For many individuals who are addicted to drugs or alcohol, the idea of recovery can be a frightening proposition. Not only does the addict have an emotional connection to the drugs they use, but they may have a fear of the detoxification process that precedes recovery treatment. When an addict stops taking the drugs their bodies have become addicted to, the body will fight back with a cascade of symptoms that are unpleasant and, if not handled properly by an experienced detox professional, dangerous.
Detox is generally not fatal but it can be severe depending upon the severity of the drug abuse involved. Some of the symptoms are emotional, while others are physical in nature. Each type of drug has its own set of symptoms; however, some individuals may experience more than one combination due to multiple drug addictions. See related: Reiki Detox
Table of Contents
Detox for Opiates
The human brain contains proteins known as opiate receptors. These opiate receptors are triggered by natural stimuli on the brain in the form of endorphins, dopamine and other influences. When opiates are introduced to the human body through drug use, the body is fooled into believing there has been an event that produced the natural compounds. The opiate receptors help control our reactions to pleasure and pain so excessive amounts of opiates will induce euphoric reactions as they affect the receptors. Eventually, the opiate receptors are unable to distinguish between natural events for pleasure or pain and the artificial introduction of drugs. The body begins to crave the introduction of opiates in order to feel normal. Because the drugs are used to make the body feel normal, more of the drugs are needed over time to obtain the euphoria the drug user is seeking.
Likewise, when the opiate receptors are denied the influence of the opiate drugs, the human body reacts in several ways. These reactions are the symptoms of withdrawal:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Bone pain
- Joint pain
- Fever and chills
- Trembling and restlessness in the legs
Challenges of Opiate Withdrawal
Opiate withdrawal is notoriously challenging, not only because of the physical discomfort that it causes, but because of the psychological side effects and the intensity of the cravings for the drugs. All opiate drugs are derived from naturally produced or synthetic opium, a highly addictive controlled substance that mimics the actions of endorphins, naturally produced chemicals that relieve pain and create a sense of well-being. Some opiates, such as heroin, are available only through illegal sources, while others, such as OxyContin, Dilaudid, morphine and methadone, are legally available with a doctor’s prescription.
- Lowering the dose or stopping the drug altogether triggers an uncontrollable desire to use again.
- Agitation, anxiety and a loss of interest in any other pleasurable activities make it extremely difficult to go without opiates.
- Because opiate pain relievers are widely prescribed for legitimate purposes, they are often easy to obtain, which makes it easy to relapse.
The Opiate Detox Process
When you’re getting ready to start opiate detox, you’ll want to know what to expect and how long your withdrawal symptoms will last. Most people who are abusing opiates naturally want to get through the detox process as quickly as possible, but it may take several days to a week or more before the drug is cleansed from your system and you start feeling better. If you go through detox in a rehabilitation center, the process may be much easier and more comfortable.
- A complete medical and psychiatric evaluation to identify any co-occurring health problems or mental health disorders
- A program to taper you slowly off the medication, so that withdrawal symptoms are minimized
- Continuous monitoring of your vital signs and physical symptoms to prevent the complications of withdrawal, such as excessive vomiting and diarrhea, dehydration, pain, cramping and intense anxiety
- Anti-addiction medications like methadone or buprenorphine to relieve the craving for opiates
- Prescription drugs like clonidine to help you manage symptoms like agitation, cramps and nasal decongestion
- Psychosocial support from counselors, therapists and other rehab clients who have gone through the same process
In a supervised rehabilitation program, you’ll have the support and motivation you need to get through detox and begin rebuilding your life. Removed from the stress factors that trigger your drug use, you’ll be able to concentrate on your recovery goals. While detoxing at home is always an option, many users end up relapsing before the drugs have fully cleared their bodies. The high relapse rates among opiate addicts don’t reflect a lack of willpower, but the immense power of this debilitating brain disease.
Back to Opiate Detox
Rapid Detox for Opiate Addiction
Some rehabilitation facilities offer an alternative to traditional opiate detoxification called “rapid detox.” During a rapid detox, you are put to sleep under general anesthesia while medications are administered to block the effects of opiates on your system. The goal of rapid detox is to get you through the withdrawal phase more quickly and to help your body return to a healthy state more quickly. But the U.S. National Library of Medicine cautions that rapid detox may not significantly decrease withdrawal time, and that in some cases, symptoms may actually be worse. There is also a risk of vomiting under general anesthesia, which may result in life-threatening asphyxiation.
Rapid detox can be expensive, and even when it’s performed at a qualified facility, it may be dangerous. When you’re choosing a detox center, it’s important to remember that detoxification is only the beginning of recovery. One of the most important goals of detox is to get you ready to enter the rehabilitation phase, where you’ll acquire the tools you need to cope with the triggers and temptations of day-to-day life.
Back to Opiate Detox
Detox From Central Nervous System Depressants
Central nervous system (CNS) depressants slow the workings of the brain, brainstem and the signals that travel through the spinal cord. When an individual takes a CNS depressant, the drug will increase the amount of GABA — a neurotransmitter — which controls the level of activity in the brain. The more GABA there is, more tranquil the brain becomes.
The only correct way to take CNS depressants (such as Xanax or sleep medications) is under the care of a medical professional in strict accordance with the directions. Even when the directions are followed to the letter, however, it is important to not cease the medication without consulting a physician.
