Drug Detox—The First Vital Step in Recovery from Addiction

Are you or someone you love struggling with a drug addiction or substance abuse issue? If you are, you’re not alone. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration’s 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, there are about 20.1 million Americans aged 12 and older with a substance misuse problem.  Of these 20.1 million, 11.8 million misused opiods including prescription painkillers and heroin. And of that 20.1 million only 10.4% or 1 in 10 people received the treatment they need to stop using drugs in the last year. The problem—epidemic—is growing every day.

The good news is—there is hope. Treatment, effective treatment, is available around the country to get the help you need to stop using drugs, rediscover life, and live in recovery—long-term recovery.

The first step is to understand if you or your loved one is suffering with a drug (or alcohol) addiction.

What is Addiction?

Addiction is one of the most misunderstood diseases today. Well meaning family and friends of the person struggling with drug use will often wonder, even ask, “Why can’t he/she just stop?’ or ‘If they really wanted to do they’d stop” or “If they loved me they’d try harder to quit.” Sadly, this type of thinking can often create more shame and guilt for the person using drugs leading them to continued drug use. Willpower, love of family and friends, and even the desire to stop are often not effective in the process of managing drug addiction.

It helps to get a true understanding of what addiction really is in order to help yourself or someone you love struggling with addiction.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA,) addiction is a chronic disease characterized by compulsive and hard to control drug seeking and drug use behaviors despite negative consequences. Often people say that the person with the drug addiction chose to start using the drug and can simply choose to stop. If someone is in the throes of addiction, the choice to stop can be very difficult.

While in the majority of cases the first time the drug was used the person did voluntarily choose to use it, chronic or repeated use of drugs can alter the brain making it even more difficult to quit. Most drugs impact the brain’s reward system, specifically the euphoria-inducing chemical dopamine. While activities such as eating, spending time with loved ones, enjoying activities such as concerts, etc. stimulate dopamine in the brain, drugs tend to ‘flood’ the brain with this pleasure-inducing chemical. Often contributing to continued use of the drug to achieve these same feelings of extreme euphoria.

According to Psychology Today, there is scientific evidence that addictive substances and behaviors share a key neurobiological feature that activates the reward and reinforcement pathways of the brain intensely. Many of these systems involve dopamine.

As use continues to achieve these euphoric feelings, more and more of the substance is needed to reach that same initial ‘high.’ This is also known as developing a tolerance. Almost simultaneously, this also leads to the person getting less pleasure from normal dopamine increasing activities such as social activities, sex, food, etc.

There are other altered brain functions that occur with continued drug use. Some of the most commonly altered functions are:

  • Memory
  • Decision-making
  • Judgment
  • Learning

It is also theorized that because addiction adversely impacts many of the brain’s executive functions, the person struggling with the substance abuse disorder may be unaware of these changed brain functions as well as the fact that their drug use and associated behaviors are causing issues for themselves as well as their family and close friends.

Addiction, especially long-term addictions, can have serious health implications. Some of these health issues are serious and potentially fatal, others are not. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the following are health issues commonly associated with addiction:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Stroke
  • Cancer
  • HIV/Aids
  • Hepatitis B and C
  • Lung disease
  • Mental disorders

The Face of Addiction

Addiction to drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, etc. does not discriminate. Addiction impacts people of all religions, socio-economic backgrounds, educational levels, races, etc. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) provides in depth information on this in their free publication Alcohol and Drug Addiction Happen in the Best of Families. And while anyone from any background can find themselves struggling with addition, there are certain commonalities found in those with addiction.

Generally, according to the NIDA, the following three factors have a significant impact on who has a higher risk for developing an addiction:

  • Biology

About half of a person’s predisposition to addiction is from their genes. Other biological factors impacting addiction are gender, ethnicity, and co-occurring mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, compulsive disorders, etc.

  • Environment

A person’s environment encompasses many factors. Some of the most influential in future drug or alcohol addiction are presence of physical or sexual abuse, peer pressure, early exposure to drugs and stress, and family or parental guidance or lack of it.

  • Development

Addiction to drugs or alcohol can develop at any age, however, research indicates that the earlier a drug is used, the more risk for addiction to develop. This may in part be attributed to the underdeveloped brain and time of drug use. According to the When drug use starts early, such as in the teenage years, parts of the brain such as decision-making and self-control have not yet developed which make them more at risk to engage in drug use and risk-taking behaviors.

There are many reasons why a person may first take a drug. They range from wanting to ‘feel good’ to seeking to ‘fit in.’ Many who suffer with a co-occurring mental health disorder first seek out to use drugs to ‘feel better’ or self medicate. Often, drugs are used to enhance performance such as on tests or in physical competitions. No matter what the reason a person first picks up a drug, for many the result is the same—addiction.

