The process of detoxification, or detox, involves the removal of drugs from the system during a period of drug abstinence.
The drugs in the system are eliminated over time primarily via the liver. For individuals who use drugs for relatively lengthy periods of more than 4-6 weeks, there will be some type of withdrawal process because the person’s system has learned to operate efficiently when the drug is present. Once drug levels begin to fall, the system is thrown out of balance, and this condition results in the person experiencing withdrawal effects. The withdrawal effects from opioid drugs can be physically and emotionally quite uncomfortable.
The notion of medical detox, or medically assisted detox, refers to a process by which physicians and other mental health treatment professionals assist the individual as they go through the detox process, which includes negotiating the withdrawal symptoms that eventually will occur for many users of specific types of drugs. The process of medical detox includes:
- The administration of certain medications that are designed to facilitate the detox process and minimize withdrawal symptoms: For withdrawal from opioid drugs like morphine, these are typically opioid replacement drugs, such as methadone or Suboxone, that reduce physical withdrawal symptoms and cravings associated with the withdrawal process.
- A tapering strategy where the physician slowly decreases the dosage of the medication or the original drug to allow the person’s system to get used to having decreased amounts of the drug or medication in the system: This strategy is typically used even with opioid replacement drugs and lengthens the time until the individual becomes “drug-free”; however, it also significantly reduces withdrawal symptoms.
- Other strategies and medications to help the individual cope with distressing symptoms: These may include medications for any nausea or headaches, and stress reduction techniques, such as relaxation and visualization.
Is Medical Detox Necessary for Morphine Withdrawal?
There are a number of research studies that specify that a medical detox program for withdrawal from any opioid medication, such as morphine, has a significantly higher success rate (success is often defined as relapsing during the detox period) compared to not engaging in a medical detox program. However, the studies also indicate that there are individuals who go through withdrawal from morphine and other opioid drugs without using a medical detox program and who are successful in negotiating the withdrawal process, although the number of these individuals is significantly lower than individuals who use a medical detox program. Thus, medical detox is not necessary for one to negotiate the detox and withdrawal process from morphine; however, engaging in a medical detox program is highly advantageous.
Using a medically assisted detox approach to treating addiction to opioids like morphine has superior outcomes to non-medication-based approaches, reduces the mortality rates associated with withdrawal (The withdrawal process from morphine is not considered to be potentially fatal, but individuals in severe distress during withdrawal are more prone to death by accidents or suicide.), improves social functioning, and is associated with decreased drug use.
Some of the other advantages to using a medical detox program include:
- A marked reduction in the severity of withdrawal symptoms
- An increased frame of mind following the detox period that allows the individual to better plan for the rest of their recovery
- Professional medical supervision that can immediately address any unforeseen issues that occur during the withdrawal process
Because of these advantages, there is no reason why anyone who has developed a morphine use disorder (addiction to morphine) or any substance use disorder should attempt to negotiate the withdrawal process without first consulting with a physician. In addition, because it is virtually impossible to actually predict how individuals who are going through their first experience with withdrawal will react, it is highly recommended that these individuals seek a medically assisted detox program.
In some cases, individuals who have successfully negotiated the withdrawal process from morphine several times without medical intervention might be considered to be “safe candidates” to continue to negotiate the withdrawal process without medical supervision; however, anyone who has gone through the withdrawal process from opioid drugs more than once needs professional help since relapse clearly occurs. These individuals obviously need assistance with their recovery, and the place to start is with a medically assisted detox program. Thus, there are no real advantages to attempting to negotiate the withdrawal process alone.