Your Guide to the Medical Detox Process

Friday, June 10, 2016 | By JP Emerald Coast

Detox is a word that gets thrown around a lot. It has become part of the recent health craze that recognizes the toxins in our food and environment and advocates for clean eating. Detox is a process by which the body naturally eliminates toxins and foreign chemicals from its system. In many cases, detox happens on its own when you limit your exposure to toxins.

When it comes to addiction, detox has a slightly different role. The point of it is still to get the toxins (in this case the abused substance) out of your system, and your body is capable of doing this elimination on its own when you stop taking the substance. But drug detox is part of a larger process of overcoming addiction.

Detox is the first step in recovering from addiction. You cannot end the addiction until you stop taking the drugs. But when it comes to certain drugs, the detox process is more involved and potentially dangerous if not properly supervised.

What is Medical Detox?

Some substances are harder to detox from than others. Addiction is a complicated concept that includes both physical and emotional aspects. Some of the physical effects of addiction come into play during detox.

As you know, the drugs you take cause changes in the way you think and behave. What you might not realize, though, is that they also alter the functioning of your vital organs. Since the brain and central nervous system control things like respiration and heartbeat, drug abuse affects these vital functions.

Physical addiction is characterized by the fact that your body now relies on the substances you abuse to maintain vital functions like heartbeat, respiration, regulating body temperature and several other things that you don’t have to think about. When you stop taking a drug you are physically addicted to, you feel physical symptoms.

In order to avoid serious danger in the regulation of your vital functions, certain drugs need to be stepped down rather than stopped abruptly. Medical detox uses pharmaceuticals to replace the drugs you were abusing and then slowly reduces the dosage, letting your body down easy. It can also include medications to ease the discomfort of natural withdrawal symptoms.

These drugs generally require medical detox:

This is only a partial list. Each addiction is different and the appropriate treatment in detox needs to be determined by a medical professional. The length of time for each stage of detox also varies for each individual. It may be anywhere from a couple days to a couple weeks or more.

What You Can Expect in Detox

Medical detoxification is a three-step process to move you from active use to a solid recovery program. The three steps — evaluation, stabilization, and preparation — progress in the same order for each client, but the amount of time each step takes can vary.

Evaluation — The first part of detox is helping the medical professionals guiding your journey to understand your specific situation. With a clear understanding of what substances you have taken, how frequently and in what doses, they begin to get a picture of what your detox journey will look like. It is crucial to be completely honest about your activities when you are in detox. Samples of anything you have been taking might be helpful at this point, too.

Although everyone’s detox experience is unique, there are certain indicators that doctors can use to design your medical detox program. The purpose of medical detox is to lessen your withdrawal symptoms and protect your vital signs throughout the process.

Stabilization — When the drugs first start leaving your system, your brain can go a little crazy. It has been depending on the synthetic chemicals you put into your system to regulate your vital functions for a period of time. Your brain has adapted to the presence of those chemicals and now it’s a little shocked that they are gone. Your brain may struggle to maintain your vital functions at first, and this is part of the reason that medical supervision is important.

Once you begin your medical detox, your vital signs will be monitored. During this phase of detox, medical intervention will be used to keep your vitals within normal ranges. This is the part of detox that can be dangerous, but with medical supervision, you can get through it alright.

Preparation — After a period of time in detox, your brain will settle down and start regulating your vital functions properly. It will get over the shock it initially felt when the drugs stopped coming and it had to go back to functioning on its own. At this point, you will be weaned off the medical interventions so you can head to a rehabilitation program. You are not considered drug-free at the end of detox, and your cravings will not be gone. That is why it is essential to follow detox with rehab and all the appropriate therapies you’ll need for a lasting recovery.

Although everyone goes through these three stages in detox, there is no way to predict how long each stage will last. Just like addiction, detox is an individual journey based on a number of personal variables. These three stages tend to progress in order, though, and there is little or no backtracking in the process.

Fear of Withdrawal

We use many different detox protocols to assure a safe and pain-free detox. The stories of painful drug withdrawal are legendary, but also mostly mythical. Painful withdrawal symptoms are not necessary. Most people who complete detox say it wasn’t as bad as they expected. Many come through medical detox with very little discomfort. When you understand what is happening in your body, and there is qualified medical intervention available, withdrawal is nothing to fear.  Our doctors and medical staff employ many different detoxification protocols.

When you take drugs, they alter your brain chemistry, which is why you experience the high that you get. The drugs either mimic natural brain chemicals or they block your brain from receiving certain chemical messages — this is how they alter your perception.

