Medical Detox Vs. Social Detox: What’s The Difference?

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Medical detox and social detox take two different approaches to managing withdrawal: one involves the use of medications and one does not. Knowing more about the difference between these two approaches can help make the detox process less intimidating.

Medical Detox Vs. Social Detox: What's The Difference?

People who are just beginning their recovery journey may be experiencing withdrawal symptoms and would benefit from detox services before they are able to fully participate in addiction treatment.

Many times a medical and psychosocial assessment by a treatment provider will help determine which level of detoxification care a person should receive: medical detox or social detox.

Knowing the difference between the two will help you understand what you or a loved one will face when beginning the recovery process.

Medical Detox Vs. Social Detox: What’s The Difference?

Drug and alcohol detoxification is the process by which the body rids itself of the substance that is causing intoxication or withdrawal symptoms. However, detox is also used to describe services provided to help people experiencing withdrawal.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines detoxification as “a set of interventions aimed at managing acute intoxication and withdrawal.”

There are two different approaches to detoxification programs: social detox and medical detox. In general, the difference that characterizes each approach revolves around the use of medication.

Medical detox uses medication to help clients get through withdrawal while social detox does not. Areas of monitoring, staffing, and sometimes the addiction treatment to come follow that main distinction.

What Is Medical Detox?

Medical detox uses medication and medical monitoring to help clients through the difficult period of withdrawal.

Drug and alcohol detox of this kind often addresses specific symptoms or even the overall changes that substance use causes in the brain.

Levels Of Care At Which Medical Detox Occurs

The medical detoxification process is often done at the inpatient level for people experiencing severe or even life-threatening withdrawal symptoms or health complications.

However, this detox approach can also occur at the outpatient treatment level of care for people who want medical intervention but aren’t facing life-threatening side effects.

This level of care includes partial hospitalization programs (PHP) and intensive outpatient programs (IOP).

When Medical Detox Should Be Considered

If you enter a detox center or emergency room with severe withdrawal symptoms, treatment providers or medical staff will assess your symptoms and determine which detox approach is appropriate for you.

Of the two types of detoxification programs, detox using medication is generally considered when a client is experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms.

It is also considered an option when clients would benefit from 24-hour medical monitoring or if a client has experienced several withdrawals and each has been worse than the one before.

Addictions That Typically Require Medical Detox

Medical detox can address withdrawal from many substances symptomatically, but it is particularly suited for specific substance use disorders.

Medical detox is especially beneficial for people experiencing:

This is because medications can be used to address changes in the brain related to these addictions, helping manage withdrawal symptoms and reduce cravings.

Other forms of medical drug detox address the symptoms of withdrawal themselves from substances like stimulant drugs.

These types of detox include:

  • cocaine detox
  • methamphetamine detox
  • hallucinogenic drug detox
  • MDMA detox

Withdrawal from these substances is generally considered less severe than from alcohol, opioids, or benzodiazepines.

Medications Used In Medical Detox

There are a wide range of medications available in a medical detox program. What medications a healthcare provider will use depends on what substances the client is withdrawing from.

For example, with opioid withdrawal, detoxification may involve the use of opioid-specific medications that engage or block opioid receptors, reducing withdrawal symptoms.

Medications for opioid withdrawal include:

  • methadone
  • buprenorphine
  • naltrexone
  • Suboxone (buprenorphine and naloxone)

Medications used for alcohol withdrawal include:

  • benzodiazepines (such as chlordiazepoxide and diazepam)
  • anticonvulsants (such as gabapentin)
  • antipsychotics
  • naltrexone (as a relapse prevention measure)

What Is Social Detox?

Social detox is an approach to alcohol and drug detoxification that does not involve the use of addiction medicine to control withdrawal symptoms.

Instead, this form of detox utilizes a social model approach that provides supportive measures for a person who is experiencing withdrawal symptoms.

Levels Of Care For Social Detox

Social detox services can be found in a variety of treatment programs. However, it is only considered effective at levels where there is enough social engagement to provide the support that a client needs.

Levels of care where social detox is effective include:

When Social Detox Should Be Considered

Social detox can be considered when withdrawal symptoms are not severe or life-threatening. This may mean that symptoms are still very uncomfortable.

But it does not mean that you can’t go to a hospital setting or a treatment facility that offers medical detox if your symptoms get worse.

Types Of Addictions Suitable For Social Detox

People who need substance abuse treatment for stimulant drugs, psychedelics, and party drugs like MDMA may benefit the most from social detox.

Withdrawal from these kinds of substances tends not to be as severe as withdrawal from alcohol or drugs like opioids, including that it is not life-threatening.

Interventions Used In Social Detox

Social detox uses a number of non-medical supportive measures to help clients through their withdrawal symptoms.

These supportive measures include:

  • peer support
  • social support
  • observation (for worsening symptoms)
  • supportive care such as nutritional approaches and hydration
  • clinical or therapeutic approaches to help clients deal with agitation or anxiety

Some social detox programs also allow the use of self-administered vitamins or supplements such as magnesium.

Which Is Better: Medical Or Social Detox?

When determining which detox process is going to suit you or your loved one the best, it is best to rely on medical advice.

It’s worth noting that some experts say that there are very few detox programs that are purely medical or purely social.

Many medical detox centers incorporate social interventions, while many social detoxification programs are ready to refer clients to medical treatment when necessary.

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