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Diagnosis: The Signs and Symptoms of Alcoholism

A. Tom Horvath, Ph.D., ABPP, Kaushik Misra, Ph.D., Amy K. Epner, Ph.D., and Galen Morgan Cooper, Ph.D. , edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

There are several ways to know if you or someone you love has an addiction to alcohol. For a simple, informal, self-diagnosis, we refer you to the article entitled, "What is alcoholism?" In this section, we review the formal method of determining if you have an alcohol addiction. Professionals call this the diagnostic process, or simply diagnosis.

The diagnostic process in most developed countries follows a predictable sequence. First, the clinician performs an evaluation. The evaluation identifies symptoms. Then, the clinician uses this information to make a diagnosis (or several diagnoses). We might say a diagnosis is a label that summarizes a set of symptoms. In some cases, a diagnosis may also point to the cause of that set symptoms. Once the clinician makes a diagnosis, a treatment plan is then developed. The purpose of the treatment plan is to eliminate or diminish troubling symptoms. Some clinical models rest on the assumption that the reduction of symptoms will lead to improved health and well-being. An alternative model is called psychiatric rehabilitation. In this model, rather than focusing on symptom reduction, the treatment plan focuses on improving the quality of life. From this perspective, quality of life improvements leads to symptom reduction.

The most commonly used method of diagnosing alcohol problems is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (APA, 2013). The most recent version is abbreviated DSM-5. Alcohol problems are fall into a category of disorders called is the Substance-Related and Addictive Disorders.

Alcohol Use Disorder:

The diagnosis of an alcohol use disorder is based upon a pathological set of behaviors related to alcohol use. These behaviors fall into four main categories:

1. Impaired control
2. Social impairment
3. Risky use
4. Pharmacological indicators (tolerance and withdrawal)

Let's review each of these key diagnostic criteria in greater detail.

A. Impaired control:

Impaired control may be evidenced in several different ways:

1) Using alcohol for longer periods of time than intended, or using larger amounts than intended;
2) Wanting to reduce alcohol use, yet being unsuccessful doing so;
3) Spending excessive time getting/using/recovering from the alcohol use;
4) Cravings that are so intense it is difficult to think about anything else.

B. Social impairment

You may recall our definition of addiction: Addiction is repeated involvement with a substance or activity, despite the substantial harm it now causes, because that involvement was (and may continue to be) pleasurable and/or valuable. Social impairment is one type of substantial harm (or consequence) caused by repeated alcohol use.

5) People may continue to use alcohol despite problems with work, school or family/social obligations. This might include repeated work absences, poor school performance, neglect of children, or failure to meet household responsibilities.

6) An alcohol use disorder may also be indicated when someone continues to use alcohol despite having interpersonal problems because of that use. This could include arguments with family members about alcohol use; or, losing important friendships because of continued use.

7) Important and meaningful social and recreational activities may be given up or reduced because of alcohol use. A person may spend less time with their family, or they may stop playing golf with their friends.

C. Risky Use

The key issue of this criterion is the failure to refrain from using alcohol despite the harm it causes.

8) An alcohol use disorder may be indicated when someone repeatedly uses substances in physically dangerous situations. For instance, using alcohol or other drugs while operating machinery or driving a car.

9) Some people continue to use alcohol even though they are aware it is causing or worsening physical and psychological problems. An example is the person who continues to drink despite having a liver disease.

D. Pharmacological indicators: Tolerance and Withdrawal

For many people, tolerance and withdrawal are the classic indicators of advanced addiction. As such, these are particularly important concepts. This criterion refers to the adjustment the body makes as it attempts to adapt to the continued and frequent use of a substance. This adjustment is called maintaining homeostatic balance.

10) Tolerance occurs when people need to increase the amount of alcohol to achieve the same desired effect. Stated differently, it is when someone experiences less of an effect using the same amount. The "desired effect" might be the desire to avoid withdrawal symptoms. On the other hand, it may be the desire to get high. People experience tolerance differently; i.e., people vary in their sensitivities to different substances.

11) Withdrawal is the body's response to the abrupt cessation of a alcohol, once the body has developed a tolerance to it. The resulting cluster of symptoms can be very unpleasant and sometimes fatal. Therefore, consult with a medical professional before attempting to stop alcohol use after a period of heavy and continuous use. This will ensure that quitting is as safe and comfortable as possible.