Signs and Symptoms of Addiction

 It’s important to be able to identify signs of addiction in yourself or in your loved one. Many times those struggling with an active addiction exhibit all or only a few of these signs.

According to Psychology Today, the following are some signs of drug addiction to consider:

  • Cravings or strong desire to use substance
  • Substance is used for longer periods of time or in greater amounts than intended
  • Getting the substance takes up substantial time in the person’s life
  • School, work, and/or family responsibilities are compromised due to the use of the substance
  • A promise to cut down or stop is unable to be kept
  • Use continues despite associated risks; physical, psychological, etc.
  • Isolation from others starts
  • Tolerance is developed requiring more of the substance being used

If you relate yourself to any or all of these signs, or see these symptoms in someone you love who you suspect is struggling with an addiction to drugs you should consider treatment options. Recovery from drug addiction—no matter what the drug is— is possible. Living a life with purpose, peace of mind, and joy can happen when you take the first step towards recovery.

Steps in Drug Addiction Treatment

The first step in getting help for an addiction to drugs or alcohol can be terrifying. Living with an addiction is no less terrifying but may be comfortable. This ‘comfort’ may keep the person continuing the addiction for longer. Finding help and getting into the right program for treatment usually starts with a drug detox center or facility.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) defines medical detox as safely managing acute physical symptoms associated with withdrawal from drugs or alcohol.

Detoxification from drugs or alcohol (or both) is the first phase of recovery but alone usually doesn’t lead to long term recovery or abstinence from drugs. Any detox process should be medically supervised. This is especially true for alcohol detox, heroin detox, and opiate detox processes.

Detoxing from drugs or alcohol can not only be physically challenging and difficult, it can be dangerous. It’s vital to seek medical advice prior to any drug detoxification and to have the proper medical team supervising this acute phase of withdrawal.

With a medical detox at an appropriate detox center, you can find some measure of comfort during this difficult, often excruciating process, knowing you are in good hands and professionals who are highly trained and can help are there to support you or your loved one. There are medications which can help to alleviate some withdrawal symptoms too.

Snapshot of Detox Treatment

There are a few types of drug detox programs; outpatient and inpatient drug detox are both options.

Outpatient Drug Detox

Outpatient drug detox less common and is completed on an outpatient basis in which a person continues to live in their current surroundings or possibly a sober living house. For mild to moderate early phase addiction cases, outpatient can be an option to consider. Individuals who choose outpatient treatment for detox should be highly motivated and disciplined with access to medical care. However, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), recent research shows a higher rate of mortality when opioid addictions are treated in this type of setting.

 Inpatient Drug Detox

In this type of medical detox patients seeking treatment residential drug treatment facility. In this intensive and highly structured environment, the withdrawal process is highly monitored. Detox stays range from three to seven days in general.  The length of detox, physical symptoms experienced, and how long your detox lasts depend on several factors:

  • Specific drug has been used or abused that detox is needed
  • Length of addiction
  • Amount of drug used during addiction
  • Dose taken prior to entering treatment or detox
  • Existence of any co-occurring mental health issues
  • Use of other substances (including alcohol) during addiction and immediately before drug detox
  • Length the specific drug stays in one’s system

There are many physical symptoms that can be expected during the detox and withdrawal process. This varies by each individual and is often dependent on the above factors as well.

  • Elevated senses, particularly increased sensitivity to pain
  • Agitation, irritability
  • Mood swings, anxiety, depression
  • Insomnia
  • Restlessness and an inability to focus
  • Flu-like symptoms; sweating, chills, muscle weakness, body aches, headaches, hot flashes
  • Change in appetite; increased or decreased

With such intense and uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms, many afflicted by addictions who try to stop on their own, relapse and don’t make it through this initial stage of recovery. This is one reason why undergoing medically supervised detox in a drug treatment center can make a big difference in successfully getting through this first step and overcoming addiction.

Detox—Opening the Door to a Life Free from Addiction

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the goal of drug detox treatment is to reach physical and psychological stability. Once this has been achieved, the next step in the recovery process begins.

Getting through detox and withdrawal from drugs is the first vital step in long-term recovery from addiction. It’s important to plan the next step after detox. If you or your loved one is undergoing medical detox at an inpatient facility, staying at the same treatment center for a 30, 60, or 90 day program is highly recommended.

One of the benefits of doing this is familiarity with the treatment center, staff, routines, and comradery with others met during detox. It’s also crucial to understand that inpatient treatment offers the person trying to stop using drugs an opportunity to work on their addiction free from the stressors and temptations of everyday life. This enables them to clear their minds and form a foundation for their journey in life-long recovery.

Living with addiction, either your own or that of someone you love, can be painful, lonely, and hopeless. Take heart, it doesn’t have to be and there is an end to the cycle of addiction. It begins with a single step. If you or someone you love has an addiction to drugs, take the first step to recovery and find the right detox treatment center and get started on the road to a life of freedom from addiction.