When a person addicted to alcohol finally decides they are ready for help, one of the first questions they ask is ‘how long will I be in treatment?’. The short answer is: It depends. Any person who is drinking regularly and/or to excess should begin with a medical detox under controlled conditions. This is almost always done in an inpatient setting and usually takes between 5 to 7 days. The length of alcohol detox is determined by a number of factors. These include:
- How much the person was drinking and how often.
- How long the person has been drinking.
- How old the person is and their relative physical health.
- Whether or not the person was using any other drugs in combination with alcohol.
A careful medical detox is usually an essential component of treatment for alcohol use disorders. Alcohol is one of only a few substances with potentially fatal withdrawal side effects. Seizures can occur when a person abruptly stops drinking and the propensity for seizures depends not only on the amount of alcohol consumed but each person’s unique physiology. In a clinical setting, medications can be used to make the patient comfortable and to avoid dangerous side effects.
Following the detox phase, there are several options for continuing treatment. For many years, the standard model has been about a month in rehab. This may or may not include the detox phase. Part of the reason a month became the standard is that initial research has shown that this is about the minimum amount of time it takes for most people to establish new behaviors and habits. (1)
Most residential alcohol rehabs still last about this length of time. However, more recent studies have found substantial benefits for patients who remain connected to some form of treatment for much longer than the usual 30 days or so.
Insurance benefits and financial means often play a role in the length of inpatient or residential treatment a patient can get. Innovation in the field of addiction care has led to smart solutions, however, which can maximize the care patients get. The current trend is towards extended sober living, intensive outpatient (IOP), and outpatient (OP) engagements. These arrangements may last for as long as 90 days or up to 1 year. The idea is to provide the person recovering from an alcohol use disorder as much time as possible in a structured environment. Many patients will have to return to work or school after treatment. This is another reason why these lengthier, but lower-intensity treatment plans can work well. Most people in sober living continue work or school in addition to participating in treatment. Many people are able to return home after treatment and continue in IOP or OP treatment.
The bottom line is that recovery is a process and a lifestyle change. While formal treatment may have a beginning and an end, the recovery process continues for the rest of our lives. The best approach is to get as much help as is available for a drinking problem and to be willing to integrate continuing care into your life following alcohol rehabilitation.