What is Medical Detox?

Stethoscope at WAVE Medical Detox

Assisted detoxification is almost always the first step in most drug or alcohol rehabilitative programs. It involves the body’s natural removal of toxins from the bloodstream and a slew of subsequent side effects called withdrawal symptoms. These can range from slightly uncomfortable to potentially life-threatening. It all depends on the patient, the substance, and the strength of the substance dependency. Withdrawal symptoms, which include both physical and mental side effects, usually include cravings that are strong enough to invoke relapse. This is why suddenly cutting off the use of a substance— or quitting “cold turkey”— is so hazardous. The best way to begin the addiction recovery process is with medical detox. There are many facilities that can help start this detox process. At WAVE Medically Assisted Therapy, we want to provide the answers to a question on everyone's minds: "What is medical detox?"

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What is Medical Detox?

When most people ask "what is medical detox?", they expect the answer to be a single-step recovery method. But this could not be further from the truth. Medical detox utilizes medication and clinical supervision to ease the physical symptoms of associated with acute withdrawal. However, it does not thoroughly address the psychological side of addiction. During medical detox, clinical intervention and professional care reverse much of the physical damage brought on by addiction. By the end of the medical detox process, the patient is sober and adjusting to a newly regained sense of physical health. In other words, the patient is physically sober, but not mentally sober. This is why medical detox is only one of several steps in a long-term recovery plan.

What Kinds of Addiction Require Medical Detox?

For the most part, medical detox comes highly recommended for any kind of substance use disorder. Most medical detox programs can and do treat addictions to illicit drugs like cocaine and heroin. The majority of medical detox facilities also treat addictions to prescriptions like methamphetamines and benzodiazepines. Still, medical detox seems to be essential for those who struggle with alcoholism and opioid prescription use disorder in particular.

Why is Medical Detox Necessary?

The rates of drug addiction and overdose have worsened in light of the ongoing opioid crisis. In 2012, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) found that over 2 million young adults aged 12 and older struggled with opioid prescription use disorder. This did not include the additional 467,000 who struggled with heroin addiction. Today, drug overdose has cemented itself as the leading cause of accidental death in the United States. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that as many as 46 American adults die every day as a result of a prescription opioid overdose.

The impact on the alcohol-addicted population has not been any less forgiving. In fact, one study from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) in 2013 found that the vast majority of American adults (86.8%) have consumed alcohol at least once in their lifetime. Within that margin, 24.6% have reportedly engaged in binge drinking. Overall, the report revealed that almost 17 million American adults aged 18 or older had diagnosable alcoholism. And, unfortunately, these rates have not improved very much today.

It is for these and many other reasons why medical detox has become an essential part of the recovery process for anyone struggling with severe withdrawal and constant relapse.

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Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcohol is a depressant that targets and disrupts the central nervous system. Heavy drinking usually results in some minor withdrawal symptoms that appear within a few hours of the last drink. In fact, most adults who drink alcohol have experienced physical “hangover” symptoms like headaches, fatigue, muscle aches, and dehydration. However, what sets social drinkers apart from those with alcohol use disorder is the potential for delirium tremens (DTs).

DTs is a severe form of alcohol withdrawal. Even though it is rare— with fewer than 200,000 cases in the U.S. each year— the hazardous effects of DTs include:

  • fever
  • seizures
  • chest pain
  • hallucinations
  • nausea or vomiting
  • involuntary muscle contractions
  • increased breathing or heart rate
  • delirium (i.e., a disturbed state of mind)
  • delusions (i.e., believing things that are untrue or irrational)

These and other symptoms make it dangerous for someone who has developed a dependence on alcohol to stop regular binge consumption suddenly. In extreme cases, these and other symptoms can be fatal without proper medical supervision and intervention. In fact, the mortality rate is as high as 15% among untreated individuals. So, medical detox often becomes necessary to avoid DT and other potentially life-threatening alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

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Opioid Use Disorder

Opioids are highly effective as painkillers since they actively block pain signals from reaching the brain. They also work by targeting stimuli receptors in the brain to produce feelings of euphoria to combat painful sensations. Some of the most popular opioid drugs on the market today include morphine, fentanyl, and codeine products. When used appropriately, these can be an effective means of managing pain. However, they also have a high potential for abuse and can be just as addictive as illicit opioids like heroin. In fact, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has enforced strict limits on the medicinal use of certain opioids by classifying them as Schedule I or II controlled substances.

Opioid addiction can bring about a wide range of challenging withdrawal symptoms, both physical and psychological. These tend to include:

  • chills
  • sweats
  • anxiety
  • nausea
  • irritability
  • agitation
  • depression
  • runny nose
  • restlessness
  • excessive tearing
  • muscle aches and pains
  • sleep problems (e.g., insomnia)

While these withdrawal symptoms are not life-threatening, they can become so uncomfortable that medical detox becomes necessary. Plus, undergoing opioid withdrawal symptoms without help may hinder the recovery process— or, worse yet, halt it entirely. 

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Is Medical Detox Right for You?

Multiple findings from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) continue to emphasize that it is common for people with substance use disorders to relapse. In fact, the relapse rates for substance addiction average between 40% and 60%— roughly half of the addicted population. The chances of relapse only increase when attempting to detox alone. As a result, it seems like most people turn to medical detox as a last resort after failing several times to get sober on their own. However, medical detox can serve as the first line of defense against relapse in early recovery.

Medical Detox Before Rehab at WAVE

Medical detox can and should be the first step of any long-term addiction recovery plan. After regaining a stronger sense of physical health, it’s imperative to address the mental and psychological aspects that drive substance dependency.

At WAVE Medically Assisted Therapy, we offer a safe environment for our patients to do just that. Our psychotherapy and counseling programs can help you discover and address the causes of your addiction so you can thrive in your long-term recovery. Please contact us today at 866-794-0944. We hope that we have answered the question: "What is medical detox?"