If you or someone you know has a substance use disorder—aka chemical dependency—and seek treatment for an addiction to alcohol or drugs, the first recommendation a rehab center poses may be to do a medically assisted detox.
“What’s that?” you ask.
Medical detox is a process for getting rid of toxic (including addictive) substances, carried out by a team of licensed medical professionals, typically led by a physician who is assisted by nurses, clinical staff and therapists who are trained addictions specialists.
When someone with an addiction stops drinking or using drugs, the withdrawal symptoms that arise can become severe or even life-threatening. Medical detox is designed to treat and manage a person’s withdrawal symptoms with medical supervision to ensure their safety.
One of the questions on many people’s minds when first arriving at a treatment facility is, “When is medical detox necessary?”
For most people who recognize they have a substance use disorder and seek inpatient or residential alcohol or drug treatment, the conditions that warrant prioritizing medical detoxification need to be addressed, prior to one’s starting treatment.
To begin with, those with substance use issues who believe they’re at risk of being chemically dependent on alcohol or drugs are candidates for medical detox. Chemical dependency is most likely if you have:
- Been using a substance regularly in large amounts
- Used a substance over an extended period
- Experienced a diminished effect over time from using the same amount of a substance
- Required increasing amounts of a substance to achieve the usual effect
- Craved a substance regularly when you do not have access to it
- Tried to quit using a substance and found you could not do so without help
Those with substance use disorders most commonly seek out medical detox when they’re at risk of experiencing the often intense, even life-threatening effects of withdrawal from alcohol or drugs. When one stops drinking or drug use, the presence of withdrawal indicates the body has become physically dependent on a substance. Each substance has its own characteristic pattern of withdrawal symptoms caused by chemical effects within the body that are produced when the person decreases or quits use of the substance, even temporarily.
Another pertinent question to ask is, “Dependency on what types of drugs warrant consideration of medical detoxing?”
Being dependent upon any of the following substances would necessitate evaluation and possible treatment for potentially severe withdrawal symptoms, i.e., use of medically assisted detox:
- Alcohol: For those with a dependency on alcohol, ceasing use of alcohol can cause an elevation in body temperature, increased heart rate, high blood pressure, anxiety, tremors, hallucinations and seizures – the worst symptom, delirium tremens, can be fatal without intervention.
- Benzodiazepines: These sedative medications have a similar chemical effect on the body as alcohol, therefore have similar withdrawal symptoms.
- Opioids: This class of pain medications, derived from the poppy plant, mimics endorphins, the body’s own natural opioids. Stopping use of any of the highly addictive opioids creates withdrawal symptoms that are often compared to having a bad case of the flu and may include cold and clammy skin, extreme muscle aches, anxiety, nausea and vomiting.
- Stimulants: Non-prescription stimulants include cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA. Though stimulants do not typically create physically life-threatening withdrawal symptoms, some of the symptoms of stimulant withdrawal include physical fatigue and exhaustion, anxiety, severe depression and suicidal thoughts or actions.
- Synthetic Drugs: The prescription opioid fentanyl, along with other synthetic drugs like bath salts or kratom, can create significant withdrawal symptoms that professional medical detox can successfully address.
In conclusion, one can be hopeful, even optimistic, at the prospect of doing a medical detox prior to treatment. A statistic published in a report by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) indicates those who complete medical detox are more likely to stay in treatment longer and tend to stay sober/clean longer. Specifically, rehab success rates for those who complete alcohol or drug detoxification are a combined 68 percent. If you or someone you know is contemplating getting treatment for an addiction to alcohol or drugs, the research available points to medical detox being a wise “first step” consideration, prior to entering treatment.