Understanding the Process of Detox

By The Fix staff 09/19/17

The pain of withdrawal is so feared that many people who abuse substances will continue using to avoid it.

A woman sitting in a waiting room, head against the wall.
Here's some information about detox that can help in navigating through this painful and confusing door to recovery.

When we think of addiction, we may think of the psychological habits and unhealthy coping mechanisms that lead people to abuse drugs or alcohol. However, nearly all people who abuse substances develop a physical dependency on those substances — meaning that their body needs substances just to function normally.

Tackling addiction through detox is the first step toward recovery. Detox is the process by which all drugs leave a person’s system. The process is much feared and misunderstood, but medically-supervised detox can make the process safer and reduce the discomfort. We sat down with Dr. Danesh Alam, medical director at Sunspire Health Heartland, a treatment center in Gilman, Illinois, to discuss the process of detox from start to finish.

Here’s what you should know:

The Start of a Journey

It takes between two to five days for drugs to completely leave someone’s system, depending on the substance that the person was using. In complicated cases it can take longer. Although those days can be difficult and it might take fortitude to make it through, Dr. Alam says that people need to realize that detox doesn’t solve the problem of substance abuse.

“The biggest misunderstanding is thinking that somehow it cures everything,” Dr. Alam says. “Detox is essentially a door. Alone it achieves very little. It is really a beginning of the journey, the first step of the journey into recovery.”

Physically, the benefits of detox begin almost immediately, Dr. Alam says.

“As soon as an individual stops using drugs or alcohol, the body gets to work,” Dr. Alam says. In a person dependent on alcohol, for example, the liver and brain begin repairing themselves as soon as the alcohol consumption stops.

At the same time, the body is dealing with severe withdrawal symptoms, ranging from nausea to abnormal heart rhythms (cardiac arrhythmias).

“Within hours, the neural systems are working overtime to compensate for the sudden lack of the drug,” Dr. Alam says. “The body is trying to recover but also dealing with withdrawal symptoms.”

Dangers of Detox

Some of those withdrawal symptoms are dangerous or even deadly. Dr. Alam notes that in many parts of the world, there is a significant risk of death for people detoxing from alcohol because alcohol withdrawal can cause cardiac and respiratory issues.

In addition to the physical risks, there are many behavioral and psychological components of withdrawal that are best handled by professionals. The risk for suicide also increases as people go through the physical and psychological pain of withdrawal, so it is important that patients be under supervision.

Is The Painful Process Important?

Although short-lived compared to a lifetime in recovery or years of drug use, withdrawal is an intense process. The pain of withdrawal is so feared that many people who abuse substances will continue using to avoid going through detox.

"The fear of withdrawal keeps patients locked in their addiction,” Dr. Alam says. “They’ll go to any extent to get the next fix just so they don’t have the withdrawal symptoms.”

Now, doctors are able to use medications to control the danger and discomfort of detox. This removes some of the fear of the process and allows people to enter rehab in a better frame of mind.

“Detox is still an art,” he says. “You have to combine the patients’ views and history with your clinical experience to come up with an individualized plan.”

Working with a professional who is using evidence-based approaches to detox gives the best chance of starting off sobriety on the right foot.

“It allows the individual to begin the journey of recovery, which is a lifelong commitment that demands all of your faculties,” Dr. Alam explained.

Entering Recovery

When detox is over, most individuals will need professional help crafting a recovery plan that can help them establish a life in sobriety.

“That’s the biggest problem with detox: it is just a door,” Dr. Alam says. “If patients just want to do detox, that may not be the best thing.”

Inpatient and/or outpatient programs may be a good option, depending on the individual’s circumstances.

“It is difficult to make changes, but those who are able to get into recovery inspire you,” says Dr. Alam.

Sunspire Health is a network of addiction treatment centers. Learn more at www.sunspirehealth.com.

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