Drug and alcohol addiction can take a heavy toll on a person's physical body. As time goes on, in addition to needing the drug to function on an emotional level, a person can develop a physical dependence on substances like alcohol or drugs. This means they can't physically function properly without the substance. This is particularly true of alcohol addiction and opiate addiction (heroin addiction or addiction to prescription drugs like oxycodone).
Detoxification is the term for removing drugs and/or alcohol from the body. Medically assisted detox is undergoing the detox process with the supervision of medical professionals, and often with the use of substitute drugs to help ease the transition.
How does medically assisted detox work?
The average medically assisted detox process takes 3-7 days. It is done by licensed medical professionals who monitor vital signs and keep patients safe and healthy as they undergo detox and withdrawal. The goal is to successfully wean a drug or alcohol addict off the substance they've been abusing, often by utilizing another drug to substitute for the effects of the original substance.
Common substitute drugs include buprenorphine, Suboxone, methadone, and benzodiazepines. All of these drugs limit the extreme nature of withdrawal symptoms. This is essential, since undergoing withdrawal can be excruciating, and is often what drives a recovering addict to go back to taking the drug.
During medically assisted detox, medical professionals and addiction specialists evaluate a person's history of substance abuse and then prescribe different medications to help ease the transition from alcohol or drug addiction to sobriety.
For example, someone addicted to prescription opiates like OxyContin or Vicodin may be prescribed buprenorphine to help manage withdrawal symptoms and make recovery easier. Some people will stay on a drug like buprenorphine for a short amount of time, while others can remain on it for months, years, or even indefinitely.
Most medically assisted detox programs last a week or less, at which point most people are allowed to go home and take the substitute drug on their own. In some cases, however, individuals must visit a rehab clinic daily. This is usually only the case for those on high doses of methadone, which is most frequently prescribed for those who struggled with heroin addiction.
It's important to note that according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, medically assisted detox does not by itself lead to full recovery. Therapy and other support systems are needed to establish and maintain sobriety. However, experts generally agree that the use of substitute drug helps recovering drug and alcohol addicts handle the rest of the process more comfortably and often more successfully.
What are the advantages of medically assisted detox?
First, safety: the individual is taking the substitute drug in a safe environment, under medical supervision. While the process is normally quite safe, if anything were to go awry, medically-trained professionals are on hand to help immediately.
Second, studies show that for certain people, such as those being treated for prescription opioid addiction (OxyContin, Percocet, etc.), it's actually more effective for patients to continue taking buprenorphine long-term, rather than fully transitioning off all drugs. In this case, medically assisted detox and maintenance therapy (continued use of the substitute drug) is more supportive of full recovery than complete detoxification.
What are the risks of medically assisted detox?
Some of the criticism associated with medically assisted detox is that it simply swaps one drug for another. There is also some risk of an individual abusing an substitute substance, such as methadone, which is often the substitute drug used for those recovering from severe heroin addiction.
Another risk of medically assisted detox is the idea that it's "enough", or that the person is "done" after detoxifying the substance. The fact is, medically assisted detox is solely about reducing or eliminating a person's physical dependence when it comes to drug or alcohol addiction. It does not involve exploring the psychological aspects of the substance abuse, which many say is the most important part of the process.
As with many other components of the recovery process, medically assisted detox is most successful when paired with cognitive and behavioral therapy (both individual therapy and group therapy). Therapy is where individuals explore triggers, or high-risk situations that frequently result in drug or alcohol use. Therapy is also where past traumas are dealt with, which are often the root cause of addiction. Patients also learn coping skills, life skills, and other skills supportive of living a life of joy and freedom, rendering addiction both unwanted and unnecessary.
A successful medically assisted detox will leave a person free of the substance they were abusing, and in a position to continue on their path to full sobriety. It is an important part of the overall process.