A substance use disorder is a clinical term used to describe addiction to drugs or alcohol. Withdrawal is one of the diagnostic criteria for a substance use disorder. Withdrawal, which occurs when people with addictions stop using drugs or alcohol, involves unpleasant symptoms resulting from the substance of abuse no longer being active in the body.
When a person enters withdrawal, they may experience painful symptoms, making it difficult to stop using the substance of abuse permanently. In fact, people may return to drug or alcohol use to avoid withdrawal symptoms. If a person wants to stop using drugs and/or alcohol, but withdrawal symptoms make the process more challenging, an alcohol and drug detox program may be necessary to manage symptoms and begin the journey toward lasting recovery. Detox programs can also provide life-saving medical treatment in cases where withdrawal becomes dangerous.
What is Detox?
For many, detox is typically the beginning of treatment for a drug or alcohol addiction. Formally, detox is defined as the process the body undergoes to rid itself of drugs and alcohol. Because side effects of detox can be dangerous, doctors who treat patients in these programs will often prescribe medications to manage these side effects. Professionals may use the term “medically managed withdrawal” or “medically assisted detox” to describe detox programs in addiction.
Drug and alcohol detox can occur in the form of either an inpatient or an outpatient program. Patients completing inpatient programs will receive 24-hour around-the-clock care in a residential or hospital setting, with doctors and medical staff available to monitor symptoms and provide continuous care. In outpatient settings, patients report to a clinic for prescription medications to treat withdrawal, often daily, so that medical staff can ensure there are no complications.
Symptoms of Withdrawal
The primary purpose of detox programs is to rid the body of substances while alleviating withdrawal symptoms that are extremely unpleasant or dangerous. These withdrawal symptoms will vary based upon a person’s drug of choice.
For example, alcohol withdrawal symptoms include tremors, anxiety, sweating, fast heartbeat, hallucinations, nausea, and sleep disturbances. Alcohol withdrawal can also create severe symptoms, such as seizures and a life-threatening condition called delirium tremens, making quality alcohol detox programs important.
Withdrawal symptoms may differ for other substances, such as opiates. Opiate withdrawal involves painful symptoms such as aches, muscle tension, chills, stomach cramping, insomnia, anxiety, and depression. Drug and alcohol detox programs can make a withdrawal from heroin and other opiates more manageable by reducing the effects of some of these painful symptoms.
What Do Drug and Alcohol Detox Programs Look Like?
While withdrawal symptoms vary by the drug of choice, most people who undergo withdrawal will experience nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, anxiety, and sleep disturbances, which can be managed in detox programs. Therefore, people who enter a drug and alcohol detox program can expect to take medications to make them more comfortable as the body rids itself of abused substances. Those in detox may take promethazine or temazepam for sleep disturbances, metoclopramide or prochlorperazine for nausea and vomiting, ibuprofen for headaches, and pain diazepam for anxiety or agitation. They may also take medication for muscle pain, cramps, and diarrhea.
Beyond drugs for treating general withdrawal symptoms, drug and alcohol detox programs may provide specific medications to the substance of abuse. For example, a patient who is in a detox program for heroin addiction may be treated with buprenorphine or methadone to alleviate withdrawal and lessen drug cravings, per the World Health Organization. On the other hand, patients with moderate to severe alcohol withdrawal often take diazepam during a detox program, sometimes in large doses, to treat withdrawal complications and prevent serious consequences, including death.
In addition to providing medications, inpatient or residential drug and alcohol detox programs offer medical monitoring. Medical staff such as nurses and doctors will monitor vital signs, provide needed medical care, and ensure that patients remain as safe and comfortable as possible. Staff also provide supportive care, such as explaining what is happening to patients, protecting patients from harming themselves, and listening to and reassuring patients.
What Drug and Alcohol Detox Isn’t
During a detox program, patients can expect to take medications to treat withdrawal while also receiving care and support from a team of medical professionals as they experience the uncomfortable and potentially fatal consequences of ridding the body of drugs and/or alcohol. On the other hand, they should not expect detox programs to provide comprehensive addiction treatment services, as these programs are only the first step of the recovery process.
Detox programs rid the body of substances, but they are not an appropriate form of psychosocial care for addiction. Patients in drug and alcohol detox programs are often so uncomfortable and perhaps impaired that they cannot fully participate in psychological services, like therapy, to address the underlying addiction. A detox program cannot take the place of individual counseling, drug, and alcohol education groups, or relapse prevention programs; it can only fulfill the purpose of medically treating drug and alcohol withdrawal in a safe environment.
Life After Detox
Drug and alcohol detox is just the first step in recovering from an addiction. Patients who complete a detox program will need to receive continued care to achieve lasting sobriety. After completing a detox program, patients should enter an ongoing addiction treatment program. Some patients may require residential or inpatient treatment. In contrast, others can be successful in an outpatient program. They live at home but attend appointments at a clinic or counseling center throughout the course of their recovery.
Life after detox is not “one size fits all.” Many patients who complete detox for opioid use disorder move into a medication-assisted treatment (MAT) program after discharge to help them manage the addiction’s chronic disease. Others enter into residential treatment or chose self-help groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous.
Reach Out to Compass Detox Today
Regardless of the chosen aftercare treatment option, experts seem to agree on one thing: drug and alcohol detox alone does not lead to lasting sobriety. Relapse is highly likely for those who complete detox and return to life without any follow-up treatment. But with the right support, individuals can learn to manage their disease and return to a healthy lifestyle. At Compass Detox, our detox programs and addiction treatment programs offer various therapies designed to help clients learn how to maintain their sobriety. Some of our therapies include:
- ACT- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
- CRAFT- Community Reinforcement and Family Training
- Dialectical Behavior Therapy
- Family Therapy
- Group Therapy