn more about our substance use disorder programs, other treatment opportunities, and how our Black Horse Health team of specialists can help you heal in this comprehensive article. Don’t hesitate to reach out to our team for more information or to begin your path to wellness today.

What Is Substance Use Disorder?

What is Substance Use Disorder? 

Substance use disorder (SUD) is a condition where a person has difficulty controlling their use of drugs or alcohol, leading to negative consequences in their daily life. It is a real medical condition that affects millions of people worldwide. In fact, it impacted 46.3 million people aged 12 or older in 2021.1

A person with SUD may experience intense cravings and have a strong desire to continue using drugs or alcohol, even when it causes problems in their relationships, work, or health. SUD can lead to physical and psychological dependence, making it hard to stop using without professional help.

What is Substance Use Disorder: Key Diagnostic Criteria

Identifying the symptoms of substance use disorder is a crucial first step for providing support. Below are some criteria for diagnosing SUD.

Impaired Control

People with SUD often struggle to control their substance use despite negative consequences. This criterion assesses factors such as:2
  • Unsuccessful attempts to quit
  • Persistent desire or cravings
  • Using larger amounts over time

Social Impairment

SUD can significantly impact a person’s social functioning. It may lead to various social issues that include:
  • The neglect of important obligations
  • Withdrawal from social activities or relationships
  • Continued substance use despite causing social problems

Risky Use

Engaging in risky behaviors while under the influence of substances is a common characteristic of SUD. This criterion evaluates activities related to:
  • Driving under the influence
  • Engaging in unprotected sex
  • Taking risks that may harm oneself or others

Pharmacological Criteria

The body’s tolerance and withdrawal symptoms are important factors in identifying SUD. Tolerance refers to the need for increased amounts of substances to achieve the desired effect. In contrast, withdrawal symptoms occur as a result of reducing or stopping substance use.

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)

The DSM, published by the American Psychiatric Association, provides diagnostic criteria for mental health disorders, including SUD. These criteria are widely used by healthcare professionals for diagnosis and treatment planning.3

Severity Levels

The DSM-5 also categorizes SUD into mild, moderate, and severe based on the number of criteria met. This classification helps determine the level of intervention and treatment needed for each person.
Healthcare professionals use these evaluations to determine the appropriate treatment plan. It’s important to seek help if you or someone you know is struggling with substance use.

What is Substance Use Disorder?: Determining Levels and Severity of Substance Use Disorder

There are different levels or stages of substance use disorder. The severity gets determined by considering how much the person’s substance use affects their daily life. It can range from mild to severe.
The level of substance use disorder is assessed through various factors, such as:
  • The amount and frequency of substance use
  • Symptoms of cravings and withdrawal
  • Inability to control or stop using the substance

Common Substances That Can Lead to SUD

There are various substances that can contribute to the development of substance use disorder. These will be detailed below.


Alcohol is one of the most widely consumed substances. It’s legal for those of legal drinking age in many countries. But, excessive and prolonged alcohol consumption can lead to alcohol use disorder. In fact, Over 140,000 people die each year from alcohol-related causes.4
Alcohol use disorders (AUD) can negatively impact physical, mental, and professional health. This chronic condition is characterized by:
  • A strong desire to drink
  • Difficulty controlling alcohol intake
  • Withdrawal symptoms when attempting to quit


In a 2020 study, 23.6 million people aged 12+ experienced nicotine dependence within the past 30 days.
Nicotine is the primary addictive substance found in tobacco products such as:5
  • Cigarettes
  • Cigars
  • Chewing tobacco
Nicotine addiction is a significant public health concern as it is highly addictive. Nicotine dependence is characterized by withdrawal symptoms and a pattern of compulsive use. It significantly increases the risk of developing serious health conditions like lung cancer and heart disease.6


Opioids are a class of drugs that include both prescription painkillers and illegal substances like heroin. Opioid use disorder has been on the rise, contributing to a global public health crisis. In the U.S., opioid-related overdoses killed over 70,000 people in 2021.7
These drugs interact with the brain’s reward system. This leads to intense feelings of euphoria and pain relief. When trying to quit opioids, people experience withdrawal symptoms.


