Health Risks of Rapid Detox: Relapse and Death
Is Rapid Detox Safe?
Rapid drug detoxification, also known as anesthesia-assisted opiate detox, combines sedation and medication to quickly remove opioids and other toxins from the body.1 It may sound appealing, but it could be potentially dangerous. A number of case reports found adverse effects following rapid detoxification in some individuals, including:1,2
- Heart attack.
- Suicidal ideation.
- Aggravation of co-occurring mental health disorders.
- Aspiration pneumonia, caused when saliva or vomit is breathed into the lungs or airways.
- Drug addiction relapse.
- Pulmonary edema, a condition caused by excess fluid in the lungs.
- An enlarged heart, also known as cardiomegaly.
- Electrolyte abnormalities, which can lead to diarrhea, weakness, and blurred vision.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, about 9.5 million Americans aged 12 or older misused opioids (heroin or prescription pain relievers) in 2020, and 2.7 million people aged 12 and older had an opioid use disorder, the medical condition defined by a compulsive use of opioids despite the negative consequences.3 While there’s no data suggesting a correlation between rapid detoxification and abstinence, efforts persist to make the process of detoxification from opioids faster and more comfortable for the individuals going through it.4
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How Rapid Detox Works
While traditional opiate detox options require lengthier treatment protocols, rapid detox aims for a quicker transition from dependence to abstinence with the hope of increasing the rate of the completion of withdrawal.5
Developed during the 1980s, rapid detox was meant to ease the discomfort of withdrawal and by doing so, hopefully encourage individuals to enter substance use treatment.2 The process entails sedating patients with general anesthesia while an opiate blocker—such as naltrexone—is administered to force the body to begin detoxing.6 After the procedure is complete, withdrawal symptoms may be treated with medications.6
However, in addition to the health risks involved, rapid detox is not a complete treatment package. Detox, in whatever form it is achieved, can be a helpful first step, but it is typically not enough to support an individual’s long-term recovery from drug addiction on its own. To maintain recovery over time, you’ll need to address the underlying thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that led to substance use. An evidence-based rehab program can help you learn these skills.7
Is Rapid Detox Effective?
Research indicates that it’s unclear whether rapid detox is more effective than conventional withdrawal treatment for opioid use disorder.8 One study compared the results of individuals treated with rapid detox versus individuals who received traditional treatment with buprenorphine and those who were treated with clonidine and non-opioid medications.1 Those treated with rapid detox showed no better resistance against relapse, had a higher rate of adverse events, and reported a greater occurrence of discomfort following detox. In the rapid detox group, 20% stayed in treatment while 24% of those in the buprenorphine group did.1
However, efficacy isn’t the only issue surrounding rapid detox. There have been no peer-reviewed studies that support the safety of rapid detox treatment methods. In fact, one review published a warning against the use of rapid detox methods based on the results of six different studies that showed a high risk of adverse events and a strong potential for life-threatening side effects.5
Besides the efficacy and safety issues, rapid detox doesn’t treat co-occurring mental health conditions. Studies have shown that rapid detox may actually make the symptoms associated with mental health problems worse.1,2 Therefore, individuals affected by mental illness don’t get the necessary tandem treatment that comes with traditional forms of medically supervised detox.
Individuals addicted to opioids benefit from medically managed detoxification, where the body can rid itself of the opioids and experience withdrawal symptoms under the supervision of healthcare professionals who can prescribe medications to keep the individual safe and as comfortable as possible.7
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Treating the Whole Person
Medical detox treats more than the physical aspects of withdrawal. Participation in support groups, therapy, and skills groups begin at the start of treatment. Likewise, a full course of treatment often includes efforts to rehabilitate spiritual and emotional wounds that may have contributed to the development of an addiction.
Most clients who relapse after detox do so within the first year of abstinence.9 One study reported a relapse rate of 91% for individuals with an opioid addiction.9 This is why detox is often just the first step. Detox followed by a comprehensive rehabilitation treatment program can help an individual maintain long-term recovery. Many rehab and detox programs may be covered by insurance. Find out if your insurance provider is in-network below.