When you become chemically dependent on a psychoactive drug, your brain has adapted to the drug by altering your natural neurochemistry. That means your central nervous system may be producing more or less of your own brain chemicals in an attempt to counteract the drug in your system and achieve balanced brain chemistry.
If you stop using your drug of choice, your brain chemistry will become unbalanced, like someone jumping off a seesaw. This chemical imbalance is called withdrawal. Your brain and body are missing the chemical they’ve gotten used to.
Detox can cause a variety of symptoms depending on the psychoactive drug you are dependent on. Most, however, will cause powerful withdrawal symptoms that compel you to use again.
For the most part, drug withdrawal symptoms are extremely uncomfortable but not life-threatening. However, some drugs can cause severe symptoms that can be medically dangerous and even deadly without treatment, particularly drugs in the central nervous system depressant category.
Whether a drug causes uncomfortable or deadly withdrawal symptoms, it may be difficult to get through on your own without relapsing. That’s where medical detox comes in. Detox services are designed to help get you through the withdrawal phase safely and as comfortable as possible.
Learn more about medical detox services and how they can help you achieve sobriety.
What Is Detox?
Detoxification, or detox, as it is commonly shortened to, has two meanings. The first is the textbook definition: the act of clearing the body of addictive, toxic, and harmful substances, like drugs and alcohol, to stop the physical and psychological damage that extended substance abuse causes.
The other meaning of detox refers to the process itself as it’s carried out by medical detox facilities and other treatment centers. It is a form of addiction treatment that provides medical support, resources, and interventions to help manage acute intoxication and the withdrawal symptoms that follow the stoppage of drug or alcohol use.
The purpose of alcohol and drug detox is to both ensure these substances are completely removed from someone’s system and that they manage to make it through withdrawal safely and with the least amount of discomfort possible.
Medical detox is administered by doctors and health care professionals who are experienced and well-trained in the field of addiction.
While undergoing detox is overall not a pleasant experience, it is still the necessary first step to essentially all forms of recovery from substance use disorders. In fact, many addiction recovery treatment programs begin with medical detox anyway.
Someone cannot expect to get sober and start their recovery while they still have drugs or alcohol in their systems. They also cannot effectively start the recovery process while dealing with the withdrawal symptoms caused by stopping drug or alcohol use, which can be uncomfortable and distracting at best and potentially life-threatening at worst.
Why Do I Need to Detox?
The above two reasons highlight why detox has to happen before someone can begin an addiction recovery treatment program, some people might be under the mistaken impression that detox is unnecessary, or that they can just stop using alcohol or drugs all at once on their own without any serious consequences.
This is not the case, though, as the long-term effects of chronic substance use make it challenging for someone to stop using on their own since their body and brain have become dependent. It also means that if and when they do stop using, there are going to be inescapable physical and mental effects.
Depending on the severity of someone’s dependence, the substance they were abusing, and how long they were abusing it for, exact withdrawal symptoms will vary from person to person. Some common mild withdrawal symptoms that almost anyone stopping the use of drugs or alcohol and can expect to experience include:
- Mood swings
- Muscle aches and pains
- Fever, chills, and other flu-like symptoms
However, other symptoms, while still very common, are much more severe and hard to manage, including:
- Irregular heartbeat
- Suicidal thoughts or behaviors
- Panic attacks
These symptoms can be much more unpredictable and difficult to manage. If someone attempts to quit using drugs or alcohol that they have become addicted to “cold turkey” rather than go through medical detox, they are extremely likely to experience symptoms like suicidal thoughts and seizures due to the immense shock to the system quitting all at once triggers.
The body and brain are suddenly deprived of something they have become dependent on and now are struggling to function without it.
While some substances will have milder withdrawals, others are known to have withdrawal periods so intense and possibly dangerous that they should always be stopped via a carefully planned detox, including:
- Benzodiazepines like Xanax and Valium
- Opioids, either illicit like heroin or prescription like OxyContin
- Certain non-benzo sedatives such as Lunesta or Ambien
Why Should I Detox at a Rehab Center?