Stimulant drugs are substances that increase alertness, attention, and energy. Examples of these sedatives include cocaine and amphetamines. Despite their stimulating effects, these substances carry a high risk of abuse and addiction.
Stimulant use disorder can lead to detrimental consequences, including:8
  • Cardiovascular problems
  • Psychological disturbances
  • Impaired social functioning


Marijuana has gained increased acceptance for recreational and medicinal use in many jurisdictions. But, the long-term use of marijuana can lead to cannabis use disorder.
This condition is characterized by:
  • A strong desire to use marijuana
  • Difficulty controlling its use
  • Withdrawal symptoms when discontinuing its use

What is Substance Use Disorder and How Does SUD Differ From Occasional or Recreational Substance Use? 

What is substance use disorder? SUD is different from occasional or recreational substance use. It’s a medical condition where a person has a harmful pattern of using substances.
It can cause significant impairments in a person’s daily life, including:
  • Their relationships
  • Work
  • Physical and mental well-being
Occasional or recreational substance use refers to using substances on a casual basis. But, this doesn’t necessarily involve any negative consequences or dependencies. It’s important to understand the distinction between the two.
what is substance use disorder

What is Substance Use Disorder: Physical and Psychological Effects of Long-Term Substance Abuse

What is substance use disorder, and how does it affect people long-term? Long-term substance abuse refers to the prolonged use of drugs or alcohol over an extended period. This consistent and excessive consumption of substances can have severe consequences.
Understanding these effects is essential in promoting prevention and treatment efforts.

Damage to Organs and Body Systems

Using drugs or drinking alcohol for a long time can damage parts of the body. For example, drinking too much alcohol can make your liver sick. Using things that you breathe in, like sniffing chemicals, can hurt your lungs. Some drugs can also make your heart work too hard.

Weakening of the Immune System

What is substance use disorder’s effect on the immune system? Drugs and alcohol can make your body’s defenses weaker. This means you can get sick more easily. Conditions like colds or even more serious illnesses like HIV/AIDS can happen more often.

Nutritional Deficiencies

What is substance use disorder’s impact on nutrition? People who abuse substances often don’t eat healthy food. They might not eat enough or not eat the right things. This can make them very weak and skinny.

Degeneration of Brain Function

What is substance use disorder’s impact on the brain?Using drugs and alcohol for a long time can significantly damage the brain. It can make it hard to think, remember things, and make good decisions.

Mental Health Disorders

Long-term substance abuse can make mental health conditions worse or even cause new ones. People might feel sad, worried, or scared all the time. Some might see things that aren’t there or believe things that aren’t true.

Cognitive Impairment

What is substance use disorder’s effect on cognitive function? Drugs and alcohol can make it hard to think clearly. People might forget things, have trouble paying attention, and make poor choices.

Emotional Instability

What is substance use disorder’s impact on emotional stability? Substance abuse can cause emotional instability and mood swings. People might get very mad, sad, or happy very quickly. This can hurt their relationships with others.

Social Isolation

Substance abuse often leads to social isolation, as people may prioritize drugs over relationships. The negative consequences associated with substance abuse, such as legal issues or changes in behavior, can also lead to social withdrawal and decreased social support.

Risk Factors That Can Increase the Likelihood of Developing SUD

Several risk factors can contribute to the development of SUD. Understanding these risk factors is crucial for prevention and intervention efforts.

Genetic Factors

Your genes can make you more likely to have a problem with drugs or alcohol. Some genes can make it easier for substances to take control of our brains.
For example, some people may have gene variations that result in lower dopamine activity. These people may seek substances that compensate for this dopamine deficiency. This leads to a higher risk of addiction.9

Environmental Influences

The place where you live can make a big difference. If you’re around people who use drugs or drink a lot, you might do it, too. Sometimes, people grow up in families where substance use is normal. This can make it more likely for them to use substances as well.

Childhood Trauma

What is substance use disorder’s connection to childhood trauma? Experiencing adverse childhood events can increase the risk of developing SUD later in life.
Examples of these events include:
  • Physical or emotional abuse
  • Neglect
  • Household dysfunction
These traumatic experiences can disrupt healthy brain development. The difficulties they cause contribute to using substances as coping mechanisms.