Ceasing the intake of CNS depressants is no different for those who are addicted to them through legitimate prescriptions or those who are taking the drugs illegally. Abruptly stopping the intake of this type of drug can bring on a series of symptoms that can cause serious health problems. When the chemical drug is removed, the central nervous system can come back from over-sedation with such force that the individual may suffer a seizure.
In addition to the risk of seizure, the withdrawal symptoms include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Fever and chills
- Trembling in the hands
- Severe anxiety
- High or low blood pressure
Unlike the detox process for many other drugs, the withdrawal symptoms involving CNS depressants can be fatal if not properly monitored.
Detox Effects of Stimulant Abuse
Stimulants, such as methamphetamine and others, work by increasing the communication between neurotransmitters in the brain. This is the opposite of the action that CNS depressants have on the brain, but it is conducted using the same parts of the brain. Stimulants will make the individual feel excited, full of energy and extremely sociable. However, immediately following the abuse of stimulant drugs, the individual will feel depleted and exhausted. During this time, the person will experience increased cravings for stimulant drugs in order to feel better.
Symptoms of withdrawal from stimulants might include:
- Excessive sleep (temporary) to the point that it is difficult to be awakened
- Severe mood swings, up to and including violence
- Insomnia (after the first day or so)
- Delirium and paranoia
- Severe cravings
- Body aches and pains
Because of the individual’s desperation to obtain the drug, coupled with the anxiety and mood swings, he or she may become violent in their attempts to get away from the detox process.
Hangovers and Detox
Detox is a natural process in which the body processes any remaining alcohol left in the tissues, and then slowly begins functioning normally without the presence of alcohol. At first glance, this might seem like a process anyone who drinks alcohol would be familiar with. After all, many people who overindulge in alcohol experience their own version of detox the next day, when they develop hangover symptoms. This set of symptoms is remarkably common. In fact, a study published in the Journal of Clinical Epidemiology demonstrates that only about 23 percent of current drinkers do not have hangovers after they drink. Studies like this seem to indicate that most people who drink have taken in too much alcohol at some point, and they’ve had to pay the price the next day as their bodies recover from the damage.
Detoxification is a bit like a hangover, as people going through both processes might experience the same symptoms, including:
- Decreased appetite
Mild Discomfort Is Possible
- Clammy skin
- Dilated pupils
- Rapid heart rate
These symptoms tend to increase in severity for 48 to 72 hours, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, and they may persist for weeks. Without formal help, which might include medications, some people might return to drinking in order to make their symptoms go away, as the process can be severely disruptive and even a little bit frightening.
Medications Are Available During Detox
Many of the symptoms of withdrawal can be managed with medication. Known as “medically managed withdrawal,” this process must be conducted by professionals in a supervised inpatient or outpatient setting. However, with the right medications, it is possible to mitigate many of the symptoms, such as nausea, fever or anxiety.
Some providers may prescribe sleeping medications for the most severe cases where the cravings for the drugs threaten to derail any attempts at detoxification. The types of medications prescribed will depend upon the type of withdrawal, based upon the drug classification of the addiction.
- Careful monitoring of vital statistics to ensure client safety.
- Pharmaceutical support to ease withdrawal symptoms. In some cases, this involves the use of medications that mimic the abused substance in decreasing doses. For example, Valium is used sometimes to ease the withdrawals from barbiturate use.\
- Pharmaceutical-based treatment of withdrawal symptoms. In this approach, instead of preventing the worst of the withdrawal symptoms by mimicking the substance and gradually reducing medication, specific withdrawal symptoms are managed with medication, reducing significantly the discomfort of abstinence from the abused substance. For example, an alcoholic undergoing detox may receive Lorazepam for delirium tremens.
- Skilled and continuous assessment of medical needs during the detoxification process, and rock solid procedures for dealing with any sort of medical emergency that may occur. Because the staff is well experienced with managing care so as to avoid extreme withdrawal symptoms, a severe medical emergency is highly unlikely. However, some cases are complex and it is essential to be well prepared for any possibility, no matter how slight.
Tips for Successfully Completing Detox
Even under the care of a professional detox center and the medical staff associated with that facility, the detox process is difficult and can be unpleasant. However, there are many ways to make the process more tolerable.
- Relaxation exercises. Many popular drugs today will cause anxiety when the withdrawal symptoms begin. Relaxation exercises, such as meditation, controlled breathing and others can help center the individual and keep her focused on the prize of sobriety at the end of withdrawal discomfort.
- Reiki. This alternative therapy has helped many recovering addicts control the pain associated with certain types of withdrawal.
- Distractions. Reading a favorite book or watching television can help take one’s mind off what is happening in their body. It certainly will not eliminate the symptoms, but it can help pass the time as the process works to a conclusion.
Detox Is Only the First Step to Recovery
Detoxification takes place over the first few days of recovery. By itself, detox is not a treatment for drug or alcohol addiction. The treatment phase of recovery begins when detox ends. When an individual experiences the effects of withdrawal in the first few days, the symptoms are their most severe. It is not possible to rationalize or begin treatment in earnest until the most violent symptoms have dissipated.
Once the immediate symptoms have passed, it is time to enter a qualified treatment program. There are two types of recovery programs to choose from – inpatient or outpatient. Regardless of the type of program chosen, it is important to begin treatment immediately following detox to reduce the chances of relapse in this critical early phase of recovery.
Detoxification takes time and effort, but gradually the immediate effects will begin to diminish. Some addicts must deal with some cravings for the remainder of their lives, but the irritability, mood swings, shakes and other visible symptoms will eventually give way to a peaceful, drug-free existence full of potential and promise.