Before an individual can begin treatment for a drug or alcohol addiction, they must first eliminate the toxic substance from their body. This allows them to prepare for the physical and mental transformation that will take place throughout their recovery.

Performed without the guidance of a medical professional, the withdrawal process can be life-threatening, especially for individuals who have developed a physical or psychological dependence on the addictive substance. This is why medical detoxification, or medical detox, is often necessary.

If you or a loved one is ready to begin addiction recovery, your provider may recommend medical detox as a necessary first step. Let’s review what this process entails, how it works, and what you can expect.

What Is Medical Detox?

When someone suddenly stops taking a substance they’ve become dependent upon, their body can go into a state of shock. This is why the withdrawal stage of recovery can be physically painful and emotionally distressing.

Both withdrawal and medical detox involve ridding the body of a harmful substance. However, medical detox is unique in that it follows a pre-determined treatment protocol. A licensed and experienced medical team oversees every step to ensure client comfort, monitor symptoms, and administer addiction medication as necessary.

There are typically three parts to the medical detox process. These include:

Initial Evaluation

Providers will begin by administering a blood test to each client, which allows them to check for the types and quantities of substances in their body. They may also perform a comprehensive assessment of physical and psychosocial factors as well as screen for other, co-occurring conditions.

Client Stabilization

At some point during the medical detox phase, the client may require additional support to optimize their comfort level, reduce painful symptoms, and minimize cravings. When this happens, licensed medical providers can administer FDA-approved addiction medications to make the process more endurable.

Preparing for Counseling

Medical detox may address the physical aspects of addiction; however, it doesn’t allow clients to work through the underlying issues that led to it. Most providers will recommend that clients transition from this stage into a longer-term treatment plan that addresses the physical, social, emotional, and mental elements of their condition, teaches them healthy coping strategies, and allows them to set the foundation for long-term recovery.

While the client will still go through the phases of withdrawal, their provider will offer support for the duration of the process. This not only makes the experience more tolerable but it also helps clients manage their drug cravings, which lowers the risk of relapse.

Ultimately, the goal of medical detox is three-fold. First, it clears the toxin from the client’s body. Second, it helps restore the body to its natural state. Third, it allows the client to prepare their mind for the psychological and emotional changes it will undergo.

Clinical Detox vs. At-Home Detox

The initial detox and withdrawal aspects of addiction recovery can be difficult for anyone, even when medical support and supervision are present. A medical detox team should be on hand for the totality of the treatment, available to offer support and intervention as required.

In an attempt to circumvent or expedite this part of recovery, some clients wonder if they can detox from drugs/alcohol at home. However, it’s important to realize the side effects that commonly occur.

While the severity can differ and is based largely on the extent of the client’s substance use, some of the symptoms you might experience include nausea, fatigue, headaches, and sleep disturbances. You may also notice mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety, that weren’t present or as prevalent before. In some extreme cases, withdrawal can even lead to a heightened risk of cardiac arrest, seizure, or death.

This makes it unsafe to go through this process on your own. A medical detox team should be present as your body learns to function again without the substance it’s become reliant upon.

Detoxing From Common Substances

Before transitioning a client into medical detox, providers will complete an initial assessment or consultation to learn more about the client’s addiction history. This allows them to recommend and implement the appropriate treatment to fit their needs.

Most illegal substances can be categorized into four groups: alcohol, opioids, benzodiazepines, and stimulants. These each require their own medical detox approach as detailed below.

Alcohol Detox

Alcohol detox is the first step in treating alcohol use disorder (AUD). This process completely rids the body of alcohol so clients can focus on subsequent parts of their recovery. Over time, chronic or excessive alcohol can cause individuals to become physically dependent upon the chemicals they receive from drinking, which can lead to the onset of withdrawal symptoms when they decide to quit.

Detoxing under medical supervision allows clients to receive personalized support during this stage. If they are at risk of severe alcohol withdrawal, their provider may administer certain medications to alleviate their discomfort, prevent their symptoms from escalating, and minimize the likelihood of further complications.

In some cases, withdrawal symptoms can take effect within hours of the client’s last drink. They may continue to rise over the next 24 hours, with potentially serious effects occurring two to four days beyond abstinence. Potential symptoms may include nausea, insomnia, depression, fatigue, irritability, anxiety, elevated heart rate, and high blood pressure.

In instances of pronounced alcoholism, a rare neurological syndrome called delirium tremens can occur. This condition can lead to seizures as well as significant changes to the individual’s mental state.

If providers believe that MAT is necessary, they may administer medication to manage the client’s symptoms as they detox from alcohol. Common classifications of medicines used include benzodiazepines, barbituates, and anticonvulsants. Physicians may also prescribe drugs that have been specially formulated to treat alcohol dependence, including disulfiram (Antabuse), naltrexone (Vivitrol, Revia), or acamprosate (Campral).