Mental Health Challenges

What is substance use disorder’s effect on mental health? Sometimes, when people have problems with their feelings or thoughts, such as consistent feelings of sadness or worry, they use drugs or alcohol to try to feel better. But, this often worsens these feelings.
This can also lead to or exacerbate what is known as dual diagnosis – wherein an individual simultaneously struggles with mental health disorders and SUD.

Accessibility and Availability of Substances

Easy access to substances, whether legal or illegal, increases the risk of developing SUD. Drug and alcohol availability in neighborhoods is associated with more substance abuse. Easy access to prescription medications also increases the risk of prescription drug addiction.

Lack of Social Support

What is substance use disorder’s connection to a lack of social support? Not having close friends or family can make using substances more likely. When someone is lonely, they might try to use drugs or alcohol to fill that void. A strong support network is important for making better choices.

What is Substance Use Disorder: Impact on Relationships, Work, and Well-Being

Substance use disorder can have a profound impact on a person’s daily life. This can affect various aspects, such as relationships, work, and well-being. Here’s how:

Repercussions on Relationships

SUD often strains relationships with family, friends, and loved ones. People with SUD might put their substance use above spending time with loved ones. This causes feelings of neglect, anger, and resentment.
Trust issues can also arise due to broken promises, dishonesty, and erratic behavior. SUD can lead to emotional and physical abuse, further damaging relationships.

Impact on Work

What is substance use disorder’s impact on one’s work? It can significantly affect a person’s work life. It can lead to lower productivity, increased absences, and poor job performance.
Maintaining steady employment becomes challenging due to problems such as:
  • Attendance issues
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Impaired decision-making
SUD can also raise the risk of workplace conflicts with colleagues or supervisors. These negative consequences can result in financial instability and career limitations.

Effects on Mental and Physical Health

What is substance use disorder’s impact on a person’s health? SUD has harmful effects on a person’s mental and physical well-being. Substance abuse can lead to mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, and psychosis. It may worsen existing mental health conditions or create new ones.
Neglecting personal care and hygiene is also common among people with SUD. Physically, substance abuse can cause long-term health problems, such as:
  • Liver damage
  • Heart issues
  • Respiratory disorders

Financial Strain

Maintaining a substance use habit can be financially burdensome. People with SUD may spend a significant portion of their income on getting drugs or alcohol, leading to financial instability and hardship.
This can result in an inability to meet basic needs like housing, food, and healthcare. This stress can perpetuate the cycle of substance abuse and worsen its consequences.

Legal Consequences

SUD often leads to legal troubles and involvement with the criminal justice system. Substance abuse can impair judgment and lead to risky behaviors. This increases the likelihood of engaging in illegal activities.
Examples include:
  • Driving under the influence
  • Possessing illegal substances
  • Involvement in violence

Social Isolation

People with SUD may distance themselves from social activities. The stigma associated with substance abuse can evoke feelings of shame and guilt. This pushes people to withdraw from social interactions. A lack of social support can worsen mental health issues and impede recovery efforts.

what is substance use disorder

What is Substance Use Disorder: Potential Health Consequences and Medical Complications

Substance use disorder can have severe health consequences and lead to various medical complications. It’s crucial to understand these potential health risks to highlight the importance of prevention and treatment.
Below, we delve into the possible health consequences associated with SUD.

Cardiovascular Complications

What is substance use disorder’s impact on the heart? SUD can harm the cardiovascular system, increasing the risk of heart-related issues. Prolonged drug use can elevate blood pressure and heart rate.
This potentially leads to issues, such as:
  • Heart attacks
  • Irregular heart rhythms
  • Sudden cardiac death
Injecting drugs like heroin or meth can damage blood vessels, causing infections and clots.

Respiratory Problems

What is substance use disorder’s effect on the respiratory system? Substance abuse, especially opioids and stimulants, can severely impact the respiratory system. Opioids can slow breathing to dangerous levels. This leads to respiratory failure.
Smoking drugs like crack cocaine damage the lungs and can cause respiratory distress. Inhalants, when abused, can harm lung tissues and cause severe breathing difficulties.

