What Do They Treat?
When individuals develop a dependence on a substance, they will experience withdrawal symptoms if they stop taking it. For many drugs, the withdrawal symptoms are fairly manageable; however, there is always the chance that life-threatening complications could arise, particularly with certain substances of abuse.
In addition, there are a few substances for which withdrawal can be fatal if left untreated. For example, in severe cases, alcohol has the potential to produce fatal withdrawal symptoms. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence reports that delirium tremens is uncommon, but it may occur in 5 percent of individuals who are undergoing alcohol withdrawal. According to a 2010 study originally published in the Oxford University Press, there was a mortality rate of 6.6 percent among subjects who were admitted to hospitals while suffering from alcohol withdrawal syndrome.
In an addiction treatment facility, healthcare professionals like nurses may be able to treat mild withdrawal symptoms with over-the-counter medications, but physicians are necessary when it comes to treating the more serious side effects of detox. The duration and intensity of withdrawal varies among individuals depend on a variety of factors, but some substances can produce withdrawal symptoms that require immediate medical attention, like:
- Heart attack
- Delirium tremens
Physicians also have a responsibility to screen for and treat conditions and illnesses that can arise from continued substance abuse. Possible health conditions that an individual can develop from abusing drugs or alcohol include:
- High blood pressure
- Liver disease
- Brain damage
- Mouth or throat cancer
- Hormonal imbalances
For How Long Are They Needed?
Some individuals in addiction treatment need to see a doctor more frequently and for longer than others, and the extent of their healthcare needs ultimately depends on a variety of factors. In general, most substances produce withdrawal symptoms that subside within one week to 10 days. Some clients may experience physical withdrawal symptoms that persist beyond the two-week period, but they may not need to be monitored as closely by a physician after that time.
Doctors play a larger role in addiction treatment for clients who developed or contracted any of the health conditions listed above than for those who did not. Doctors also play a significant role in the treatment of some opioid addictions. For example, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), a minimum of 12 months is usually necessary for proper methadone maintenance, and some individuals may remain on methadone for years. According to a report published in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology, 60.4 percent of subjects who started methadone or buprenorphine treatment for opioid dependence were still in treatment one year later.
Doctors can also take a proactive approach to addiction treatment by screening their patients for addiction risk factors during regular wellness visits. They can also look for signs of dependence and addiction and direct their patients to resources that may be able to help.
In addition, doctors are needed for the treatment of co-occurring mental health conditions, such as bipolar disorder, depression, or anxiety. In some instances, prescription medications may be needed to manage co-occurring disorders and continual medical supervision is needed as long as a person is taking medications.
What if They Are Not Involved?
The greatest risk of attempting to treat addiction without the help of a physician includes long-term health complications, up to and including death. Though many clients who go through withdrawal do not experience life-threatening complications, they can occur, and there is no way to predict how or when they might.
In a medical detox facility, clients are monitored by doctors and other healthcare professionals 24/7, so family members have the peace of mind of knowing their loved ones are safe. When individuals attempt to detox at home, they are putting a lot of responsibility on their family and friends to watch them closely and intervene when necessary. This is unfair to both the family members and the individual, who deserves quality medical treatment during the withdrawal stage.
Other serious consequences of treating addiction without a doctor might occur years into recovery. For example, if a patient is HIV positive but remains undiagnosed and untreated, the condition could eventually progress to AIDS.