How does Drug Detox Work?

Dr. Ximena Sanchez-Samper

Ximena Sanchez-Samper, MD is a Board- Certified Addiction Psychiatrist who obtained her degree as a psychiatrist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN and completed her Addictions Fellowship through the combined Massachusetts General Hospital, McLean Hospital / Brigham and Women’s Hospital Addictions Fellowship program in 2004.

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What Is Drug Detox?

When someone is addicted to drugs, detox or detoxification is an important first step on the road to recovery. A person who is addicted to a drug is both physically and mentally unwell. Detox focuses on the physical side of the addiction. Once a person has cleared that hurdle, they can then tackle the mental challenges of overcoming the addiction.

Drug detox is a concept that often encompasses therapeutic intervention, counseling, medically supervised withdrawal, and educational programs. The term drug in this context is a rather broad one. A person may be addicted to alcohol, which is available in bars and at retail shops in their neighborhood. You can also become addicted to prescribed pills. A doctor may prescribe benzodiazepine for anxiety, for instance, but continued use may lead to dependence. Detox is also appropriate for habitual use of illicit drugs, such as heroin and cocaine.

Understanding Drug Addiction

According to the 2022 National Survey on Drug Use and Health 48.7 million Americans had battled a substance use disorder (SUD) in the previous year. Over the past decade, this is a number that has continued to trend up. The opioid epidemic, in particular, has received a great deal of media attention. This is understandable, as not only addiction rates but also deaths linked to opioid overdoses continue to rise. But heightened addiction in the United States is linked to a wide range of drugs:

  • Alcohol
  • Barbiturates
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Cocaine
  • Heroin
  • Inhalants
  • Marijuana
  • Stimulants

There are many unproductive stereotypes about those with drug or alcohol addiction. The opioid crisis has shown that drug addiction is not limited to a particular group of people. There is the potential for almost anyone to become addicted. That addiction can manifest in a number of ways. Many people continue to lead functional lives, but there are often behavioral signs. Addiction can also manifest in psychological and lifestyle changes as well as physical changes such as weight loss.

The Effects of Drug Addiction on Physical and Mental Health

There are both mental and physical components to addiction. Drugs can create a physical dependence that can make you feel ill if you don’t take the substance. Continued usage grows your tolerance, thereby increasing the amount you must consume to achieve the same effect. You can become mentally dependent on it as well. Addiction can also lead to consequences that negatively affect your familial, social, and work responsibilities.

Common physical health consequences include:

  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Loss of coordination
  • Muscle tension and pain

Common mental health consequences include:

  • Paranoia
  • Depression
  • Memory loss
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Social anxiety disorder

The Stages of Drug Detoxification

The core goal of detoxification is to minimize the negative effects of withdrawal. The abrupt cessation of addictive drug use — often called cold turkey — is not only unpleasant but usually not recommended. It can be dangerous to your health, and even in cases where it is not, failure rates are high. Detox involves a series of steps that raise the likelihood of success. It is important to stress that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Personalization is also a key component.


Our approach to detox begins with professional assessments. Medical professionals will perform physical assessments. They will analyze the addiction within the context of your current physical condition. Are there health concerns that we must consider? There will also be psychological assessments performed by mental health professionals. Those professionals will assess not only the severity of the addiction but also any potential mental health issues. From there, your detox team will develop a treatment plan that is uniquely suited to you and your circumstances.


After we have completed the evaluation, we must prepare you for the detox steps ahead. This phase is sometimes referred to as stabilization. We want the client to become relaxed, comfortable, and accustomed to their detox process. There should be no surprises ahead. Your team will outline the detox plan with you and educate you about the withdrawal symptoms to be expected and the coping mechanisms that will be available to you. You will also gain a full understanding of the medications we will use and what to expect from your ongoing medical supervision.

Medically Supervised Detox

Early abstinence is a significant step on your road to recovery and one that you will likely reflect on through the lens of success. This is the phase in which the client ceases all consumption of the addictive substance. It can often be a difficult period, as withdrawal symptoms are abundant and at their peak. However, we will provide you with medications as needed to make withdrawal easier. There will be constant monitoring in case medical intervention is required. We will also have support available to you to help you navigate the mental challenges of this period.

