Crucial Differences Between Substance Recovery and Rehabilitation

Rehab Program

In New England addiction treatment circles, we’re starting to hear the term “rehab” less and the word “recovery” more. If you look into research and news articles from the past ten years, you will see a sharp increase in how often the word “recovery” is used and how much the words “rehab” and “rehabilitation” have declined when referring to patients and other recovering individuals. Step into any Boston rehabilitation center, and you’ll see the same pattern repeated.

So what gives? Is “recovery” just a newfangled term that just means “rehab”?

Well, yes and no. Below we’ll explain the small but crucial differences between the two ideas and why the term recovery has started to grow in popularity among mental health experts.

Recovery vs. Rehab

While you will hear these words used interchangeably by laypeople, individuals with substance use disorder, and even people in the medical profession, for many mental health professionals, they are different concepts.

According to many mental health specialsts, to rehabilitate someone is to bring them back to their state before they became sick. In the context of drug and alcohol use disorders, this means a complete and total cure, where the individual is completely free of the disease.

Recovery, on the other hand, implies that the disease is not cured. Rather, it is treated and controlled so that the patient is able to live a balanced and fulfilling life, even with a substance use disorder.

It must be noted that in the United States, they are essentially the same, and these delineations are by no means universal.

Why the switch?

There are several reasons addiction treatment specialists have started to use the term recovery in place of rehabilitation. Some of the reasons include the following:

1.) Substance use disorders cannot always be cured

While it’s certainly possible for substance use disorder to be totally cured in some cases, most of the time, the best that could be hoped for is a recovery, where the affected person needs minimal or no further intervention for their condition. 

Total cures, generally speaking, are uncommon when it comes to many psychiatric disorders, and substance use disorder is no different. However, in most cases, the condition can be treated to a point that the individual can lead a normal life where their illness is of no hindrance.

2.) It’s a matter of semantics

Some substance use disorder specialists may use “recovery” to refer to a patient’s individual journey and use “rehabilitation’ to refer to the tools and methods used to make that happen. Others may just use them interchangeably with the understanding that any positive outcome is good, whether it’s recovery or rehabilitation.

While neither approach is necessarily right or wrong, it should be noted that the practice of drug rehab can have some differences geographically, and the specific use of terms may be different between certain treatment centers and practitioners. 

Whether you’re someone who needs help for substance use disorder or are close with someone who does, it might be worthwhile to try to understand how attending clinicians use these terminologies, regardless.

3.) “Recovery” is more accurate in most cases

Given what we now understand about the human brain’s ability to heal from trauma and substance use, it seems that in the vast majority of cases, total cures may not be possible. There will likely always be some lingering effect from past experiences with heavy drug or alcohol use, which necessarily means that a total rehabilitation to a state before the disease is usually not possible.

However, it is almost always possible for the brain and body to heal (i.e. recover) to a state where the individual can lead a full life. A common analogy is scar tissue. Scar tissue on your skin is permanent, but it is nevertheless a sign of healing. In much the same way, complete rehabilitation from heavy substance misuse may not be realistic, but recovery is possible in almost all cases.


Over the past few decades, psychiatric health specialists and drug rehab centers in the United States have started the process of using the word “recovery” in place of “rehab”. This change is more than just window dressing and helps address newer fundamental understandings health experts have learned about substance use disorders. As New England is home to cutting-edge psychiatric research, Boston rehabilitation centers have been among the first to adopt the change. In California, instead a drug addiction hotline is available.

As with other developments in the field of mental health, it may take some time before it catches on with everyone in healthcare. It may take even longer until it is used by the general public. 

In the meantime, If you’re in substance rehab or plan to go to one, the distinction is probably not something you should have to worry about. Good luck on your rehab or recovery!