Family members and friends can provide crucial support to an alcoholic who wants to recover. Through their love and support, they can help motivate the person to make needed changes and see the benefits implicit in a sober lifestyle. But there are some things that family members will simply be unable to do. For some alcoholics, the most important help will come at the hands of a medical professional. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can cause some alcoholics to lose their lives. By getting help from a medical professional, alcoholics can ensure that they emerge from detoxification feeling both healthy and hopeful, ready to accept the help of their family and continue down the path to recovery.
People who drink alcohol are exposing their brain to a potent chemical. As alcohol crosses from the bloodstream to the brain, it acts upon the delicate systems in the brain, adjusting how the brain both creates and responds to chemicals known as neurotransmitters. Alcohol has a numbing effect, causing the brain to produce fewer of these chemicals and respond weakly to the few neurotransmitters it does have access to. The brain is numb.
According to an article published in the journal American Family Physician, people who drink large amounts of alcohol over a long period of time may grow accustomed to having a slow-to-respond brain. But, those changes are far from permanent. The brain’s ability to produce and respond to neurotransmitters isn’t damaged in any long-term fashion. Instead, the brain is simply numbed and asleep. If the person stops using alcohol altogether, the brain is immediately ready to return to a normal level of functioning.
While the brain’s ability to return to normal might seem like a beneficial, or even an ideal, state of affairs, the truth is that an excited brain that is no longer used to being excited can be a dangerous brain that can cause a variety of symptoms for the person in recovery.
Heavy drinkers may feel mild symptoms of alcohol withdrawal while they still have alcohol present in their bloodstream but, according to an article published on Medline, most people feel alcohol withdrawal symptoms five to 10 hours after they’ve consumed their last drink. These symptoms can include:
- Clammy hands
For some people, these symptoms grow somewhat stronger 48 to 72 hours after the last drink, but they tend to disappear within three weeks. For other people, however, the symptoms grow much more severe, and they may even become life threatening.
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People who drink heavily on a regular basis are at risk for more serious side effects as they attempt to stop drinking. The American Academy of Family Physicians defines a heavy drinker as a man who has more than five drinks each day or 35 drinks each week, or a woman who has more than three drinks each day or 21 drinks in a week. People in this group may experience a medical phenomenon known as delirium tremens.
People who have delirium tremens may experience shaking in their hands, and they may begin to experience severe mental changes. They may hallucinate and become extremely agitated. They may be sensitive to loud sounds or bright lights. Some people may pace and yell and scream, while others may fall into a deep sleep that lasts for a day or more. All of these symptoms may seem frightening enough, but people with delirium tremens may also experience major seizures once or on a repeated basis.
As mentioned, people who drink heavily are at risk for developing these serious withdrawal symptoms, but people who have tried to quit drinking in the past may be at higher risk of delirium tremens, especially if they experienced seizures during their previous attempts to stop abusing alcohol, according to an article published in the journal Postgraduate Medicine. Researchers aren’t quite sure why this occurs, but some studies suggest that the neurons in the brain undergo sensitivity changes during each attempt at alcohol detoxification. These changed neurons work as “kindling” that can light a fire of a seizure the next time the person tries to withdraw from alcohol, according to the article published in the American Family Physician journal.
Delirium tremens is considered a medical emergency, and doctors use a variety of techniques to stop the symptoms from occurring and keep the person comfortable until the brain regains its equilibrium and allows the person to function normally once more. According to an article published in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine, some doctors use heavy doses of medication to keep the alcoholic in a deep sleep so he or she feels no symptoms at all until the seizures and other unpleasant side effects have abated. This might be the best way to keep a person in recovery from dying due to withdrawal symptoms, especially if those symptoms are severe.
That’s not to say, however, that doctors only step in and provide treatments when people are in active seizure. In fact, most doctors provide medications to many, if not most, people who are going through alcohol withdrawal. By providing medications to all patients, doctors can ensure that mild symptoms don’t escalate into major symptoms that could cost that person his/her life. Medications might also serve another role. Alcoholics who are in detoxification programs have made an important first step on the road to recovery, and their decision must be supported and nourished. If someone agrees to stop drinking and then is expected to endure three weeks of pain and restlessness, it would be all too easy for that person to simply stop the process altogether. Drinking might seem like a viable way to make the pain stop. By providing medications, doctors can help to keep the patient comfortable and motivated to complete a comprehensive treatment program.
The medications provided can include:
- Anticonvulsants to reduce the risk of seizure
- Benzodiazepines to reduce hallucinations
- Clonidine to slow down the heart
- Beta blockers to relax the patient and slow down the heart
Some patients receive only one type of medication, while other patients may need many medications given at different stages during their recovery process.
In the past, patients were placed on one medication regimen and they were provided with the same dosages per that schedule, no matter what their symptoms might be. Now, according to an article published in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine, some doctors give patients medications only after they’ve performed a thorough check for symptoms. By using this symptom-triggered dosing schedule, patients end up taking fewer medications overall and they have no higher risk of serious complications from the alcohol withdrawal process than do people who are provided with medications on a regular dosing schedule.
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Where to Get Care
While a doctor should always be involved in creating an alcohol withdrawal program, that doesn’t mean that all patients must be enrolled in a hospital in order to get the care they need in order to move through alcohol withdrawal safely. In fact, there are many options available for people to use while they go through the withdrawal process under a doctor’s care.
Some inpatient facilities for addiction hire doctors and nurses, and they provide inpatient services for alcohol withdrawal. According to an article published in the journal Prescrire International, some people who are going through alcohol withdrawal need continuous monitoring by a team of medical professionals. The symptoms of withdrawal can accelerate quickly, and by surrounding themselves with medical staff that is always available, alcoholics are assured that someone will be available if and when their symptoms grow worse.
But, not all patients will need this sort of intensive monitoring. For example, some people haven’t been considered “heavy drinkers,” even though they would still like to cut back on their alcohol intake. And others may be at a low risk for seizures or other serious health consequences due to their medical history and lack of previous alcohol detoxification efforts. These patients may be able to go through detoxification at home, under the supervision of their doctors. They may go to the doctor frequently, to have screening tests for problems, but they may take needed medications at home. According to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, people can use this symptom-triggered method on an outpatient basis with a remarkable degree of success. Most of the patients in this study completed their detoxification program without any side effects.
People who complete an alcohol detoxification program and emerge unscathed on the other side of alcohol withdrawal syndrome are not free of alcoholism. They have taken an important first step, it’s true, but there is much more work that must be done before the person can be considered truly free from the dangers of alcoholism. Patients who are going through alcohol withdrawal face the very real risk of sliding back into addiction, particularly if they find it easy to access alcohol in their homes. For these people, entering a formal treatment program may be ideal, as they’ll be removed from all temptation to drink, and they’ll have access to counselors who can help them learn more about how alcohol rehabilitation programs work and can be beneficial. For some alcoholics, this support and education can be truly invaluable.
At Alta Mira, we provide both inpatient and outpatient programs that can help people recover from alcoholism. We provide customized treatment planning that takes into account the person’s medical history, previous attempts at rehab and current health status. We pride ourselves on providing the highest level of care that can truly help people heal. Please call us today to find out more.