The Dangers of Improper Detoxing
While the risks of overdose or death are generally considered the greatest dangers associated with drug or alcohol dependence, improper detoxing can result in disastrous – even fatal – results as well. It may seem ironic, as detoxing is an integral and one of the earliest parts of the recovery process. However, the harsh reality is, an individual with a serious physical dependence on certain substances can find themselves in peril if this stage of recovery is not undertaken correctly. It's important for detoxing to happen with professional supervision such as during inpatient treatment at a medically assisted treatment center.
Before getting into the dangers of improper detoxing, it is important to understand why detoxing is necessary. That conversation must always start with the concept that prevents many with physical dependences from seeking help – withdrawal.
What Is Withdrawal?
Withdrawal, or more specifically ‘drug withdrawal,’ is the name given to a large and varying group of symptoms that can present on the cessation of certain drugs and alcohol. This does not only occur with illicit drugs but also certain prescription drugs and controlled substances with legitimate uses.
Withdrawal occurs when an individual has developed a dependence on a substance. This occurs due to the necessity for larger and larger doses to be taken in order to achieve the desired effect. Eventually, the brain and body’s chemistry and processes are actually changed by the use of the drugs and alcohol, and in order for them to properly operate, the drug must be present. This is known as physical dependence. Psychological dependence can certainly illicit certain symptoms like panic attacks, anxiety, and other mood disorders, but the most common and most dangerous withdrawal symptoms are generally seen in those suffering from physical dependence.
The type of symptoms experienced and their intensity depends on a wide range of factors. These include:
- The type of drug(s) the individual is dependent on
- The size of the dose they take
- Route of administration
- Length of all drug use and dependence
- Other substances used (whether dependent on them or not)
- General health
- Specific health issues
- Mental or mood disorders
The specific withdrawal symptoms will depend on the type of substance. Withdrawal from certain substances has extremely unpleasant, and at times dangerous, symptoms. Some of the worst are:
Alcohol: seizures, convulsions, irregular heartbeat, hallucinations, nausea, fatigue, headaches, confusion, anxiousness, sweating, insomnia
Tranquilizers: Rapid heartbeat, memory loss, hot & cold sweats, numbness, depression/anxiety, insomnia, dizzy spells
Opiates: Nausea, stomach cramping, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, hot & cold sweats, cramping, muscle pain, sweating, insomnia, racing heart, hypertension, agitation
Withdrawal symptoms can be exacerbated when the drug use has hidden chronic maladies the individual has been suffering from the whole time. Despite what some people assume, withdrawal can be fatal in certain cases. Though it is one of the most harrowing types, death from opiate withdrawal is rare. However, it is known to cause miscarriage due to accompanying fetal withdrawal. Conversely, withdrawal from alcohol, some tranquilizers, and certain types of steroids can be fatal.
Many suffering from drug or alcohol dependence bravely attempt to quit on their own by abruptly stopping usage ‘cold turkey’. Understandably, on experiencing these painful and terrifying withdrawal effects, many resume use in order to stop the seemingly unbearable symptoms. Those who continue abstaining often find themselves in medical distress. It is for this reason proper detoxing is imperative.
The very first part of breaking a dependency is the detoxification process. This is a multi-stage process that ensures the health and safety of the patient. Detox increases the chances the individual will be able to continue through to the subsequent stages of treatment that will address the psychological aspects of the addiction.
Evaluation & Stabilization: Whether the patient is still using or has already begun withdrawal, he or she is likely to be in a tenuous and unstable state of health. Likely weakened and in less-than-optimal general health from high-dose drug or alcohol consumption, the destabilizing symptoms of withdrawal are sure to exacerbate these problems. Physicians and detox professionals will ensure the patient is sufficiently healthy and stable (blood pressure, heart rate, temperature, etc.) to begin the withdrawal process. If necessary, sedation may be performed.
Cessation Of Substances/MAT: If the patient has not already stopped the use of the substance(s) in question, this is then undertaken. In some cases, this can be done immediately. In others, such as with extreme opiate addiction, removing drugs from the system must be done gradually to ensure safety. Where possible, Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) with the use of medications like methadone is the preferred process.
Monitoring/Assisted Withdrawal: Through the difficult withdrawal process, which typically takes between 10-21 days, trained professionals closely monitor the patient. Adjustments are made where necessary in order to safeguard the patient’s health as well as to increase the likelihood of success. This includes the patient’s mental health – during such a stressful time where it can be difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel, supporting the mental aspect is absolutely necessary in order to achieve a successful outcome.
Now that we have seen how serious and challenging withdrawal can be, and all that goes into mitigating the symptoms during proper detoxing and assisted withdrawal, we can see how improper detoxing can be dangerous. It goes without saying that the chances of success without assistance and a structured plan are small – but far worse, serious health problems are quite common.
As previously mentioned, when an individual becomes physically dependent, their body then needs the substance to operate properly. The science behind this shows why the symptoms of alcohol, opiate and ‘benzo,’ and other tranquilizer withdrawals are so severe.