Opiate Detox

Opiates are plant-based substances used to reduce pain, while opioids are synthetic in composition. Both narcotics have a high risk of abuse due to their highly addictive properties. When these drugs bind to the opioid receptors in an individual’s brain, they block discomfort and trigger feelings of euphoria.

Fentanyl, oxycodone, hydrocodone, heroin, and other painkillers are all considered opiate or opioid substances. Medical detox is the process of tapering the body off these narcotics and typically occurs as the first stage of addiction recovery.

Without medical supervision, opioid withdrawal can be not only uncomfortable but dangerous for individuals to experience. Withdrawal symptoms can range from mild discomfort to severe pain and include hot or cold flashes, irritability, body tremors, headaches, and muscle pain.

In addition to controlled drug tapering, addiction medications can be used to reduce the intensity of these effects, minimize drug cravings, and help clients complete the detox process with fewer complications.

Commonly prescribed medications include clonidine to treat issues related to heartbeat and blood pressure and diazepam to reduce anxiety. Providers may also administer other opioids, such as naltrexone. methadone, and buprenorphine, to support longer-term pain management and recovery.

Benzodiazepine Detox

Benzodiazepines (benzos) are classified as depressant drugs. When taken, they stimulate feelings of sedation and hypnosis. Physicians typically prescribe them to relieve psychological and physiological conditions such as anxiety, muscle spasms, and seizures. Some of the most commonly prescribed benzodiazepines include Valium, Xanax, and Klonopin.

While they can offer temporary relief, these medications are not intended to be taken for the long term as prolonged use can lead to dependency and addiction. Before beginning treatment, individuals will need to withdraw from the substances completely.

Some of the symptoms of benzodiazepine withdrawal include nausea, diarrhea, sleep disturbance, panic attacks, hand tremors, sweating, muscle pain, and stiffness. Providers will work with clients to understand the extent of their addiction and recommend a medical detox process that will support their needs.

Some plans may include gradually tapering the dose until the individual can safely stop taking the drug altogether. Others will incorporate MAT medications such as buspirone to support the emotional effects of withdrawal or flumazenil to reduce the symptoms of longer-acting benzos.

Stimulant Detox

Stimulants are drugs that increase activity in an individual’s brain and spinal cord. This is a wide-reaching classification that can range from caffeine and nicotine to amphetamines and cocaine.

Large or sustained doses of these substances can lead to over-stimulation, with side effects that include feelings of anxiety or panic as well as seizures, headaches, and stomach pain. When someone who has been using stimulants for an extended period of time discontinues their use, withdrawal symptoms such as mood swings, chills, body aches, and fatigue can occur.

Medical detox for stimulants will normally follow the taper method. Providers may administer addiction treatment medications, such as clonidine, in place of stimulants when tapering use.

Access to Free MAT Programs

While it’s vital to long-term health and recovery, addiction rehabilitation can be cost-prohibitive for many individuals. This includes the medical detox phase.

If you have health insurance, your plan may help cover some or all of your treatment. However, most clients still have to pay for some portion out of pocket.

Free or discounted medical detox or MAT services may be available through state-funded alcohol and drug rehab centers. These facilities often offer some degree of financial assistance, including reduced rates for individuals without income or insurance. Private rehab centers may also offer free or low-cost detox services, especially ones associated with religious organizations.

The Medical Detox Process

There isn’t a universal approach to medical detox that works for everyone. Rather, a clinical team will tailor each treatment to suit the needs of the individual client. Most providers begin by conducting a comprehensive evaluation or assessment, which will screen for factors such as:

  • Substance abuse disorders
  • Co-occurring mental health disorders
  • Contributing psychological or medical conditions
  • Risks associated with withdrawal

Upon completion of this assessment, the team will develop an individualized detox plan, which may include the use of addiction medications to facilitate withdrawal.

Medical Detox Timeline

Just as each client’s detox procedure is unique so is their treatment timeline. The duration of this process is dependent upon an array of factors, including:

  • The duration and frequency of the individual’s substance abuse
  • The type of substance used
  • The severity of the individual’s withdrawal symptoms
  • The individual’s body chemistry, weight, age, and medical history

In general, it tends to take around five to seven days to complete a medical detox. Alcohol detox often occurs over a shorter period of time, averaging around two to eight days per client. However, an opioid detox can take up to 120 days to complete.

Find a Medical Detox Program Near You

Most individuals seeking help for a drug or alcohol addiction will need to complete some form of detoxification before moving into the next phase of their recovery.

If you’re looking for a medical detox program in your area, check to ensure that the facility you select is fully licensed and state-accredited. The clinical team should also be comprised of experienced healthcare professionals who are skilled in treating your form of addiction, including any co-occurring conditions.

With the right approach, medical detox can set the stage for successful, long-term sobriety. Working alongside a dedicated staff ensures your health and safety as you navigate this journey, helping you prepare for the transformative changes that lie ahead.

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