When Laura arrived at Positive Sobriety Institute for a prescription pill addiction, she didn’t expect to be treated with medication. She thought treatment meant to stop all pill intake and face the possibility of discomfort from withdrawal those first days in recovery. She was relieved to find out that there was medication available to alleviate the discomfort. “I had a fear of detox. I was dealing with a lot of emotional pain and didn’t want to feel all the physical stuff too. I had tried to get off the pills myself in the past and I physically couldn’t take it. I had no idea that meds could be used to help me through it”, Laura said.
Detox, or withdrawal management, is the first step in addiction treatment. It’s a necessary step to clear the body of harmful toxins that have built up over time as a result of substance abuse. But like Laura, many are afraid of the intense physical side effects they may experience as they come clean for the first time since they began using. Symptoms of withdrawal include nausea, headaches, stomach discomfort, respiratory problems, changes in heart rate and even life threatening seizures.
Medication-assisted detox uses medication as appropriate to reduce withdrawal symptoms and anxiety as patients prepare mentally and physically for the next step in their treatment. Although administering medication may seem counterintuitive, when given a safe dose under a doctor’s careful watch, people often feel less afraid and emotionally prepared to face the next phase of treatment. But the use of medications is only part of the equation. Combining medication with intensive psychotherapy is crucial to recovery in the detoxification process.
How the Body Reacts in Detox
Long-term use of alcohol, opiates and stimulants changes the way your brain functions. Over time, your brain has been hard-wired to produce chemicals that generate feelings of euphoria in response to the drug. When you take away the substance, the brain will send messages to the body, demanding more of the drug and triggering cravings. When a person is going through withdrawal, there are many things that happen in the body as the brain attempts to adjust. Along with the uncomfortable physical symptoms, a person will likely feel overcome with an intense mood change. Chemicals responsible for mood such as dopamine and seratonin will drop and depression, anxiety, insomnia and fatigue may set in.
When entering detox, doctors and clinicians will assess and evaluate each person’s needs and customize a treatment plan that may include a variety of medications to manage their withdrawal. What medication they use will depend on the type of substance that has been abused and what co-occurring mental health disorders are also present.
In Laura’s case, she was given a clonidine patch to reduce any unpleasant side effects from opioid withdrawal. The medical team monitored her health and treatment very carefully as she detoxed and began therapy. Laura was able to wean off opioids and has been in recovery ever since.
It’s important to remember that the medications used to overcome withdrawal symptoms are not actually aiding in detoxifying the body of substances—they are being used to ease the brain’s signals for more drugs and alcohol. These medications impact the same areas of the brain as the substance that was being abused yet they do not cause the vicious cycle of dependency and damage to the body. As the body adjusts, these drugs will not be necessary moving forward in treatment, they are just part of the initial process. As recovery continues, there will be many ways to address feelings of discomfort as you progress including cognitive therapy, nutrition, holistic methods and a 12-step program.