Liver Damage

Excessive alcohol and certain drugs can harm the liver. Chronic alcohol abuse can lead to:
  • Alcoholic liver disease
  • Cirrhosis
  • An increased risk of liver cancer
Some drugs can cause drug-induced liver injury, which may lead to hepatitis or liver failure.

Gastrointestinal Issues

SUD can result in a range of gastrointestinal problems. Heavy alcohol use can irritate the stomach lining, leading to gastritis or ulcers.
Drug abuse can disrupt normal digestive processes, causing nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. Injection drug use increases the risk of infections in the digestive system.

Neurological Effects

What are substance use disorder’s neurological effects? Substances can impact the nervous system, leading to neurological complications.
Chronic alcohol abuse can cause:
  • Brain shrinkage
  • Memory problems
  • Cognitive impairment
Drugs like methamphetamine can lead to severe anxiety, paranoia, and hallucinations. Long-term cocaine use may result in strokes or seizures.

Infectious Diseases

When under the influence, risky sexual behaviors can transmit infectious diseases. People with SUD are at a higher risk of contracting:
  • Hepatitis B
  • Hepatitis C
These infections can have long-term health consequences if not treated promptly.

Increased Risk of Accidents

Substance abuse impairs judgment and coordination, increasing the likelihood of accidents and injuries. Motor vehicle accidents, falls, and other unintentional injuries are common among those with SUD. These accidents can result in fractures, head injuries, and long-term disabilities.

What is Substance Use Disorder?: Tolerance, Withdrawal, and Cravings

Understanding how tolerance, withdrawal, and cravings are connected to SUD is essential to understand the severity of addiction. These factors are intertwined and contribute to the cycle of substance abuse.


Tolerance happens when your body gets used to a substance, and it doesn’t give you the same effects it used to.
When you use a substance regularly, your body adjusts to it. So, you need more of the substance to feel the same effects you used to feel. This means you keep taking more and more, and it can be dangerous.
For example, if you drink alcohol often, your body might get used to it, and you’ll need to drink more to get the same “buzz.” This can lead to drinking too much, which can harm your health.


Withdrawal happens when you stop using a substance, and your body reacts because it’s used to having that substance.
When you’ve been using a substance for a while and suddenly stop, your body might react with withdrawal symptoms. These can be very uncomfortable, and you might want to use the substance again just to make the discomfort go away.
For example, if you’re addicted to opioids and try to quit, you might experience withdrawal symptoms like muscle pain, stomach cramps, or anxiety. To get rid of these bad feelings, you might start using opioids again, even if you want to quit.


Cravings are strong desires or urges to use a substance, and they’re closely tied to SUD.
As you use a substance more and more, your brain starts to link it with pleasure. This makes it difficult to resist the urge to use the substance. Cravings can be triggered by things that remind you of the substance, like seeing a bottle of alcohol or passing by a place where you used to use drugs.
For example, if you’ve been smoking cigarettes for years, you might have strong cravings for a smoke when you see someone else smoking, even if you’re trying to quit.
what is substance use disorder

Available Treatment Options and Their Effectiveness

Individuals struggling with SUD will often struggle to overcome their addictionThere are several available treatment options available, including:


Detoxification is the first step in the treatment process for those with substance use disorder. It involves the removal of toxins from the body, often under medical supervision. Detoxification helps manage withdrawal symptoms when people abruptly stop using drugs or alcohol.

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)

MAT combines behavioral therapy and medications to treat substance use disorders. Medications such as methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone are used to manage withdrawal symptoms. MAT helps patients recover from opioid and alcohol addictions.

Behavioral Therapies

Behavioral therapies play a crucial role in the treatment of substance use disorder. These therapies help people modify their attitudes and behaviors related to substance abuse.
For example, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) helps people identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviors associated with substance use.

Residential Treatment

Residential treatment programs, also known as inpatient treatment, provide 24-hour structured care. Patients live in a facility and receive intensive therapy, counseling, and support. In residential treatment, they can focus on their recovery without distractions or temptations.

Outpatient Treatment

Outpatient treatment programs allow patients to receive treatment while living at home. The treatment is flexible and accessible, as people can continue their daily routines.
Outpatient programs may include:
  • Individual counseling
  • Group therapy
  • Education sessions
  • Support groups

Support Groups

Support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) provide a supportive and understanding community for people in recovery. These groups follow a 12-Step program that promotes abstinence and accountability.
Support groups provide the opportunity to share their experiences. They enable people to receive guidance from peers who have gone through similar challenges.

