In relation to addiction treatment, detox is a process your body goes through as it readjusts to life without a chemical substance. The idea of detoxification is applied to health culture, juice cleanses, and clean dieting as a way to purge your body of harmful toxins. But when it comes to chemical dependence on drugs, detox is about more than just purging your body of those chemicals. Most addictive drugs have half-lives that last a few hours to a full day. That means your body can process the chemicals in a few days. However, you feel withdrawal symptoms for up to a full week.
Why? Because your brain has adapted to the presence of the drug, and it’s come to rely on it. Drug detox allows your body to find a new chemical balance without the psychoactive drugs it got used to. Medical detox is the highest level of care in addiction treatment that’s designed to help you through uncomfortable withdrawal and avoid any dangerous symptoms. It involves 24 hours of medical care from board-licensed medical professionals and treatment with medication when needed.
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Not every substance use disorder requires medical detox. If you or a loved one is abusing a drug but hasn’t developed a chemical dependence yet, you may just need an outpatient or intensive outpatient program. However, if you’ve developed a chemical dependence, medical detox is the safest way to enter detox. Some drugs, including barbiturates, benzodiazepines, and alcohol, can cause potentially deadly withdrawal symptoms that need to be treated in medical detox to avoid a potentially fatal medical complication.
Other drugs, such as opioids, are extremely uncomfortable in withdrawal, and in severe cases, they can be dangerous.
Either way, chemical dependence can make achieving recovery incredibly difficult to overcome on your own. Medical detox programs can lead you through intense cravings and withdrawal to sobriety.
Medical detox can last for a week or longer, depending on your specific needs. Treating a chemical dependence is the main goal of detox, but it’s not the only factor that needs to be addressed.
Addiction can have various underlying issues, and it can cause even more consequences. For treatment to be effective, it needs to address more than just a substance use disorder, and it needs to be personalized to your specific needs.
While detox primarily focuses on your immediate, medical needs, it should also fit into the larger continuum of care, which addresses every need directly or indirectly related to addiction.
Here are some of the most important aspects of treatment that you might receive in medical detox:
When you first enter a treatment program, you will go through an intake and assessment process that is designed to determine your needs and the level of care that will serve you best. If there is a risk of potentially dangerous drug withdrawal or other medical conditions or complications, you will be placed in medical detox. You will sit down with a therapist to go through an assessment called a biopsychosocial as soon as you are able.
This questionnaire can take up to an hour, and it’s an in-depth look at your specific biological, psychological, and social needs. The assessment will help your therapist better understand what kind of therapies will serve you best. Together, you will create a treatment plan that’s tailored to your individual needs. If you have medical needs or if you are going through withdrawal, your treatment plan will start with objectives related to medical treatment, med compliance, and achieving sobriety.
When you complete detox, your treatment plan will be reassessed each week and adapted to your changing needs and progress in treatment.
Medical detox involves 24-hour from medical professionals and treatment with medications when necessary. Different psychoactive chemicals affect the brain in different ways, which can cause a unique set of symptoms and treatment options. For instance, benzodiazepines are depressants and can cause potentially dangerous side effects. If you are going through benzodiazepine withdrawal, your medical team will need to monitor and avoid seizures and delirium tremens (DTs). You may be treated with another depressant to help wean you off of the drug.
If you are addicted to an opioid, your withdrawal symptoms will mimic the flu. They aren’t often deadly, but withdrawal symptoms can lead to dehydration, which your medical team will need to help you avoid. Opioid withdrawal is also incredibly difficult to get through on your own because cravings can lead to relapse. Other opioids can also be used to treat opioid addiction by weaning you off the drug slowly.
Medically managed services are also excellent for people who enter treatment with other medical concerns and complications. Addiction is often associated with diseases and health concerns that need to be addressed as soon as possible. For instance, the use of illicit intravenous drugs like heroin can lead to diseases like HIV and hepatitis that need to be treated and kept under control in treatment. Medical detox programs should also treat medical issues that aren’t directly related to addiction like minor injuries, common colds, and chronic disease that might get in the way of your recovery.
In some cases, medical issues like chronic pain are an underlying cause for substance abuse through self-medication. For treatment to be successful, these issues have to be addressed, and clients should be taught to deal with ongoing medical needs more effectively.
Medical detox is usually the first step in the continuum of care for people seeking addiction treatment, but it’s not the last. Addiction is a complicated disease that takes more than just a week in detox to overcome. Detox is a necessary step that helps to overcome a chemical dependence. But addiction is deeper than the chemical reactions in your nervous system. Addiction is a disease that primarily affects the reward center of the brain, and it’s characterized by compulsive use, despite the consequences. To effectively treat addiction in the detox phase, clinicians need to help you find the next step after your immediate medical needs have been met.
If you complete detox, but you still have ongoing medical needs, you may continue to inpatient treatment, a lower level of care that still offers 24-7 medical or clinical monitoring. If your medical and psychological needs have stabilized, but your home environment would be a challenge to treatment, a residential program might be the best next level of care for you.
If you are ready to live at home, intensive outpatient or outpatient treatment might be what you need to continue your commitment to recovery. Whatever your needs, the on-staff clinicians at your detox center can help you make your start on the road to recovery.
If you believe you have a substance use disorder or a chemical dependence on a psychoactive substance, learn more about medical detox and how it can help you achieve sobriety safely. Speak to an addiction treatment specialist at Family Recovery Specialists to learn more about your medical detoxification options.
American Psychiatric Association. (2017, January). What Is Addiction? from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/addiction/what-is-addiction
ASAM. (n.d.). What is the ASAM Criteria? from https://www.asam.org/resources/the-asam-criteria/about