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Do Detox Programs Work?

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By: Renaissance Recovery

Medically Reviewed by: Diana Vo, LMFT

Last Updated: 7/1/2021

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Authored By: Joe Gilmore

Table of Contents

Do detox programs work, or should you try to quit using alcohol or drugs at home?

We’ll explore this idea today, and also focus on what to expect from a medical detox.

For anyone addicted to alcohol or drugs, detoxification or detox represents the first crucial step on the road to recovery. Addiction is defined by NIDA (the National Institute on Drug Abuse) as a chronic and relapsing condition characterized by compulsive drug use regardless of adverse outcomes.

Addiction per this definition is the equivalent of a severe substance use disorder diagnosed using the criteria in DSM-5. Addiction is considered a brain disorder due to the changes to brain structure and function triggered by sustained substance use.

Detox is grounded on a simple premise: if you are physically unwell, you will be ill-positioned to tackle underlying mental health issues – the chronic and relapsing brain condition of addiction, as well as any co-occurring mental health disorders like depression or anxiety.

The detoxification process, then, serves to deal with the physical component of addiction as a primary step. This prepares patients to address the psychological aspect of addiction through either inpatient or outpatient treatment.

Detox Programs: Do They Work?

A professional detox program, often referred to as a medical detox or medically-assisted detox, is not the same as rehab.

Rehab refers to a cluster of ongoing services administered in an inpatient or outpatient setting. Rehab aims to treat the social and psychological side of addiction to alcohol or drugs.

Medical detox, by contrast, has the following goals:

  • Ensure you are medically stabilized.
  • Minimize withdrawal symptoms.
  • Mitigate complications and potentially harmful effects of withdrawal from alcohol or drugs.
  • Act as a bridge into a substance abuse or alcohol abuse treatment center, or some alternative form of continuing care.

While it is possible for some people with mild addictions to detox at home, for those with more severe alcohol use disorders and substance use disorders, home detox can be dangerous, sometimes even deadly.

Many people find it hard to resist the powerful cravings encountered during withdrawal when still at home and surrounded by potential triggers.

Beyond the heightened risk of relapse, home detox can be especially dangerous in the case of more severe alcohol use disorders. Between 3% and 5% of those withdrawing from alcohol experience delirium tremens (DTs). If untreated, DTs can be life-threatening. Medical detox is always advisable for those with severe alcohol use disorder.

Detoxification from drugs like cocaine and heroin, as well as prescription medications like benzodiazepines and opioids, can also be more challenging and dangerous at home than in a medical detox center.

With professional detox, you can expect the following three core components:

  • Evaluation: Clinical professionals will closely evaluate your psychological and physical history and condition. This evaluation allows the treatment team to assess the risk for acute intoxication and withdrawal. The treatment team uses this initial evaluation to create a personalized treatment plan.
  • Stabilization: By following your individualized treatment plan and using any medications as prescribed, detox will help you to safely withdraw from alcohol or drugs.
  • Transition into recovery: Once your body is purged of toxins and you are medically stable, you can transition into longer-term treatment for substance use, whether in residential rehab or through an outpatient treatment program. While detox is a crucial step toward long-term recovery, the process does not address the underlying social or psychological aspects of substance use.

Do detox programs actually work? Detox programs work for many people who want to quit using alcohol or drugs safely and with medical supervision. A successful detox involves more than just cleansing your body of toxins, though, and should serve as a springboard addiction treatment at an appropriate level on the continuum of care.

What can you expect from detoxification in a medical setting?

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How Do Detox Centers Work?

While all medical detox centers differ slightly, all offer the same pathway to ongoing recovery:

  • Medical assessment
  • Withdrawal from alcohol or drugs
  • Medications
  • 24/7 medical and clinical support
  • Transition to ongoing treatment

Medical assessment

The initial medical assessment preceding detoxification allows the treatment team to gather an accurate idea of your needs.

Expect to field questions about your medical history, as well as your history of substance use. Answer these questions honestly so your treatment team can formulate a customized detox plan.

