Over 250,000 people who received emergency medical treatment in 2011 for drug-related causes were seeking detox services, the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) reports. Detox involves processing toxins from the body. Medicated detox, commonly called medical detox, provides the most comprehensive level of professional care.

With medical detox, a person will stay in a specialized facility for an average of 3-7 days while receiving supportive care and encouragement. Medications are also used to minimize, reduce, and manage the possible side effects of drug withdrawal. Some of these withdrawal symptoms can be fatal without proper medical management.

Since cravings can be controlled and withdrawal symptoms diminished during medical detox, instances of relapse are reduced. Relapse can be life-threatening after a period of sobriety due to the potential for overdose, so continual support is critical. During medical detox, vital signs can be constantly monitored, and medical and mental health issues can be dealt with immediately upon presentation.

  • Around-the-clock supervision and monitoring are among the many benefits of medical detox. Highly trained professionals can address any co-occurring medical or mental health concerns during medical detox, and they can also help individuals to remain safe from self-harm. A calm and quiet environment can be highly beneficial during detox as can ongoing support and encouragement.
  • Medical detox may also help to shorten the duration of withdrawal by preventing relapse and helping to curb cravings. Regular detox may last several days longer than medicated detox. Since medications can alleviate physical symptoms and address mental health issues, the person may feel physically stable more quickly, enabling them to begin therapy.

Managing Drug Withdrawal through Medical Detox

When someone uses psychoactive drugs regularly, changes are made to brain chemistry, often leading to drug dependence. The significance of this dependence is related to dosage, the drug abused, method of abuse, length of time abusing it, and other biological and environmental factors. Dependence on many substances, including alcohol, benzodiazepines (e.g., Xanax, Klonopin, Ativan, Valium, etc.), and opioids (e.g., heroin, OxyContin, fentanyl, Vicodin, etc.) can cause withdrawal symptoms that can be so severe as to be life-threatening, Psychology Today warns. These drugs should not be stopped “cold turkey,” and medicated detox is generally considered the optimal method for safely processing the drugs out of the body. Essentially, patients will be placed on a replacement medication (e.g., buprenorphine for opioids or a long-acting benzodiazepine for Xanax), and then slowly weaned off that medication over time.

One of the most significant forms of withdrawal is delirium tremens, or DTs, which occurs in about 3-5 percent of all those suffering from alcohol withdrawal, the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) publishes. Symptoms of DTs include fever, delirium, significant mental confusion, and potentially life-threatening seizures. DTs can be treated, and even avoided, through medical detox and the use of medications.

In addition to delirium tremens, the following are potential side effects of drug withdrawal that can often be managed with medications during medical detox:

    • Dizziness
    • Lightheadedness
    • Tremors
    • Headache
    • Excessive sweating
    • Chills
    • Muscle aches
    • Nausea
    • Vomiting
    • Diarrhea
    • Mental “cloudiness”
    • Anxiety
    • Agitation
    • Restlessness
    • Irritability
    • Depression
    • Suicidal thoughts
    • Insomnia
    • Joint, back, and bone pain
    • Irregular heart rate and blood pressure
    • Difficulties breathing
    • Trouble concentrating
    • Cravings
    • Hallucinations
    • Appetite changes

Drug withdrawal symptoms begin as soon as a substance stops being active in the bloodstream, and these symptoms can be very intense. Medications can be highly beneficial in minimizing these symptoms during medical detox. Due to the possible severity of withdrawal from many drugs of abuse, they may be tapered off slowly during detox instead of stopped suddenly. As stated, long-acting drugs are often substituted for shorter-acting drugs, and then patients are weaned off those long-acting drugs.

Medical detox, involving the use of medications, is often considered the safest and optimal method for helping a person to process drugs out of the body in preparation for admission into a comprehensive addiction treatment program.