In the movies, giving up drinking is presented as an emotional decision, rather than a physical one. As soon as the alcoholic has wrestled with their demons, they stop drinking and that is pretty much that.
The Alcohol Doctor
However, according to Dr Bruce Trathen, Addiction Psychiatrist at London detox clinic, Serena House, it’s not quite as simple as throwing away that glass of Scotch. “Many people are surprised to discover that unsupervised alcohol detox is even more potentially dangerous than heroin withdrawal,” says Dr Trathen, whose vast experience in addiction has earned him the sobriquet ‘The Alcohol Doctor. He adds “In some cases, alcohol withdrawal can lead to seizures, brain damage and even death.”
The reason alcohol withdrawal is so dangerous is the body believes it is in a state of emergency as the alcohol leaves the body. It’s a bit like being in a state of shock. Your heart will hammer, you may sweat, your stomach may become upset, and you may suffer nausea and vomiting. Most people – even those that don’t have a serious drinking problem – will recognise these are the symptoms of a bad hangover. Unpleasant, but not dangerous – surely?
Death is a risk
Dr Trathen says that these symptoms do not tell the whole story in cases where the individual has been drinking heavily for a long period of time: “When the person is heavily alcohol dependent, the overactive brain state may be so severe that epileptic fits occur (discharged electricity in the brain).” He adds: “Fits can sometimes lead directly to death, and in other cases cause fatal injuries”
Other symptoms caused by alcohol withdrawal include:
- Paranoid thoughts
- Delirium Tremens (death occurs in 10% of cases which are untreated)
- Wernicke- Korsakoff syndrome (permanent memory loss)
The safe way to detox
Psychologically, the ‘safe’ way to detox – cutting down on alcohol consumption slowly – is extremely tough. “The problem is that you are highly unlikely to manage to do this, if you've already become physically addicted to alcohol,” comments Dr Trathen. “That's the Catch 22. It is in the very nature of addiction, that you will be probably not be able to cease drinking in this manner, if you have already become physically addicted to alcohol.
The answer? A medical detox. “There are fundamental benefits from a week-long detox using appropriate medication while being looked after by consultant doctors and nursing staff,” says Dr Trathen.
Benefits of a medical detox include:
When you go to a medical detox clinic, you will be care for by doctors working and a range of therapists and other suitably trained, experienced and qualified staff. If you have any of the health-related problems associated with alcohol detoxification, your problem can be treated swiftly by trained professionals, with access to the best and potentially life-saving treatments and protocols.
It’s hard to overstate the value of having people around you to ensure you have support and care, and who can offer understanding. The staff at good detox clinics are not only highly-trained, they know the complexities of addiction. Support staff and ‘sober companions’ have often gone through similar experiences themselves. Talking to others who have had similar experiences is immensely useful.
The level of aftercare depends on the detox clinic you pick. At Serena House, the aftercare support is a vital mainstay of the treatment. Follow-ups with therapists are available and patients can access expertise long after they have finished their detox treatment.