What is Detox?
According to Webster’s Dictionary, the word “detoxification” is a verb that means, “to remove a harmful substance (such as a poison or toxin) or the effect of such.” While people who are addicted to drugs and/or alcohol might balk at the idea that these substances are poisons, the fact is that these substances can change the way a person thinks, feels and reacts in certain situations. Until those chemicals are removed from a person’s system, a true recovery simply cannot take place. These programs strive to clear the chemicals from the addict’s system.
Detoxification is a natural process. When the addict stops introducing the substance, the body begins to adjust to the lack of the chemical until, over time, the body is clean and functioning without the use of the chemical. While it’s true that some people can detoxify alone, many others need assistance. Some can lose their lives to symptoms if they don’t get help, and others find the process simply too painful to endure without assistance.
Detoxification programs vary, depending on the substance the person has been using and the severity of the addiction, but the goals of programs remain much the same.
The programs strive to:
- Ease discomfort.
- Prevent serious symptoms from occurring.
- Maintain the addict’s dignity.
- Prepare the addict for additional therapies to allow him or her to stay sober for a lifetime.
Detoxification itself is not a cure, as the addict will emerge from the process with the same habits, friends and environmental surroundings that supported the addiction in the first place. But, it’s an important first step the addict must take on the road to recovery.
People who drink large amounts of alcohol for long periods of time become accustomed to the substance, and their bodies begin to act as though alcohol is a normal and necessary part of the bloodstream. When these people stop using alcohol, the body’s nervous system moves into overdrive and begins to react as though a major problem has occurred.
About six to 48 hours after someone stops drinking, they may feel symptoms such as:
- Shaking hands
- Sensitivity to light and sound
- Nausea and vomiting
Some people progress to serious symptoms. These symptoms are clustered under one name, Delirium tremens (DTs), and this can be life threatening. According to an article published by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), five percent of people who stop abusing alcohol experience DTs. The symptoms include large increases in blood pressure, heart rate and breathing. People may also experience severe agitation, disorientation and persistent hallucinations. Even people who do not experience DTs can experience horrible symptoms. The NIAAA also reports that up to 25 percent of people enduring alcohol detoxification experience seizures.
Medications can ease the process, making it easier for the alcoholic to endure the process without losing his or her life. Some medications ease vomiting and nausea, while others help reduce tremors and seizures. Patients can receive these medications from their doctors and go through the detoxification on their own, but some alcoholics need to go through this period in a clinic, where they can receive more intensive monitoring. According to an article published in American Family Physician, only 10 to 20 percent of alcoholics receive detoxification treatments in inpatient programs.
People who might need inpatient care include alcoholics who:
- Have a history of DTs or seizures
- Have been through it multiple times in the past
- Also have mental illnesses, in addition to addiction
- Drink large amounts of alcohol
- Are pregnant
- Have loose social ties and a low level of support from friends and family
People who use prescription medications, heroin or other drugs change the way their brains function. When the drugs enter the body, they’re converted to dopamine. This is a substance the body produces naturally. When the body is flooded with dopamine, the person can feel relaxed and euphoric. Over time, the person’s body begins to produce less and less dopamine alone, and eventually, the body may produce no dopamine at all. When the person stops using drugs, and no dopamine is available, symptoms can begin.
While these symptoms may not be life-threatening, they can certainly be uncomfortable.
Common symptoms include:
- Painful muscles
- Nausea and vomiting
People undergoing drug detoxification may also feel an intense and persistent craving for the drug, and this craving can cause them to leave their rehab in order to obtain the drug. In addition, some addicts complete a detoxification program only to return directly to drug use. According to an article published in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, only 21 percent of people studied who completed a drug detoxification program went on to additional therapies. These additional therapies, including counseling and support groups, are crucial to long-term recovery, and often, drug addicts simply don’t participate in these programs, and they cycle in and out of detoxification programs.
Since drug addiction is so difficult to combat, some experts believe that the goal of a drug addiction program is to transition the addict from illegal, harmful drugs in high doses to low doses of controlled medications. According to an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine, success can be measured by how well the addict is able to hold down a job, stay free of mental problems and resist being arrested. According to this thinking, a drug detoxification program works by assisting the addict to convert to another drug for a short or long period of time.
People who have been taking heroin or opioid medications sometimes transition to the drug methadone. According to Harvard Medical School, more than 100,000 Americans take methadone each year. When an addict enters a heroin detox program, the doctor determines how much heroin that person has been taking and then determines how much methadone that person might need to achieve a similar effect. Then, slowly, the person takes smaller and smaller doses until he or she is on a level that can be tolerated without feeling withdrawal side effects. At this point, the person can begin other forms of addiction therapies.
Other addiction programs use a drug called buprenorphine to assist with detoxification. Unlike methadone, buprenorphine doesn’t cause a high or a feeling of euphoria. In addition, the medication is almost impossible to abuse. Addicts who crush the medications and snort them find that the medications don’t work at all. In fact, addicts who do this activate another chemical in the pill that renders all of the medication inactive. In short, it helps with withdrawal symptoms but doesn’t cause a high. Again, people can take this medication at a high dose in the beginning and then slowly taper to a smaller and smaller dose. Some people can take buprenorphine for years, but they might also be able to stop use after a few weeks or months.
Not all addiction programs require the user to transition to another medication, however. In fact, some treatment programs allow the addict to get clean naturally, and medical staff stays nearby to assist should a severe symptom occur. At Rehab International, we refer patients to both natural and medical detox programs. Some do better with one form of treatment, and others prefer the second method.
It’s best if the facility tailors the treatment to meet the needs and preferences of each individual patient.
A few drug detoxification programs take an addict through a process called “rapid detoxification.” Here, an addict is placed under general anesthesia, and a series of medications are given to block the body from picking up any drugs in the bloodstream. The addict might feel severe withdrawal symptoms if awake, but since the addict is under anesthesia, he or she feels no symptoms at all. While this might seem appealing, the method has been linked to a high risk of death. For this reason, it’s not a good choice for most people addicted to drugs.
Not a Cure
It’s important to stress that detoxification is only the first step in the recovery from drug and alcohol abuse. Addiction is caused by more than a simple chemical imbalance. People who are addicted likely have friends who are addicted and they may have built-in habits they have developed around their addiction. Perhaps the alcoholic is accustomed to stopping by the corner pub on the way home from work. Perhaps the heroin addict is used to shooting up when pressures at home grow too large to cope with. These habits and relationships can’t be treated through a detoxification program alone.
A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association makes this relationship clear. Of the 335 people studied, 58 percent had returned to narcotic use after a successful detoxification. Another eight percent had died or were incarcerated. It’s clear, given these startling statistics, that beating an addiction for good means more than simply clearing the substances out of the bloodstream and hoping for the best.
Detoxification simply must be followed by therapies that can help addicts change their habits for good.