Your brain uses chemicals (neurotransmitters) to create thoughts and send messages to the rest of your body. Something as simple as what you see in the room with you is communicated through your nervous system by brain chemistry. Drugs interfere with this thought process and send erroneous signals. That’s why you feel like the room is spinning or you don’t see the step in front of you.

Over time, your brain adjusts to functioning with these strange chemicals in it. You learn to compensate by changing the amount of natural brain chemicals you produce. If the drugs you take are flooding your brain with feel-good chemicals, your brain stops making those substances for itself to try to regain the balance.

You may know someone who is such a heavy drinker that he actually seems to function better with alcohol in his system than without. This is evidence of the fact that the body is trying to compensate for the chemical imbalance and has adapted to functioning under the influence.

Substance abuse forces your body to adapt to a new environment. When you begin to detox, your body goes out of balance again and has to find a new normal. If you are taking drugs that have a stimulating effect, for example, your brain has learned to produce fewer natural stimulants to maintain a healthy heartbeat. When you stop taking the drugs, at first your brain is not able to regulate your heartbeat without them. It takes time for it to readjust.

Irregular heartbeat is just one of the withdrawal symptoms you might experience. Remember, your brain is responsible for all of your vital functions, so suddenly changing the amount of chemicals you put into your body can have serious effects until your brain gets used to the new conditions.

Physical drug withdrawal symptoms can include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Chills
  • Anxiety
  • Hallucinations
  • Trembling
  • Abdominal pain
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Seizures
  • Delirium Tremens
  • Death

Medical detox is designed to treat most of these symptoms, some even before they occur. Withdrawal is nothing to be afraid of when you are going through a medically supervised detox program. For many people, detox doesn’t feel any worse than having a bad cold for a few days. There are some chills and sweats, maybe some general body aches, and then it’s over.

Medications Used in Heroin Detox

Heroin is a very addictive substance that can be difficult to detox from. Heroin floods the pleasure centers of the brain with feel-good chemicals at a much higher rate than it could ever produce naturally. Once the brain gets addicted to the euphoric feeling, it can be difficult to live without the drug. The intensity of the high needs to be slowly tapered off to avoid extreme depression.

Withdrawal symptoms from heroin can be quite painful and even life-threatening, which is why a medical detox protocol should be followed.

There are three common medications used in heroin detox:

Methadone, Dolophine, or Methadose — Taken orally, methadone enters the brain slowly — more slowly than heroin. It produces a high that is less intense than heroin but enough to ward off withdrawal symptoms. Smaller doses are administered daily until detox is complete.

Buprenorphine or Subutex — This medication does not produce a high, or dangerous side-effects, while it relieves opioid cravings. It contains naloxone to prevent attempts to use heroin during detox. The FDA approved this drug in 2002 for prescription by all certified doctors rather than just at specialized clinics.

Naltrexone, or Despade, or Revia — By blocking the action of opioids, this non-addictive drug makes it impossible to get high. It needs to be administered every day, like methadone. A newer version called Vivitrol can be injected once a month, making it easier to comply with the treatment.

In a medical detox program, one of these medications is used in conjunction with others to stabilize vitals and relieve any other withdrawal symptoms.

Medications Used in Alcohol Detox

Although alcohol is one of the most commonly abused drugs, it can also be very dangerous to withdraw from. The rate of alcohol consumption in the US in 2013 was 86.6% while 24.6% of Americans reported binge drinking — an alcohol consumption pattern associated with even greater health risks.

Detoxing from alcohol can result in seizures and delirium tremens (DT’s). Approximately 3% of alcohol withdrawal DT’s are fatal. Those at highest risk for seizure complications are people who have been through detox multiple times, have an abnormal liver function or are older.

Medications commonly used for medical detox from alcohol are in the benzodiazepine class of drugs (benzos). Specific drug names include:

  • Valium
  • Serax
  • Librium
  • Xanax
  • Klonopin
  • Tranxene
  • Prosom

Benzos help control the anxiety and confusion associated with alcohol withdrawal and reduce the risk of seizures.

Continuing Recovery After Detox

Detox is only the first step in overcoming addiction, and it needs to be followed up immediately with a rehab program. Addiction is about more than just substances and their effect on your body and brain. It has to do with behaviors, emotions and impulse control. Unless you have help changing your behaviors, you will not experience a lasting recovery.

Since detox and rehab are so closely intertwined, it makes sense to choose a recovery facility that provides both. A good medical detox program should link seamlessly into rehabilitation. When you complete detox, you are extremely vulnerable. You are no longer relying on substances to alter your moods or mask your emotions, and you still crave the high they gave you. Getting the right kind of support following detox is crucial to the success of your recovery.

