The first step toward the successful treatment of alcohol or drug abuse is detoxification. In 2001, 50 percent of all people who entered addiction treatment facilities for detox completed the process.[1] That means half who attempt detox don’t see it through — often leaving before treatment is finished or failing to successfully self-detox at home. The latter is a common mistake, and many are set up for failure from the very beginning because they’re not in the care of a professional facility that specializes in what they’re going through.

While detox in general is highly successful when completed, one such form is not, despite regular claims of its excellence. Rapid detox is not only dangerous and potentially life-threatening, but recent research touts no evidence that it is any better than traditional detox.

The Need for Treatment

An approximate 23.5 million were in need of treatment in 2009.[2] It’s not terribly surprising that the relapse rate is high for most addicts. In fact, only 2.6 million people who needed help for drug or alcohol abuse that year got it.[3]While new addicts are always entering the world of substance abuse, we can’t discount the large number of addicts who are perpetually part of the statistic due to relapse and failed attempts at rehab, including unsuccessful detox. With uncertain results, rapid detox may actually contribute to relapse.

There are other options to consider in lieu of rapid detox. That being said, foregoing treatment altogether isn’t one of them. The risks of continuing to abuse drugs increase with each passing day. Death is obviously the most serious concern. In 2008, 36,450 people died from drug overdoses in America.[4] Rapid detox is most commonly used in the detox of opiate addicts, including both heroin and prescription opioid pain reliever users. Of the aforementioned drug-related deaths in 2008, 14,800 were attributed to opioid painkillers.[5] A reported 1,786 people died from heroin overdoses that same year.[6]

The Detox Process

The first step of any detox experience is the intake interview. During this process, you’ll meet with psychotherapists and doctors and discuss not only your substance abuse habits — which you will need to be totally honest about — but also other parts of your life. The staff members who are caring for you will need to know your medical history, including any mental health diagnoses. In addition, you’ll be screened for disorders before treatment. Diagnosing underlying disorders prior to detox can significantly improve your chances of a successful outcome as well as ease your discomfort during the process. Around 37 percent of alcoholics and 53 percent of drug addicts are also battling at least one severe mental health disorder, like schizophrenia.[7]

A Detox Timeline

Alcohol addicts can expect to begin feeling withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, headache, irritability, and more within three to eight hours of their last drink.[8] For those who experience deliriums tremens, up to 5 percent have been shown to die as a result.[9] Some alcohol addicts may benefit from medications such as benzodiazepines to lessen the withdrawal effects. Disulfiram is prescribed for many outpatient detox alcoholics to hinder their ability to drink by causing heart palpitations, nausea, and vomiting when they do.

Those addicted to heroin or other opiates, such as prescription opioid pain relievers, will have to endure agitation, goose bumps, vomiting, and diarrhea, among other unpleasant symptoms from four to 10 days after their last use. Those who misuse prescription opiates or heroin face the same symptoms when withdrawing from the highly addictive substances. Approximately 9 percent of the America population misuses these drugs at some point in their lives.[10]

If you’re dependent on stimulants like cocaine or amphetamines, prepare yourself for depression, strong cravings for the drug, severe fatigue and lethargy, and, potentially, delirium and psychosis. These symptoms generally set in within three days, and they can last for more than a month. Benzodiazepines are regularly prescribed for the mediation of withdrawal symptoms experienced by detoxing stimulant addicts. Unfortunately, these addicts are at high risk for relapse, up to 93 percent from traditional detox[11]  a rate that is suspected of having the potential to be even higher among rapid detox patients.

Much of the research on LSD claims it doesn’t often cause withdrawal symptoms, but this is primarily because most people don’t abuse it on a regular basis. For those who do, they can expect anxiety, depression, depersonalization, and mood swings. They’re also at risk for hallucinogen persisting perception disorder, a condition that inflicts the user with flashbacks of the feelings they experienced while under the influence of a hallucinogen, something one in 50,000 people are affected by — primarily LSD users.

Rapid Detox

Promoters of rapid detox claim it delivers patients the ability to wean themselves off drugs or alcohol without actually having to feel any of the effects of withdrawal. Allegedly, the patient is put to sleep and given IV-administered drugs that reverse the effects of substances in the individual’s system and cause them to detox. The patient wakes up anywhere from six to 48 hours later, and they’re supposedly drug-free.

Contrary to what most addicts would like to think, this process isn’t actually a good replacement for traditional detox. There’s something to be said about the detox experience itself instilling a greater likelihood of sobriety in the patient. The symptoms of withdrawal are surely unpleasant and thus, most patients who successful reach recovery post-detox don’t want to endure it again. As a result, they are more inclined to stay drug-free than someone who was given a free pass through a pain-free detox. One study touted a high 80 percent relapse within six months of rapid detox.[13]

The Downside of Rapid Detox

The potential risks of rapid detox are real and scary. One New Jersey physician, Dr. Lance L. Gooberman, devoted his life’s work to tweaking the rapid detox process into the perfect program for opiate addicts. However, Dr. Gooberman lost seven patients in a four-year span during the late 1990s.[14] The governing state board actually classified the doctor’s method as being “potentially life-threatening” during that time period, but unfortunately didn’t intervene to put a stop to it until more lives were lost.[15] Research on rapid detox is sparse at best and that which does exist is fairly inconclusive, leaving room for the conclusion that it is not a trusted method of detox by practicing facilities and physicians.

Those with mental health disorders may face an even greater risk when detoxing this way. Thus, this danger is a valid concern for the 29 percent of people with mental illness who are also battling substance abuse.[16] Among the entire nation’s population, 45.9 million had a diagnosed mental illness in 2010.[17] Rapid detox also comes with a price tag that reaches $10,000, and currently there is no peer-reviewed research on the method to support its efficacy.[18]Likewise, insurance companies often won’t pay for the detox method.[19]

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Getting Help

In essence, rapid detox has been shown to be ineffective and a failing method of detox for many who attempt it. It isn’t safe. The reason you’re seeking help is to spare your life, not put it in harm’s way. For that reason, the rapid detox process is not recommended. Medication-assisted detox is a far better option for patients wishing to wean themselves off any abused substances without having to endure a difficult detox experience. For many, withdrawal symptoms are a frequent side effect of drug use that leads them to continue using and upping their doses along the way.

Medications used for this form of detox include:

  • Methadone
  • Buprenorphine
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Anti-convulsants
  • Antidepressants
  • Beta blockers

Among alcoholics, anti-convulsants and beta blockers are commonly prescribed to treat seizures and cravings that can set in almost immediately following the onset of withdrawal. Benzodiazepines are still considered to be the most effective and safe option for relieving side effects such as anxiety and insomnia in detoxing alcoholics. Methadone continues to carry a 60 to 90 percent success rate.[20] Buprenorphine has the added bonus of a ceiling that limits the effects of the drug, even when taken at higher doses. Thus, this means there is less potential for abuse of it than of methadone. Initial reports of bupe treatments boasted an 88 percent success rate.[21]

Holistic detox is another great option for the drug addict who is ready to accept help. No medications are used in this form of detoxification, but the focus is placed on therapy and the connection to oneself instead. Holistic programs are centered on treating the patient as a whole. Generally, a lot of emphasis is placed on analyzing the factors that led the person to begin using a given substance in the first place, what triggers them to continue, and mitigating those factors. Exercise is a common component of holistic detox, as are meditation, spirituality practices, and the implementation of a structured and balanced diet.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.