Early recovery is one of the most difficult phases of treatment. The initial experience of withdrawal is often accompanied by uncomfortable side effects, cravings, and temptations that make it easy to start drinking again. Particularly with alcohol abuse, the withdrawal symptoms can be uncomfortable, and in some cases, dangerous depending on a person’s history. In most situations, initial detox will utilize medications to ease the withdrawal process and provide more comfort through this challenging phase. After detox, the benefits of Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) can help reduce the risk of relapse and aid in long-term recovery.
MAT is one part of a holistic approach to alcohol abuse treatment. Coupled with counseling, behavioral therapies, and support, medications can help a person through the detox phase of recovery. It is important for those being treated for alcohol abuse to undergo detox in a medically supervised environment to reduce the risk of adverse effects. Use of alcohol while taking these medications can produce negative side effects, making it important to completely abstain from drinking.
Alcoholism is a chronic disease that affects those who are unable to control their drinking behaviors. Because alcohol is a depressant and easy to obtain, it is commonly used as a method of coping with stress and anxiety. Alcoholism is often accompanied by a co-occurring mental health disorder. Many become preoccupied with drinking despite experiencing negative consequences to physical and mental health, relationships, and financial situations.
When alcohol consumption can no longer be controlled and a person relies on it to feel “normal”, casual consumption can develop into unregulated use that evolves into addiction. Alcohol abuse can have numerous negative consequences such as:
- The development of physical problems
- Strained relationships
- Financial hardship
- Mental health problems
- Difficulty performing at work or in school
- Legal trouble
When use of alcohol stops abruptly, a person can start experiencing withdrawal symptoms in as little as 8 hours. Symptoms tend to worsen over time, particularly within the first 24 to 72 hours. The withdrawal process may take weeks, and in some cases, become excruciating. Many begin drinking again just to stop the experience of these side effects. Side effects can range in severity, but they may include:
- Mood swings
- Loss of appetite
- Increased heart rate
Some symptoms, such as sleep changes and rapid mood swings, may last for months after initial withdrawal. If alcohol use does not stop, many begin to develop life-threatening health consequences including damage to the liver, heart, and nervous system. This makes professional help imperative to successful treatment of alcohol addiction.
Benefits of Medication-Assisted Treatment in Alcohol Detox
In order to improve the successfulness of treatment for alcoholism, a medically supervised detox experience is recommended. With the assistance of medical professionals, those with alcohol addiction can safely withdraw from the side effects and remove the effects of this mind and mood-altering substance. Many who enter treatment for alcohol addiction are malnourished, dehydrated, and struggling with a myriad of other symptoms. The presence of these problems can worsen the withdrawal process and make it life-threatening.
Under medical supervision, patients are evaluated and provided with vitamins, fluids, and nutrition to ease the withdrawal experience. Medications are often administered to help prevent seizures and cravings while simultaneously treating co-occurring disorders. The length of detox ranges from person to person but generally lasts 7 to 10 days. This phase is largely dependent on the length of time a person has abused alcohol, the damage alcohol has inflicted on the person, and other factors. These individual differences can affect a person’s experience with withdrawal symptoms causing some to only experience mild side effects and others to potentially face serious consequences.
While none of these medications are considered cures for alcoholism, they do improve the withdrawal experience and tend to be the most effective:
Disulfiram is commonly used to treat chronic alcoholism because it creates unpleasant reactions when a person consumes alcohol. It is most often used in situations where a person has completed detox, but is still in the early stages of recovery. In some cases, disulfiram can produce adverse effects following alcohol consumption up to two weeks after use. Drinking while taking this medication produces numerous side effects that can make a person sick including:
- Chest pain
- Rapid heart rate
- Pain in the head or neck
- Nausea or vomiting
Acamprosate is most often used to help those who have stopped drinking and need assistance avoiding alcohol use in the future. This medication reduces a person’s desire to drink and is typically used within days of a person’s last drink. When taken three times a day and coupled with behavioral therapies, treatment may last anywhere between three to twelve months. Mixing Acamprosate with alcohol or misusing prescription medication while on it can produce numerous adverse effects including diarrhea, nausea, and anxiety.
Naltrexone is an opioid antagonist that is often used in treatment of heroin addiction as well. It works by reducing the euphoric effects of alcohol which can minimize a person’s motivation to use it. It may be administered in tablet or liquid form and is most effective when used in conjunction with other therapies. Naltrexone has become increasingly popular in treatment settings because it does not cause physical or mental dependencies to develop.
Medications Alone Are Not Enough
While medication-assisted treatment is an effective tool in alcohol abuse treatment, it is not a standalone solution. Medications are effective in helping reduce cravings and minimizing the effects of withdrawal symptoms, but they do not provide the same benefits of behavioral therapies. Recovery requires more than abstaining from substance abuse; it requires a person to change the way they operate in order to prioritize their sobriety.
Recovery from alcohol addiction does not stop once treatment is over. It requires lifelong management and care in order to maintain sobriety. Medications like naltrexone and disulfiram may be used as long as a person needs it, but empowering individuals to regain control of their lives and develop healthy coping mechanisms is the centerpiece of effective treatment.
If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol or drug abuse or addiction, we can help. Give us a call at 888-855-6877 or send us a message.