Attempting to detox on your own creates a lot of unnecessary risks. Do so also means leaving yourself open to the consequences of some of the symptoms outlined above, such as seizures or delirium tremens.
It also is much less likely to be successful, as many people find the symptoms of withdrawal associated with drug and alcohol detox too much to handle and will often relapse mid-detox. This also raises the risk of accidentally overdosing, which frequently occurs when someone relapses and takes a much larger dose of a substance than they usually would to try and get relief from extreme withdrawal symptoms.
Choosing medical detoxification at a professional rehab or detox center removes these potential problems by having a dedicated staff available to administer medications that can help ease the symptoms of withdrawal and make them more manageable. Through medical maintenance therapy, the withdrawal process can be made much more achievable, with the minimum amount of pain or discomfort.
If someone chooses an inpatient medical detox specifically, it also eliminates the possibility of a mid-detox relapse, as they will be removed from their environment and placed under 24-7 monitoring.
Undergoing medical detox at a professional treatment center also means that a doctor can start a tapering schedule to slowly wean people off the substance they have become dependent on. Instead of trying to quit cold turkey and enduring the stress this puts on the body, tapering instead carefully lowers the dosage over time until it is safe to stop using drugs or alcohol without the danger of triggering a seizure or other medical complications.
While it is understandable to feel frustrated by tapering’s lengthier detox process, it is the safest and most effective way to do a drug and alcohol detox. Some opt instead for a method known as “rapid detox.” This involves being placed under general anesthetic and given medications intravenously to speed up the detox process from days or weeks to as little as four to six hours.
However, rapid detox is expensive, typically not covered by insurance, and often risky. Numerous studies have questioned the actual effectiveness of rapid detox and documented heart attacks, seizures, and other severe complications, many of which have been fatal.
Traditional medical detox may take longer, but it is the best way to ensure a safe, successful detoxification without any unnecessary discomfort that leaves people ready to continue on to the next phase of treatment.
How Does Medical Detox Work?
Medical detoxification is defined as a three-step process that can be broken down as follows:
This step involves screening and information-gathering by the detox center’s medical team. During the evaluation process, doctors will:
- Conduct blood tests to measure drug levels to determine necessary medications
- Screen for either physical or mental co-occurring disorders
- Make a risk assessment of how severe someone’s withdrawal will be
This initial screening will also serve as a basis for putting together an effective long-term treatment plan post-detox.
The next step is to move on to keeping the client stable during the withdrawal process and preventing them from coming to any form of harm. Some methods used to accomplish this include:
- Medication to help ease withdrawal symptoms
- Providing proper diet and nutrition
- Psychological therapy
- Involvement of family and friends, if deemed helpful to treatment
- Giving clients an idea of what to expect as part of the greater treatment and recovery process
The final step in the medical detox process involves preparing the client for transitioning into long-term substance abuse treatment. This usually involves:
- Familiarizing clients with the addiction recovery treatment process
- Providing resources and information on different recovery treatment programs
- In the case of inpatient medical detox, undergoing the actual transition from detox to ongoing care within the same facility
Many people wonder exactly how long their detox will take. While there are some established common timelines, detoxing from certain stimulants, for example, can be done in a matter of days. Opioids can take a couple of weeks, and benzodiazepines can sometimes take up to a month. The actual length of any given individual’s detox experience is difficult to predict.
Someone’s detox length is affected by factors such as:
- What substance someone was abusing
- How long they were abusing it
- How much of the substance they were taking and how often
- How they were taking it (orally as a tablet, snorted as a tablet, injected as a liquid, etc.)
- Whether or not they have a co-occurring disorder
- The state of their overall health in general
What Kind of Detox Treatment Programs are There?
There are two main types of drug and alcohol detox programs: inpatient and outpatient. When it comes to choosing the one that will work best for someone, that depends on the unique factors that we have previously mentioned, including the severity of their addiction, what substance they’re dependent on, the severity of their withdrawal symptoms, and so on.