Effectiveness of Treatment Options

The effectiveness of treatment options varies depending on factors, including:
  • The person’s motivation to change
  • The severity of addiction
  • The presence of co-occurring disorders
Research has shown that a combination of medication-assisted treatment (MAT) and behavioral therapies is highly effective in helping people achieve and maintain recovery.10

What is Substance Use Disorder Prevention?

Prevention is just as important as supporting those already struggling with addiction. By implementing proactive strategies, people can reduce the risk of substance abuse and promote healthier living.

Education and Awareness

One key way to prevent substance use is by teaching people about its risks. Starting in school with age-appropriate programs, kids can learn about why using drugs or alcohol can be harmful. This helps them make smarter choices about their health.

Promote Mental Health and Emotional Well-Being

Feeling down or having emotional struggles can lead to substance use. To prevent this, provide mental health support and safe spaces for people to talk about their feelings. Communicating openly, building resilience, and controlling emotions are all important to stopping substance abuse.

Nurture Healthy Coping Mechanisms

People should learn better ways to handle stress instead of turning to substances. Activities like exercise or creative hobbies, such as art or music, can help manage challenges and emotions in a healthier way.

Strong Support Systems

It’s important to build strong support systems within families, schools, and communities. This makes it easier for people to seek help and guidance when they face difficulties so they don’t turn to drugs.

Implementing Policies and Regulations

Creating rules and regulations that limit access to substances can prevent substance abuse. This includes initiatives like:
  • Rules about the age you have to be to buy alcohol or tobacco
  • Controlling illegal drugs
  • Restricting how substances are advertised
Making it harder to access substances reduces the chances of people trying or using them.

Early Intervention and Screening

Identifying people at risk through early intervention and screening programs is essential. This can be done through:
  • Regular health check-ups
  • Screenings in schools
  • Targeted interventions for vulnerable populations
Early intervention allows for timely support and guidance, reducing the likelihood of addiction.
What Is Substance Use Disorder?

What is Substance Use Disorder Treatment Like at Black Horse Health?

At Black Horse Health, the recovery journey begins with a thorough assessment. Our dedicated Houston team of medical professionals and counselors evaluates:
  • Each person’s unique needs
  • Substance use history
  • Mental health
  • Physical health
This assessment helps us create a personalized treatment plan tailored to each person’s requirements.

Medically Supervised Detoxification

Detoxification, the initial phase of treatment, is closely monitored by our medical staff. We ensure a safe and comfortable detox process. Whenever necessary, we provide medical support and manage withdrawal symptoms. Our goal is to prepare clients for the next steps of their recovery journey.

Evidence-Based Therapies

Our treatment programs incorporate evidence-based therapies such as:
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Art therapy
  • Music therapy
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)
  • Drama therapy
These therapies help people develop coping strategies and build skills to maintain sobriety.

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)

For those with opioid or alcohol use disorders, we offer medication-assisted treatment (MAT). MAT combines medications like methadone, buprenorphine, or naltrexone with therapy. This approach reduces cravings and withdrawal symptoms, improving recovery chances.

Individual and Group Counseling

Our counseling sessions provide a safe space for patients to explore their substance use issues. Through one-on-one counseling and group therapy, clients can:
  • Share experiences
  • Gain insights
  • Receive guidance and support from both professionals and peers

Dual Diagnosis Care

Many people with substance use disorders have co-occurring mental health conditions. Our integrated approach addresses both substance use and mental health issues at the same time. This ensures a holistic recovery journey and improves the person’s well-being.

Relapse Prevention

Recovery doesn’t end after treatment. Black Horse Health equips clients with relapse prevention strategies to identify potential triggers and develop effective coping mechanisms. As a result, they’re able to maintain their sobriety in the long run.

Contact Black Horse Health Today

At Black Horse Health, our holistic approach aims to guide people toward lasting recovery. Through our programs, we help people recover from substance abuse.

Break free from the chains of addiction. Reach out to us now and take the first step towards a life of recovery and empowerment.