Medical detox is the process and experience of a withdrawal syndrome under medical supervision. Medical detox is recommended for many substance use disorders, especially for those with a physical withdrawal syndrome. Medications are typically prescribed during medical detox to manage and alleviate withdrawal symptoms, with doctors and medical staff on call to support patients through the process. Various medications are used depending on the particular psychoactive substance of abuse, with drugs prescribed in the context of dosage reduction, harm reduction, drug replacement and symptom management.
The process of medical detox is designed to support patients as they cease drug and alcohol intake. Psychoactive substances often cause a physical or psychological withdrawal syndrome upon cessation of use, with physical symptoms often dangerous and potentially fatal. Medications can be taken to alleviate the severity of symptoms, with relapse rates also reduced through the careful administration of prescriptions. While detoxification does not address the underlying reasons for drug dependency, it does allow patients to clear their systems in preparation for ongoing psychotherapy and counseling.
Detoxification is somewhat inaccurate in the context of drug treatment because it is not exclusively concerned with the removal of toxic substances from the body. Instead, detox enables patients to cease the consumption of certain problematic substances, with medications often used to aid the process. Because all drug addictions are learned behaviors maintained by neuronal adaptations, detox is necessary to create the space for new psychological and physical connections. Once the body and brain have adjusted to new conditions without drugs and alcohol, the precedents of drug dependence can be addressed.
According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, there are three steps in every detox process: evaluation, stabilization, and directing the patient into further treatment.
Heroin is an incredibly addictive substance with a potentially severe withdrawal syndrome. Medical detox is normally required to alleviate withdrawal symptoms and enable recovery, with various drugs used to replace heroin and smooth out the withdrawal process. Typical withdrawal symptoms from heroin include sweating, anxiety, depression, malaise, priapism, tears, insomnia, diarrhea, muscle aches, cramps, cold sweats, chills and a general feeling of heaviness. While the withdrawal period for heroin is similar to that for other opioid drugs, the withdrawal syndrome is likely to be more severe. Methadone and buprenorphine are often used in the context of opiate replacement therapy, with naltrexone used as an opioid antagonist to block the parts of the brain that feel pleasure from heroin use. Relapse following heroin detox is extremely common, with psychotherapeutic programs required along with medication treatment.
Alcohol detox treats the alcohol withdrawal syndrome, a set of physical symptoms that occur when someone stops or dramatically reduces their alcohol consumption. Alcohol detox normally requires a combination of medication and medical support, with benzodiazepines, naltrexone and Antabuse widely used during the detox process. Antabuse has been available since 1951, with the mechanisms of this drug producing feelings of sickness when someone drinks alcohol. Common effects produced by Antabuse while drinking are headaches, nausea, vomiting, dizziness and lowered blood pressure. Detoxification is an essential element in many alcohol treatment programs, with medical detox typically followed by behavioral therapy, counseling and relapse prevention programs to enable a sustainable and long-term recovery.