Choosing the Right Treatment Facility

When your loved one is suffering from addiction, you want to do everything you can to help. One of the biggest challenges to addiction recovery is getting started, so your support at this end of the process can make a big difference. Reassuring your loved one that she is making the right decision to enter a detox program, and telling her that with the right guidance she will be okay, can make for a good start.

Helping to choose the right treatment facility would also be a great show of support. Anyone who has not been through rehabilitation before might have no idea what to look for in a facility. Here are some things to keep in mind:

Detox programs where there is a doctor on staff are best for medical detoxing.

If your loved one requires medical detox because of her detox history, or the type of substances she is addicted to, you want to be sure the treatment facility she chooses has a doctor on staff. Many facilities that handle the detox portion of recovery are staffed with various paraprofessionals who are licensed to administer medications, take vital signs and keep records. They report, however, to a doctor, who is the only one able to write prescriptions and make medical diagnosis.

When that doctor is not on staff, his response time to any changes in your condition might be longer than you would like. When it comes to medical detox, you want a doctor on staff who is monitoring your case personally on a regular basis.

Multiple substance detox is an important specialty.

Most people suffering from addiction use more than one substance, making the medical detox process a bit more complicated. Every drug you add to your system has side-effects and potential interaction with other drugs you are taking. Medical detox adds another layer of drug intervention to your system.

The best treatment facility for you is one that is experienced in handling multiple substance detox. They will be the most knowledgeable, and also the best equipped to handle any complications that might arise.

A treatment facility with a coordinated detox and rehabilitation program can be most effective.

Addiction recovery is a journey that will take you out of fear and desperation and move you to a healthy, rewarding life. There are many milestones along this journey, and you will rely on several different people to help you along the way. Having a detox program that is coordinated with a rehabilitation program and administered in the same treatment facility will give you a great advantage for success. It will help you transition seamlessly from detox to rehabilitation during that very vulnerable time.

As you move from detox to rehabilitation, the team of compassionate professionals guiding your recovery will change, as the focus goes from physical health to mental wellness, but it will help you to know that these two teams coordinate and share information with each other.

The comfort of a treatment facility does make a difference.

People who are suffering from addiction do not take very good care of themselves. As the addiction grows and takes control of their lives, they tend to let their healthy routines slide in favor of drugging activities. Their lowered inhibitions while under the influence of drugs push them to take risks, including risking their own health and well-being. At the same time, addiction brings on feelings of shame and embarrassment, further eroding their self-esteem and their relationship with themselves.

For some, the difficulties of detox and rehabilitation can seem like one more punishment. Having a treatment facility that is beautiful, relaxing and comfortable can be nurturing to the soul, especially one that has been through some tough times. You might think of this as a reward to your loved one for making the choice to end the addiction and get help.

Preventing Relapse

After detox, the most commonly feared part of the addiction recovery process is relapse. Once you have the drugs out of your system and the withdrawal symptoms are behind you, the fear is that you would give in to your cravings to use drugs again, and then have to go back through detox. Cravings can be a very strong force, especially in the early days of recovery or at any time of heightened stress in your life.

A much more realistic fear after detox is overdose. Once you have those drugs out of your system and your brain starts to heal, you don’t realize how your tolerance for the substances has changed. If you do relapse, you will not be able to withstand the same dose of certain drugs that you were used to.

Addiction, like any other chronic disease, has a relatively high relapse rate. It is difficult to get accurate statistics because treatment programs are reluctant to report relapses, but here is the average relapse rate by substance:

  • Hallucinogens — 42%
  • Cocaine — 9%
  • Heroin — 2%
  • Alcohol — 4%
  • Marijuana — 1%
  • Methamphetamine — 2%

When detox is followed by rehabilitation, the relapse rate is reduced 10 times.

Clearly, one key to preventing relapse is a good rehabilitation program immediately following medical detox. Not only will rehabilitation provide the support you need in those vulnerable days after detox, but it will also teach some strategies for avoiding relapse throughout the recovery process.

Relapse is part of recovery. You can see from the statistics that it is, more likely than not, going to happen at least once along this journey to lasting recovery. Fear of relapse can be paralyzing, keeping you from moving forward in your journey. Instead, it is best to look at relapse as part of the journey and develop a plan to deal with it when it comes.

The best way to deal with any addiction-related crisis is to talk about it. Addiction can be overcome, and your life can be happy and fulfilling without substances. At the first sign of relapse, ask for help. In many ways, relapse can be predicted and avoided or minimized if you reach out to a qualified treatment facility, like JourneyPure, for help.

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