Medical Detox

For people who have a dependency on painkillers, detox is necessary to begin the recovery process. Medical detox, or detox under a doctor's supervision, is the most effective type of detox, and there are medications available to help patients get through painkiller withdrawal and detox.

Detox, or detoxification, is the first step in treating painkiller addiction or dependency. In detox, the patient goes through the process of getting the drug out of their body. This occurs when the person stops taking the drug and lets their body go through withdrawal. Some people go through detox without medical supervision, but if there are any medical concerns or dangers involved in a person going through detox, or any medications that can help the person, then they usually use medical detox.

There are different types of medical detox available. Medical detox may be inpatient, where the person stays in a hospital or facility, or outpatient, where they have regular appointments to meet a doctor at their office. Inpatient detox is usually more effective, but a doctor can help a person decide which type of treatment is best for them.

One of the advantages of medical detox is getting help for the symptoms of withdrawal. Withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • Insomnia
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Stomach cramps
  • Anxiety
  • A severe craving for painkillers

The craving for painkillers and other unpleasant symptoms of painkiller withdrawal may cause some people to overdose or to seek out other drugs, which is one of the reasons that medical supervision is advantageous during detox. Painkiller overdose due to withdrawal cravings can be fatal.

When a person is going through medical detox for painkillers, there are several medications available that can help the process:

  • Naltrexone helps prevent people from using opioid painkillers because it blocks the effects of the painkiller. Patients may still crave painkillers, but they won't enjoy them if they take them. It is also used to treat painkiller overdoses. It can have side effects of restlessness and anxiety.
  • Methadone helps reduce the symptoms of withdrawal, including cravings for drugs. It acts on the brain to block the effects of painkillers without creating the same pleasant feelings as painkillers, and can be used with some pain medications. It may cause drowsiness, rash, sweating, constipation, water retention, and changes in sex drive.
  • Buprenorphine helps ease withdrawal symptoms and blocks the effects of opioid drugs. This drug is newer than methadone, but seems to have fewer negative side effects. Physicians may prescribe it in their office if they think it is an appropriate treatment.

Sometimes people go through medical detox under anesthesia, but a study published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that this does not significantly help patients get through withdrawal, and has an increased risk of negative side effects.

After medical detox, people with painkiller dependency need to continue to have support and to be involved in treatment for their painkiller abuse. This has proved to be a problem with many patients, who often don't engage in long-term recovery or treatment programs, which increases their risk for relapse. Patients can talk to their doctors about what kinds of treatment programs are available to them.


WebMD, News Archive, "Getting Past Painkiller Abuse" [online]
SAMHSA's Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, "Medical Assisted Treatment Medical Community Bulletin" [online]
Lori Whitten, National Institute on Drug Abuse, "Study Finds Withdrawal No Easier With Ultrarapid Opiate Detox" [online]
National Institute on Drug Abuse, "Frequently Asked Questions" [online]
Louisiana Office for Addictive Disorders, "Detox: Medical Detoxification Treatment" [online]
National Institute on Drug Abuse, Research Report Series, "Treating Prescription Drug Addiction" [online]

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