The Science of Withdrawal During Improper Detox
Withdrawal is largely caused by the disruptive effect abusing these substances has on your brain chemistry – specifically, your neurotransmitters. The main one in question is gamma-Aminobutyric acid, or GABA. GABA is the chief inhibitory neurotransmitter – not just in our central nervous systems but in those of all mammals. What this means, in short, is that GABA reduces neuron excitability, preventing overactivity.
Substances like alcohol and benzodiazepines increase GABA activity, which explains why drowsiness, lethargy and CNS depression are effects of ingesting large quantities. After a period of abuse, the natural balance of GABA activity is thrown considerably out of balance. In order to feel ‘normal’, the substance being abused must be present. When it is removed, that unnatural balance which has been created is lost. GABA levels drop precipitously and their inhibiting action becomes insufficient. It is at this point during withdrawal where seizures, convulsions, agitation, rapid heartbeat, and more occur as the entire central nervous system spirals out of control.
GABA is also known to regulate muscle tone in humans, which could, along with malnutrition, account for the poor muscle tone observed in severely addicted persons. The neurotransmitter is also involved in insulin production, inflammatory immune response suppression, and has been detected in tissues and organs including the intestines, stomach, pancreas, kidneys, ovaries, testes, kidneys, liver, lungs and more. It is easy to see that the destabilizing effect physical dependence has on GABA and the additionally chaotic effect improper detoxing and withdrawal has on the system can be extremely dangerous and destructive to many aspects of our health.
Another troubling fact is that, in the immature human central nervous system, GABA actually seems to act in the opposite way – that is, in an excitatory manner. In the developing brain, GABA appears to be the chief excitatory neurotransmitter in a number of brain regions. This makes addiction and dependence in juveniles a potentially more dangerous situation, with the effects of substance use likely to be unexpectedly and intensely catastrophic.
The Results of Improper Detox
People are often surprised to learn that, by and large, alcohol withdrawal is considered to be the most dangerous. The mechanics of the dependence figure heavily here, but so too does the reality of alcohol’s place in society. Legal for anyone over 21, it is almost equally as easy for anyone under that age to obtain if they are motivated to do so. While overdrinking may be frowned upon, there is no real social or moral judgment if the alcohol-dependent person does not hurt anyone else. Extremely inexpensive, indulging in massive amounts is viable for people of all social classes. Consumption in public is perfectly acceptable. Given all these factors, the dependent individual will likely consume alcohol in dangerously large quantities for many years.
If and when they do seek help and begin to detox, their brain chemistry will have been drastically altered. The withdrawal symptoms are similarly extreme, including seizures and the well-known ‘delirium tremens,’ common in those who drink large amounts of alcohol daily or who have been dependent for a decade or more. Irregular or rapid heartbeat, severe confusion and a host of other mental function changes, body tremors, hallucinations and a laundry list of other symptoms make delirium tremens a bonafide medical emergency. Heart attacks, grand mal seizures and injury due to falls can result in death. The blood chemistry and vital sign tests, monitoring, and sedation where necessary, which is part of a proper detox, can literally save your life.
This and similar classes of tranquilizers are, along with alcohol, considered to cause some of the most dangerous withdrawal symptoms. While hazardous enough on their own, a large part of the problem is that they are often abused alongside alcohol, opiates, and stimulants such as cocaine and amphetamines. This causes severely unbalanced brain chemistry and sets the stage for an extremely difficult withdrawal. Like alcohol, violent and life-threatening seizures, as well as heart issues, have resulted in fatalities during improper, non-assisted detoxes. One unusual danger of improper ‘benzo’ detoxes is that of protracted withdrawal symptoms – withdrawal symptoms being seen as long as a year after cessation of taking the drug. Suddenly stopping taking benzodiazepines can also result in symptoms that mimic the original psychiatric issues that the drug was meant to treat. It is absolutely imperative, then, that ‘benzo’ detox is undertaken properly through tapering off of usage and a closely monitored medical detox.
Death from opiate withdrawal is exceedingly rare – yet it remains one of the most feared types of withdrawal. This is because it features some of the most painful, disconcerting and mentally taxing symptoms of all. As a result, an improper opiate detox will almost always result in an incomplete detoxing process as the dependent individual returns to drug use in order to stop the seemingly unbearable symptoms. In cases of extreme dependence, physicians will usually prescribe a medication such as methadone or buprenorphine in order to make the process a manageable one. One should never attempt to detox on one’s own by using these drugs, as those results can be fatal. In fact, methadone is perhaps the only opiate known to have cases of fatal withdrawals when abused in very high doses.
Successful Recovery Through Proper Detox and Assisted Withdrawal
Detoxing from a serious drug or alcohol dependency is not easy – but it is possible and within your reach. At Clean & Sober Recovery Services, our staff of medical professionals and detox experts are highly trained in the techniques and processes which ensure the safety of a detoxing individual and greatly increase their chances of success as they begin their road to recovery.
We are able to assess what stage of withdrawal you may be in and immediately get to work making you as comfortable as possible, treating each and every symptom so it does not become unbearable and threaten the completion of your detoxification. This includes cases where an individual has begun self-detoxing and found themselves in distress. We also are trained in Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) and can work with your prescribing physician in order to ensure proper administration of life-saving medication alongside the required counseling.
If you or a loved one is planning to cease use of alcohol or drugs, please contact us today to find out more about our safe and effective detox in our treatment center
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