If you’re considering going into rehab for a substance use disorder* (“the recurrent use of alcohol and/or drugs that causes significant impairment, including health problems, disability and failure to meet responsibilities at work, school, or home), you first may need to go through “medical detox.”
Those who struggle with substance abuse often will develop a tolerance and become physically dependent on alcohol and/or drugs. The fact is, quitting on your own can not only be challenging, but in some cases, a dangerous or even deadly decision. Symptoms can range from physical discomfort and anxiety to life-threatening conditions and severe complications. This is why addiction treatment centers will oftentimes recommend a medically supervised detoxification as the first step in treating an incoming patient’s addiction.
Given most all treatment centers will have an admissions staff to assist in determining the best course of action to take to gain freedom from active addiction, here are some responses to frequently asked questions to help you recognize whether or not medical detox is right for you.
WHAT IS A “MEDICAL DETOX”?
For starters, “detox” stands for detoxification, the process of removing toxins from the body. In this context, “toxins” are potentially poisonous or harmful substances, such as alcohol and drugs. The human body changes in a wide variety of ways when alcohol or drugs are no longer in the system after prolonged use, and these changes—“good, bad and ugly” (see “symptoms of withdrawal” listed in next paragraph)—are part of the detox process.
According to a Psychology Today article on the subject, “In medical detox, physicians and nurses carefully supervise the patient as he/she is gradually weaned from the substance. Certain medications are used to temporarily prevent or ease the symptoms of withdrawal, which can include headaches, nausea, vomiting, fever, seizures and more. The length of a medical detox varies depending on individual factors, such as what drug was abused and how long, as well as the patient’s medical history. However, a typical detox will last anywhere from two to 10 days.”
HOW DO I KNOW IF I NEED MEDICAL DETOX?
If you have a physical dependency on alcohol and/or drugs, or if you might be at-risk regarding your health if you attempt to stop on your own, it may be the wisest approach to start your addiction treatment with medical detox. Given the health dangers many encounter when they start going into withdrawals (from stopping alcohol and/or drug use “cold turkey”), having a medical professional monitoring your progress may prove to be a life-saver. According to a recent treatment center blog-post regarding the benefits of medial detoxing, “Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can begin as early as two hours after the last drink, persist for weeks, and range from mild anxiety and shakiness to severe complications, such as seizures and delirium tremens (also called DTs). The death rate from DTs—which are characterized by confusion, rapid heartbeat, and fever—is estimated to range from 1 percent to 5 percent.”
In other words, given the possible risks, it’s vital for those with any substance abuse disorder to know when they should seek medical detox as a precursor to their addiction treatment.
HOW LONG BEFORE A MEDICAL DETOX STARTS SHOWING THE DESIRED RESULTS?
Although patients’ experience can vary widely, the vast majority of patients often see significant improvement after they undergo medical detox.
WILL A MEDICAL DETOX STOP MY CRAVINGS FOR ALCOHOL AND/OR DRUGS PERMANENTLY?
As pointed out in the Psychology Today article cited earlier, “While detoxification helps to eliminate the physical symptoms of addiction, most patients will need additional medical and psychological assistance. Quitting a substance doesn’t address the underlying causes of the initial addiction, which could be genetic, environmental or behavioral. Also, there may be changes in brain chemistry as a result of long-term substance abuse that need to be addressed. Recovery usually involves treating the patient’s mind, as well as their body.”
The bottom line is continued treatment at an addiction treatment center is often required. This typically includes therapeutic counseling and further education about the nature of addiction and the recovery process, as well as establishing a solid recovery network of support. If these steps aren’t taken and follow-through doesn’t become a daily routine, relapsing into one’s “old habits”—and a resurgence of one’s addiction with all the dire consequences that follow—can easily occur.
WHAT TYPES OF MEDICAL DETOX EXIST?
There are two standard options for medical detox: outpatient and inpatient.
Outpatient medical detox includes a medical doctor’s assessment and physical exam to determine the best approach for meeting the patient’s specific needs. At that time, the doctor will advise whether they believe the patient can detox on their own with check-ins, or if they should be admitted to an inpatient detox facility.
With the inpatient approach, the patient checks in and remains in the facility for their entire detoxification process—which usually takes anywhere from 6 to 14 days—and is typically under medical care for 24 hours per day.
In conclusion, it’s important to note that while medical detox can be the wisest, safest and most health-preserving “first step” to recovery, it is not considered by any means a cure for a substance abuse disorder. Each person seeking recovery must eventually address the psychological and emotional aspects of the disease of addiction, if they are to continue to remain “clean and sober,” one day at a time, after having gone through medical detox.
 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration – https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/disorders