Ending substance abuse is a challenge for many people hooked on addictive substances, and despite their best efforts, some people will require and seek professional help at a drug or alcohol rehabilitation center to end addiction once and for all.
It’s important to go in with realistic expectations of what the substance recovery process looks like. It will look different for each person, but overall be aware that it often is not a quick process. Instead, it requires a great deal of time, effort, and patience.
For most people, recovery begins with a medical detoxification that is designed to keep recovering users safe as they are weaned off addictive substances. Detoxification can last three to seven days or longer, depending on the drugs used and how long they were used. There are multiple benefits to undergoing a medical detox. It:
For these reasons and more, a medical detox is highly recommended over the other option, which is going cold turkey or quitting use abruptly. Stopping chronic or long-term use can bring on symptoms that are hard to deal with outside of a professional treatment center. Challenging withdrawal symptoms lead many people to go back to using just to find relief from these symptoms, and this puts them at risk of overdose and death.
Common withdrawal symptoms of detox, which range from mild to severe, include:
Detox also may involve medications that are given to help users manage withdrawal symptoms, which can range from mild to severe.
A medical detox, while helpful and necessary to the recovery process, can have side effects. Those side effects occur when the body is no longer able to depend on the substances abused. Brain chemistry is changed when drugs leave the body. The absence of the drugs can cause an imbalance that brings on physical and psychological changes. Some of the symptoms that stem from this imbalance include fatigue, anxiety, depression, and even suicidal thoughts. The kind of substance that’s abused also plays a role in what detox side effects are experienced because they vary across different drugs. Here are the effects of some substances.
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be psychological and physical; they also can be life-threatening. Detoxing from alcohol should not be a solo effort. It is risky to do so because it can lead to a relapse, permanent injury, and death. Common alcohol detox side effects someone can experience include:
Addiction to prescription opioids, such as Vicodin or OxyContin, and the illegal opioid heroin have ushered in unprecedented rates of addiction in the U.S. These drugs affect the brain’s opioid receptors, which are neurotransmitters that help the body manage pain. When the brain becomes dependent on opioids and then has to adjust to their absence because users stopped using, the body’s system encounters difficulty when there are no opioids to help block out the pain.
Opioid withdrawal is not a life-threatening process, but it is a difficult one. Intense detox side effects can come just before a relapse, which can occur only a few days into dealing with the effects that present themselves during withdrawal. This is why it’s advised to go detox from these drugs with medical supervision.
Common detox side effects of opioids are:
Detox side effects intensify with severe addictions or dependence on potent heroin and other powerful opioids. Symptoms that happen during opioid withdrawal also include:
Benzodiazepines (benzos), such as Valium or Xanax, are central nervous system depressants that act similarly to alcohol. They cause users to feel sedated and relaxed, which is why doctors prescribed them for people who have anxiety problems and sleep disorders. As is the case with alcohol, the detox side effects of benzodiazepines are dangerous. Detox from benzos also requires medical monitoring to ensure it is done safely.
Benzodiazepine withdrawal symptoms also can include seizures, which are a dangerous side effect, as well as hallucinations. Rebound anxiety and rebound insomnia, which are stronger versions of regular insomnia and anxiety symptoms, are also possible during this process.
The brain stops making its own Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that regulates feelings of sedation, as benzo users consumer the drugs. When benzo use ends, GABA levels fall, which brings on anxiety and insomnia, and these may be worse than the original versions. Rebound anxiety has been linked to severe panic attacks, and rebound insomnia can keep someone awake for days.
Another detox side effect to watch out for is benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome. This condition is when the withdrawal symptoms of benzo detox become significantly stronger and grow more unpredictable. Full-on psychosis, among other things, can result when this syndrome is underway.
Some benzodiazepine detox side effects of include:
Detox side effects that are associated with stimulants are more psychological in nature as these drugs produce euphoric effects that flood the brain with the neurotransmitter dopamine.
Dopamine mainly regulates the brain’s “pleasure center” of the brain, and when the organ becomes dependent on stimulants for dopamine, it stops making its own. When stimulant use stops, the dopamine supply dries up, users feel the results of that by feeling their mood, and energy levels decline and “crash.”
Extreme drug cravings and severe depression increase the chances of users relapsing and doing harm to themselves relapse and self-harm. Some of the stimulant symptoms of detox include:
People who are in recovery and no longer use drugs or alcohol can still experience withdrawal months or years after they have stopped using drugs and alcohol. This is called Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS), and it is a set of continuing withdrawal symptoms that affect the person mentally or physically. They can last a few days when they do occur and they can occur at different times throughout the year.
PAWS symptoms vary according to the drug that was used, but overall symptoms that commonly occur include:
It is advised that recovering users seek professional help to manage this syndrome if they feel they need or have been professionally advised to do it. PAWS symptoms do not have to be managed on your own.
Other things that help users in recovery getting past this difficult stage is getting enough rest, practicing habits that promote health and wellness, and having a supportive network of people. Consult with your personal physician to develop the best plan for you.
Dodds, T. J. (2017, March 02). Prescribed Benzodiazepines and Suicide Risk: A Review of the Literature. from http://www.psychiatrist.com/PCC/article/Pages/2017/v19n02/16r02037.aspx
Pétursson, H. (1994, November). The benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome. from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7841856