Why Detoxing from Drugs and Alcohol Should Be Medically Monitored
By Michael Rass
Many people with addiction want to stop using drugs and alcohol. They don’t enjoy being addicted to substances, but they are afraid of experiencing debilitating emotional pain and withdrawal symptoms. The fear of severe withdrawal syndrome frequently prevents addicted individuals from seeking help.
At Lakeview Health, we offer patients a medical detox program with around-the-clock supervision by the medical team. Detoxification from drugs and alcohol is challenging. The physical symptoms of withdrawal can be very unpleasant but the experienced team at Lakeview will do everything they can to make the process as comfortable as possible.
They will also make sure it is safe. Ellen Ovson, M.D., is a member of the medical team at Lakeview Health. She has more than sixteen years of experience in addiction medicine and more than forty years in internal medicine. “We carefully monitor the severity of the withdrawal and medicate the patient accordingly,” she says. Typical withdrawal symptoms include elevated blood pressure and heart rate, excessive sweating, anxiety, tremors, and the inability to sleep.
“During detoxification, the illicit drugs and alcohol the patient has been using are replaced by similar substances in the same category that is tapered off quickly over a number of days,” explains Dr. Ovson. “Withdrawal can be dangerous and should be monitored, especially withdrawal from alcohol and sedative-hypnotic drugs.”
After long-term abuse of alcohol, withdrawal can lead to seizures and delirium tremens. “Without adequate medical attention, patients can become delirious within 72 hours of cessation,” explains Ovson. “Withdrawal from benzodiazepines and other sedative-hypnotics can cause similarly dangerous symptoms.”
Some estimates put the mortality rate for patients with delirium tremens at 30 percent, making detoxing on your own a possibly life-threatening ordeal. “There is also a phenomenon called kindling,” says Dr. Ovson. “It refers to the neurological condition which results from repeated withdrawal episodes from substances such as alcohol and benzodiazepines. Each withdrawal leads to more severe symptoms than the previous withdrawal syndrome.”
All these complications are best handled by medical doctors and nurses. Even better if they are addiction professionals as well. “Addiction treatment in a general hospital setting is often insufficient,” says Dr. Ovson. “Many physicians are not adequately trained in addiction medicine, and they frequently dose tapering medications differently from the Lakeview protocol.”
The stigma of addiction is not completely gone, either. “Many physicians who have little or no experience with addiction medicine continue to think controlling substance abuse is a question of willpower when it is really a chronic brain disease,” says Ovson. “What is driving these patients to engage in unacceptable behaviors is the compulsive need to continue using substances despite the adverse consequences.”
Recovery from addiction is more than medically monitored detoxification. Breaking the addiction cycle requires an integrative approach, including therapies to address co-occurring conditions and the development of healthy coping skills. “Addiction is a bio-psycho-social-spiritual disease, and ignoring any aspect of that disease falls short of providing the best possible care,” says Dr. Ovson.