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Do-It-Yourself Detox: A Risky Business

Quitting an addiction is a life-changing decision, but quitting "cold turkey" on your own can be a life-threatening one. Long-term substance abuse creates powerful physical and psychological dependencies, so suddenly stopping alcohol or drug use can cause severe withdrawal symptoms -- and even death. Detoxing under medical supervision is the safest way to manage withdrawal and begin the journey to recovery.

Understanding Detox and Withdrawal

Detoxing (short for detoxification) is the process of clearing the body of toxins -- the alcohol or drugs that created the addiction. Excessive use of alcohol, street drugs and prescription medications alters the body's hormonal systems and brain circuits.

When a person suddenly stops using addictive substances, the brain and body are thrown into crisis and respond with a variety of often severe physical and emotional reactions. That's why the process of detoxing poses both physical and psychological risks.

Detox Affects Body and Mind

Because long-term substance abuse has powerful effects on the nervous system, organs and brain, suddenly withdrawing from a drug or alcohol can cause those systems to shut down or malfunction.

Quitting alcohol, for example, can cause hallucinations, tremors and seizures -- the number-one reason people die from alcohol withdrawal. Suddenly stopping benzodiazepines -- a class of medications for anxiety and other psychological disorders -- can also be deadly for the same reason. Quitting heroin causes severe flu-like symptoms, including nausea, diarrhea, muscle spasms and fluctuations in blood pressure and heartbeat.

Psychological symptoms, such as insomnia, agitation, delirium and suicidal thoughts, can also appear during detox from any drug, and particularly when withdrawing from cocaine and methamphetamines. These symptoms can also lead to life-threatening situations, such as suicide attempts, hostility toward others and impulsive actions that lead to self-harm.
Drug and alcohol withdrawal has two phases: acute and protracted. Acute withdrawal takes place right after quitting the drug and can last from around 72 hours for heroin users, 3-5 days for alcohol, to weeks or months when benzodiazepines are involved. This period is the "danger zone" for serious risks of life-threatening complications.

After the acute phase comes protracted withdrawal, a period of weeks or months in which the brain and body struggle to reach a new balance after quitting a drug or alcohol. This stage is characterized by lingering physical symptoms and psychological ones such as insomnia, restlessness, depression or irritability.

Because detoxing is painful, frightening and uncomfortable, a high percentage of people who attempt to detox on their own often relapse immediately to get rid of the symptoms before they become severe. They may fall into a cycle of stopping and resuming their drug and alcohol use without ever really detoxing at all. Because detoxing under medical supervision reduces the discomfort and distress that accompanies withdrawal, people are more likely to complete the process and continue with treatment toward long-term recovery.

Medical Detox: Fewer Risks, Greater Comfort

Detoxing with the support of a trained medical professional is a safe, effective and comfortable alternative to do-it-yourself detox. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, medically assisted detox has three goals: to provide a safe withdrawal from drug dependence and enable the patient to become drug free, to provide humane conditions for withdrawal that protect the patient's dignity and to prepare the patient for ongoing addiction treatment.

Medical detox can take place in various settings depending on the severity of the addiction: an outpatient doctor's office like Fusion Health, an inpatient hospital ward, or a dedicated inpatient facility like Gallus Detox. Hospital and inpatient detox programs may be right for individuals with severe addictions or other accompanying health or psychological conditions that put them at special risk. These facilities can provide continuous monitoring during the dangerous phases of withdrawal, and staff can provide emergency medical intervention if serious complications suddenly arise.

A Board Certified Addiction Specialist such as Suma Singh MD at Fusion Health can help you decide which kind of detox is right for you based on the medical factors involved, and provide the necessary referrals to coordinate care. Many people can detox comfortably in an outpatient setting under the ongoing supervision of trained medical professionals. In these programs, a person can detox at home with the help of medications and counseling as part of a comprehensive program that includes therapy, family and social support, and peer help groups. Because they provide ongoing support through all the stages of recovery, outpatient rehab programs like Fusion Recovery have consistently higher rates of long-term recovery than typical month-long inpatient programs.

Medications Support Recovery

Along with ongoing supervision, medical detox in all its forms also provides medications that can help to ease the cravings, physical discomfort and emotional distress that accompany withdrawal. The availability of medications to relieve pain, calm anxiety and paranoia and ease cravings help people complete detox without relapsing and lowers the risk of serious complications. Medications can also help patients deal with lingering cravings and psychological symptoms such as insomnia and depression that continue beyond the acute phases of withdrawal.

Detoxing from alcohol or drugs is an essential step toward recovery, but going it alone can be deadly. With the help of professionals trained in addiction medicine, medical detox provides the support and supervision you need to stay safe and succeed.

Written by Dr. Suma Singh


Sources:

McGregor, Sherrie. "Detoxing from Drugs and Alcohol." PsychCentral. http://psychcentral.com/lib/detoxing-from-drugs-and-alcohol/
"Medication for the Treatment of Alcohol Use Disorder: A Brief Guide." Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. http://store.samhsa.gov/shin/content/SMA15-4907/SMA15-4907.pdf
"National Practice Guideline for the Use of Medication in the Treatment of Addiction Involving Opioid Use." American Society of Addiction Medicine. http://www.asam.org/quality-practice/guidelines-and-consensus-documents/npg
"Understanding Drug Abuse and Addiction: What Science Says: Medical Detoxification." National Institute on Drug Abuse. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/teaching-packets/understanding-drug-abuse-addiction/section-iii/7-medical-detoxification

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