Inpatient detox treatment is a more common form of medical detox. It involves the person being removed from their everyday environment and placed under 24-7 care and supervision, typically at one of the following places:
- A residential rehabilitation facility
- A medical detox center
- A hospital
- A dual-diagnosis treatment facility specializing in co-occurring disorders
Along with around-the-clock medical care and support, inpatient detox reduces external triggers that could lead to a mid-detox relapse by taking someone out of their normal life and having them stay in the controlled environment of a treatment center, where they can also more easily transition into continued care once they are done detoxing.
Outpatient detox treatment is much less structured and does not involve living onsite at a treatment facility. Instead, the person continues with their regular life while making regular visits to either a doctor’s office or outpatient detox clinic for medication and support to help them through the withdrawal process.
Obviously, while outpatient treatment is much more flexible and, for many people, both more practical and feasible, the responsibility of avoiding triggers that could lead to relapse is on the individual. Also, outpatient detox is really only recommended if someone’s withdrawal symptoms are mild enough that they do not require continuous medical monitoring.
Within these two categories are five placement levels of care concerning drug and alcohol withdrawal, as defined by the American Society of Addiction Medicine:
- Mild withdrawal that requires daily or less than daily outpatient supervision and support
- Moderate withdrawal that requires all-day, on-site support and management, but can return home at night provided it is a healthy and supportive living situation.
- Moderate withdrawal that requires 24-hour onsite support and care to increase the likelihood of recovery. This is defined as non-medical support, emphasizing the peer support found in a residential treatment facility.
- Severe withdrawal that specifically requires medical supervision and care on a 24-hour basis
- Severe withdrawal that necessitates 24-hour intensive medical intervention (This is referring to cases of acute withdrawal in which hospitalization has become necessary.)
What Happens After Detox?
Once someone has successfully completed their detox, the strongly recommended next step is checking into addiction rehabilitation treatment. As we’ve previously mentioned, recovery cannot truly begin without first flushing the substances someone has become dependent on out of their system. However, detox alone is not enough to ensure lasting sobriety and has no effect on the mindset and addictive behaviors that lead people down the path to substance abuse in the first place.
Most medical detox facilities can provide information on addiction recovery treatment programs and other resources to help aid in the transition from detox to ongoing care.
At a reputable and professional recovery treatment center, an individual can choose from a wide range of programs and services based on what will most effectively meet their needs.
Much like detox, some people may require the more intensive care provided by an inpatient treatment program, while others may find outpatient treatment sufficient. Some common treatment options typically found in both inpatient and outpatient programs include:
- Relapse prevention planning
- Dual diagnosis treatment
- 12-step programs
No matter which form of treatment someone chooses, they can learn to understand the issues at the root of their addiction and gain the tools and coping skills necessary to help manage it in the long-term.
Many of these recovery centers also have alumni programs, which means treatment program graduates can stay connected. They also can provide an outside support network for each other to help avoid relapse and stay committed to their recovery goals.
Why Take the First Steps Toward Recovery Today?
If you’ve become dependent on a psychoactive substance, it’s important that you seek help as soon as possible. Some withdrawal periods can be extremely uncomfortable, while others can be deadly.
If you have been using a depressant like alcohol or benzodiazepines, and you feel like you might be dependent, speak to a medical professional before quitting cold turkey. However, even if you’ve become dependent on some other type of drug, medical detox is the best way to start addiction treatment for many people.
Even if withdrawal isn’t life-threatening, it can be difficult to get through on your own. Drugs like opioids are notoriously addictive. Powerful cravings may compel you to keep using, especially during the detox phase. Plus, addiction is a progressive disease that can get worse over time, spreading to different parts of your life.
Without treatment, it can start to take over your health, job, and relationships.
Seeking addiction treatment early can help you avoid some of the worst consequences of addiction.
But no matter where you are in the disease progression, help is available that might be able to lead you to lasting sobriety. Learn more about medical detox and addiction treatment to start your road to recovery today.