Counseling and Behavioral Therapies

Counseling will have already begun but will continue throughout the inpatient treatment and into the outpatient treatment. This can include individual counseling, group counseling, and self-help groups. Self-help groups will be available to you in person and online so that you will have that connection whenever you need it. Cognitive behavioral therapy is useful as well. Addiction may have changed your behaviors, your habits, and the way you think. Therapy can help to undo these effects. You may also benefit from family therapy and motivational interviewing.

Aftercare Planning

Before transitioning from the inpatient part of your detox to the outpatient continuation, we must plan your aftercare. This begins with education. Our team will educate you on what to expect. We will provide you with tools to avoid relapse and give you all the information necessary so that you can get help immediately when you need it. You will learn more about how addiction works, how it affects the body and mind, and how to identify and avoid triggers. Following this path will take time. It generally requires five years of abstinence before a client can reach the final, advanced stage of recovery.

Outpatient Detox

Through outpatient detox, you will be able to return to your normal life. The care we provide does not end here, however. Our mission is to give you all the resources you need to remain recovered. Some clients will need to continue treatments for a time. Others will be able to transition directly into recovery support. The support you need will evolve over time as well. Initially, you may feel as if you need frequent follow-up care. Later, your sponsor and support group may provide all that you need, and you can just check in with us periodically.

Withdrawal Symptoms

Withdrawal symptoms can vary greatly between addictive substances. They can also manifest differently from one person to the next for a wide range of reasons. Our team can help clients manage withdrawal symptoms. Some of the most common include loss of appetite, insomnia, muscle aches and pains, headaches, and nausea. In severe cases, a client can suffer seizures or psychosis, which is why medical professionals are always on hand. Some symptoms are life-threatening, but most are not. Our clients should know that whatever their individual symptoms, our staff has the expertise and resources to help them navigate them safely.

Preventing Relapse

One of the most critical phases in recovering — and one that a recovering addict will likely exist in for a long time to come — is avoiding and preventing relapse. During your detox, our team will provide you with the tools and other resources needed to do that. It begins with understanding and following your treatment plan, which can include follow-up medical care, therapy, counseling, support, and drug testing.

You must also learn new coping skills. How do you react when you experience an urge, a craving, or a negative thought? Knowing how to recognize and deal with unhealthy thoughts and patterns is one of the cornerstones of staying sober. You must also avoid triggers. These can include stress, emotions, and even certain family members and friends. Counseling sessions and therapy are often invaluable to determining what these triggers are and how to deal with them.

It is also important that you fill in the gaps in your life left by the addiction, and we help in this regard as well. There are two core ways to do this. The first is rebuilding supportive relationships and building new supportive relationships. These serve as the pillars of your sobriety. You must also avoid boredom and anxiety, which you can achieve through healthy activities. The right activities will differ for everyone; they can include community volunteering, helping other people like you who are not as far along on their journey, jogging, swimming, working out, engaging in hobbies, and so forth.

How Long Does Detox Take?

The timeline for detoxification depends on a number of factors. Each person is different, and the time you need may be more or less than the average person. Another factor is the drug or drugs at the root of the addiction. The typical alcohol detox only takes a few days. Opioid addiction detox, on the other hand, can last more than two weeks.

Other factors that can extend the time frame include:

  • Addiction to multiple substances
  • How often the user took the substance
  • How much of the substance was consumed during each usage
  • The presence of underlying medical conditions

Why Choose Our Drug Detox Center in Massachusetts?

Charles River Recovery designs drug detox programs to assist our clients through every phase of the detoxification process. We employ evidence-based methods and personalize treatments to the addiction and the unique needs of each client. Our approach extends from inpatient detoxification to outpatient treatment, aftercare, and continued support.

We can help you or a loved one detoxify effectively and safely. The Charles River Recovery staff is committed not only to helping you detox and break free of addiction but also to doing so in a way that help you avoid a relapse. Our therapists, who provide trusted therapeutic services, are essential to this process.

If you or someone you love is suffering from drug addiction, please seek help as soon as possible. Call us to get the assistance you need. We also welcome your call and will be happy to answer any questions that you may have and provide you with additional details about our detox programs.