There are significant challenges to overcome when recovering from an alcohol or drug addiction, and the process of rehabilitation is often life-long. Many residential treatment facilities offer programs designed for both kinds of addiction, and there are also many non-residential treatment options for both alcohol and drug addicts. While the processes of recovery from these two addictions have more similarities than differences, there are a few elements and considerations specific to each.
A wide range of treatment options is available to those addicted to drugs or to alcohol. There are no general components of inpatient or outpatient rehabilitation programs that are exclusive to either. However, certain kinds of treatment programs are more favored by alcoholics than drug addicts, and vice versa.
Alcoholics Anonymous was the first 12-step addiction recovery program and the model on which an eventual proliferation of 12-step programs were based. AA remains by far the largest community of recovering addicts in the world, and the first choice of many alcohol addicts who decide to seek treatment. While the scientific data on the efficacy of AA is still somewhat debated, the anecdotal evidence from recovering alcoholics who credit AA with their sobriety is significant.
While 12-step programs for various kinds of drug addictions are also well attended, it is less common for drug addicts to rely on such a program as their initial and primary means of recovery. Many factors such as the detrimental health effects of the drugs themselves, and the illegal nature of most addictions that can result in serious legal consequences in the event of a relapse, mean that drug addicts are more likely to seek more structured and supervised treatment.
Detoxifying from a Drug Addiction
The process of detoxification is an important element of recovering from any substance addiction. This process can be uncomfortable and sometimes complex as patients experience withdrawal symptoms and often require treatment or supervision to help them through the experience. While the experience of detoxing from alcohol and the process of detoxing from drugs are generally similar, there are a few key differences.
One significant difference between drug detox and alcohol detox is the fact that medications such as methadone are available to “substitute” for the addictive substance while a patient is recovering from a chemical dependency. Methadone is a synthetic drug that mimics the physical effects of drugs like heroin or Vicodin without producing a high or euphoria. This allows the body to overcome a physical dependency without suffering the worst of the physical side effects of withdrawal. On a recovery medication, the brain is able to resume normal functioning so that cravings and withdrawal symptoms will not emerge when the patient is weaned off both the abused drug and the recovery drug.
As with alcohol detoxification, longer-term use of drugs and higher dosages can lead to more severe withdrawal symptoms. Regardless of their plans for long-term treatment, individuals who have been abusing substances for a significant period of time are advised to seek supervised detoxification so that they can avoid or treat serious complications.
Detoxifying from an Alcohol Addiction
Many of the symptoms of alcohol detoxification and drug detoxification are similar. However, delirium tremens, or DTs, is one classic symptom of alcohol withdrawal that is not usually present with drug withdrawal. While not found in all cases of alcohol detox, DTs are a kind of hallucination present in individuals suffering from severe alcohol withdrawal. Delirium tremens can also involve convulsions, general confusion and may be serious enough to result in death.
The symptoms of withdrawal that are common to both drugs and alcohol include depression, irritability, cramps and pain, sweating and chills. Overall, approximately 5 percent of alcoholics experience severe withdrawal symptoms that require medical supervision or treatment. Severe symptoms are more likely to appear in individuals who have been heavy drinkers for many years.
There are three medications available to help individuals recover from alcohol dependency, but they do not work in the same way as drug “substitutes” like methadone. A drug called naltrexone blocks receptors in the brain pathways that cause alcohol cravings. Acamprosate can ameliorate some of the symptoms of severe withdrawal. Disulfiram—perhaps the most extreme treatment of the option—causes patients to experience nausea, palpitations and other unpleasant effects if they drink alcohol, resulting in a kind of aversion therapy.