Withdrawal from alcohol or drugs

When you stop using alcohol, prescription medications, or illicit drugs, the absence of the substance can trigger unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. The type of withdrawal symptoms varies depending on the following factors:

  • Substance
  • Amount of substance use
  • Length of substance use
  • Mental health
  • Physical health

Everyone will experience detox differently, but you are liable to experience any of the following withdrawal symptoms, both physical and psychological:

Physical withdrawal symptoms often include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Headaches
  • Runny nose
  • Shaking or shivering
  • Runny nose
  • Sweating
  • Exhaustion
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Muscle or bone pain
  • High temperature
  • Chills
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Raised heart rate
  • Vivid dreams or nightmare

Psychological withdrawal symptoms often include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Confusion
  • Irritability
  • Agitation
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Pronounced mood swings
  • Insomnia
  • Paranoia
  • Powerful cravings for the substance

The most severe withdrawal symptoms can include:

  • Delirium
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures

Medications

MAT (medication-assisted treatment) can help many people withdrawing from alcohol or drugs. MAT is especially effective for treating alcohol use disorder, opioid use disorder, and heroin use disorder. Research into medications to treat other addictions like cocaine use disorder is ongoing.

Although no single medication prevents all withdrawal symptoms, several FDA-approved medications can soothe the intensity of both withdrawal symptoms and cravings.

Beyond this, other medications can help ease the following:

  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea
  • Sickness
  • Seizures

24/7 medical and clinical support

To manage the potential complications of alcohol withdrawal or drug withdrawal, medical detox provides you with around-the-clock medical monitoring for the duration of detox.

The average detox lasts from 7 to 10 days, although the precise timeline varies from person to person.

Transition to ongoing treatment

Substance-free, you should move from detox into some form of ongoing treatment for addiction. Before we show you how to achieve that here at Renaissance, what does detox feel like?

What Does Detox Feel Like?

Every detox is unique, but the following outcomes are commonplace:

  • Physical discomfort
  • Anxiety, irritability, and paranoia
  • Exhaustion
  • Restlessness and sleeplessness
  • Nausea and sickness

Physical discomfort

As your system struggles to cope without alcohol or drugs, withdrawal symptoms can be intensely physically uncomfortable.

Your body may feel like it’s burning, your eyes, too. In addition to general soreness, you may also experience a prickling sensation. Your body temperature is likely to shift rapidly, from hot and sweating to cold and shivering.

Anxiety, irritability, and paranoia

Expect heightened anxiety levels as well as general irritability. In some cases, you could start feeling paranoid as stress continues to build while substances leave your system.

Exhaustion

Withdrawal from alcohol or drugs can drain your energy to the extent of struggling to complete simple tasks. This fatigue is compounded as withdrawal symptoms often prevent you from getting enough sleep.

Meditation and mindfulness can help you counter flagging energy levels during detox. 

Restlessness and sleeplessness

With your body shaking, you could find yourself tossing and turning all night instead of getting the restorative sleep you need. This is commonplace during detox, and you can expect an improvement in the quality and quantity of your sleep when you are sober. 

Nausea and sickness

Nausea, sickness, and abdominal discomfort are all common symptoms of drug and alcohol detox.

You may also find yourself vomiting copiously and experiencing acute diarrhea.

While all of the above symptoms of drug and alcohol withdrawal are potentially painful and almost always uncomfortable, they indicate that detox is working. Withdrawal symptoms are your body and brain’s response as they try to return to normal functioning.

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The most effective method of tackling detox is often in a medical detox center, so how can you approach that?

Drug and Alcohol Detox at Renaissance Recovery

If you feel you would benefit from a drug and alcohol detox at Renaissance Recovery Center, we have connections with medical detox centers throughout southern California and beyond.

While detox is a critical and foundational step on the road to recovery, you should transition from detox into rehab for the strongest chance of sustained sobriety.

Now for the good news. With the potential complications of withdrawal and detox negotiated and your body purged of substances, you can engage with outpatient treatment for your addiction, so you don’t necessarily need to pack your bags and head to inpatient rehab.

In addition to OPs (standard outpatient programs), we also offer IOPs (intensive outpatient programs) and PHPs (partial hospitalization programs) so you can get the right level of care for your addiction. Our dual diagnosis treatment program is designed for anyone with co-occurring addictions and mental health conditions.

All Renaissance treatment programs offer you access to an evidence-based combination of MAT (medication-assisted treatment), psychotherapy, and counseling, as well as holistic therapies. With an alumni program and aftercare in place, you can use your detox and treatment at Renaissance to build the firmest base for ongoing sobriety. If you are still skeptical and questioning “do detox programs work?”, just call the friendly team today at 866.330.9449.

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Pat C

“I owe my life and my happiness to these people. October 8th, 2019 marked two years of sobriety for me, and prior to finding Renaissance I hadn’t had 24 hours sober in nearly 20 years.”

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Diana Vo, LMFT

Diana is an addiction expert and licensed marriage and family therapist who has been in the field of mental health for over 10 years.

Joseph Gilmore

Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country