questions about treatment

Medical Detox: What It Is and How It Can Help

The first step in addiction recovery involves weaning the body from immediate dependence by stopping (or slowly reducing) drug intake. There are a variety of common terms for this process: withdrawal, purging, cleansing—and the term favored here at Inland, “detoxification” or “detox.”

Detox not only goes by many names, it comes in many forms. There’s the “cold turkey” approach where a person is suddenly and completely deprived of the drug, often becoming seriously ill for several days. There’s the tapering-off approach—taking a little less each day to let the body slowly accustom itself to doing without—which can be effective with “lower-level” addictions such as smoking. There’s “social detox,” which involves temporary residence at a licensed facility with therapy and peer support, but without formal medical care. Then there’s medical detox, which is the safest way to quit any drug that might cause dangerous withdrawal symptoms.

Medical detox is just what it sounds like: undergoing the detoxification procedure under the care and supervision of licensed medical personnel. Here are some things everyone should know about medical detox:

1. It’s the best drug detox in the majority of cases—much safer than trying to detox privately.

“Just stopping” on your own is fraught with hazards. You’re relying entirely on your own judgment—which is probably impaired from drug use—to decide the whats, whens and hows. There’s nothing to stop you from giving up and taking another fix if detox symptoms become unbearable—worse, you may be far from medical help should symptoms become life-threatening. Even if you make it through to “sobriety” without serious consequences, you haven’t learned any alternate means for coping with the problems that tempted you into addiction, nor do you have accountability to keep from relapsing. And if you do relapse, unpleasant memories of self-detox may hamper any desire to “get clean” again.

Of course, some people do manage to get clean and stay clean by sheer willpower, but trying too hard to be self-reliant is always a dangerous game—and pride can be an active hindrance to sobriety.

2. Medical detox is vital if your drug of choice was alcohol or benzodiazepines.

Although heroin often comes to mind when someone mentions “agonizing withdrawal symptoms” (perhaps because it’s an illegal drug with a long history of associated social problems), it’s actually less dangerous to go “cold turkey” from heroin than from alcohol or benzodiazepines. That’s not to say heroin withdrawal should be attempted privately or that it never killed anyone, but the threat to life is far greater with alcohol or “benzo” withdrawal symptoms. Besides serious physical risks (including possible seizures, heart failure or impaired breathing), a person may experience hallucinations or severe depression that could trigger an impulse suicide. (Suicidal thoughts are also a common problem in meth withdrawal, which produces few life-threatening symptoms in the physical category—another good reason to not approach any detox with the attitude “It’ll just hurt a bit for a while, I can handle it.”)

With benzos especially, withdrawal risks are so great, and so difficult to judge by immediate symptoms, that even trained medical personnel use the tapering-off approach as a matter of course. The question of how much and how quickly doses should be reduced, or what alternate benzodiazepine should be substituted, is a call only a licensed M.D. should make.

 

Melissa Berschauer LMFT

"The thing that prevents people from wanting to detox is fear. Fear of the possibility of intolerable side effects. To that I say, why not choose a medically supervised path that can ease those effects and lessen the fear?"

Melissa Berschauer, MA, LMFT, www.melissaberschauer.com

 

3. A detox center will follow the same detailed check-in procedures as any other medical facility.

 Expect plenty of questions on your drug-use habits, the rest of your medical history, any illnesses that run in your family (especially any that might be exacerbated by the drugs you’ve been using) and how committed you are to sticking this out. You may receive a thorough physical checkup, and probably a psychological evaluation (people with drug-abuse problems are at high risk for co-occurring mental illnesses). All this is important in planning the best treatment program for you as an individual: how much supervision you will need, what other precautions will be taken to help you through withdrawal, the length of your stay, whether your family will visit for onsite counseling, and what the next step will be after detox.

4. Detox and recovery aren’t “done” when the worst of the withdrawal symptoms are over.

Not even close, in fact. While most people “feel much better” within a week or two, it takes a few more weeks for the body to purge itself of lingering dependence symptoms. That’s why most detox centers require committing for at least a month of inpatient care. It won’t be wasted time: besides minimizing outside stressors and rebuilding physical strength, you’ll get plenty of guidance in preparing, emotionally and practically, for long-term sobriety in the “real world.” Typically during this period, a center will monitor you for physical problems, and will provide both individual therapy and support-group meetings with other clients. You’ll work with a mentor to design a long-term sobriety plan, including stress-management practices, support-group involvement, avoiding relapse temptations, and making amends for problems your addiction has caused others. Depending on your center’s philosophy, you may enroll in a formal 12-Step program, attend religious services or meditation sessions, or be treated for any physical or mental illnesses that were uncovered during evaluation and detox.

Even after you’re released from the detox center, you aren’t “cured”—you’ve just finished the first major stage in a lifetime of recovery. Here are some ways to protect your long-term sobriety and health:

  • If you didn’t get a thorough physical checkup during medical detox, schedule one now. Even if you “feel fine,” the drug use may have done internal damage.
  • Continue attending weekly support groups and receiving therapy.
  • Get your family involved in therapy if you can. The whole household probably needs to change a few addiction-abetting habits.
  • If you have a job or need to get one, commit yourself to being the most responsible worker you can be. Keep in mind, though, that this does not mean being a “yes person” or always chasing the next promotion—it means appreciating and supporting the larger purpose of the organization, plus respecting your coworkers’ needs as people. (If your old job is particularly stressful, or just doesn’t fit your skills and interests, doing what’s right for your health may mean changing jobs.)
  • Don’t be afraid of major changes. They’re the seeds from which a fulfilling life grows.
  • Write a “life purpose statement” comprising your skills, passions, dreams and values. Commit yourself to living according to that purpose.
  • Stay in occasional touch with your original detox center. Doctors appreciate being “thought of” as much as anybody, and you never know when you may have a question or referral.

Medical detox is the best drug detox because it ensures the most qualified help. Take advantage of it!

If you or a loved one struggle with addiction, call Inland Detox today at (888) 739-8296. We’ll help you get the best medical detox for your situation.