Feature Archive

Rehab's Role in Treating Addiction

Experts explain the treatment process at rehab clinics--for celebrities and for regular folks.

By Richard Sine
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

Actor Michael Douglas, radio commentator Rush Limbaugh, and former congressman Mark Foley might seem to have little in common, but there's one experience they do share: rehab.

Hardly a week goes by that we don't hear of some new high-profile actor, singer, or politician checking into a center to treat a drug or alcohol problem. And when a celebrity goes to rehab, it's often to an exclusive facility with marble baths, ocean views, and a full spa.

It's enough to give addiction treatment a bad name. A 30-day stay in a rehab clinic used to be a common treatment for addicts. But today it's rarely covered by insurance, and thus too costly for most Americans. Does that mean that effective treatment is only for the rich and famous?

Fortunately, the answer is no. Outpatient treatment has proven to be equally effective for many addicts, experts say. Either way, not even the fanciest program can guarantee successful treatment. Success also requires a lifelong effort by the patient to stay clean.

How Rehab Works

Whether you're a celebrity or just a regular person, addiction treatment typically involves a similar series of steps:

  • Detoxification. About half of the addicts who come to Butler Hospital in Providence, R.I., must check in as an inpatient for three to five days of "acute stabilization," Alan Gordon, MD, Butler's chief of addiction rehabilitation, tells WebMD. Some must cope with symptoms of withdrawal such as tremors, paranoia, and depression. Others must deal with the crises that brought them in to treatment, such as legal or domestic problems. (In outpatient programs like those at Butler Hospital, "detox" is the only inpatient component.)
  • Diagnosis. Many addicts also suffer from psychiatric problems--such as sleep disorders, bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety--or have faced traumatic life experiences such as rape or incest. While the exact relation between these problems and substance abuse may not be clear, many addiction treatment programs link up patients with psychiatrists or therapy groups.
  • Cognitive therapy. This therapy helps addicts realize which life situations are most likely to trigger substance abuse, says Newt Galusha, MD, of Harris Methodist Springwood Hospital in Bedford, Texas. Then the addicts develop alternative plans. For example, if an addict usually drinks after arguing with a spouse, he might learn to end those fights by counting to 10 or going to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting instead of going to a bar. Addicts also learn "assertive skills" that help them learn how to say no to drugs or alcohol, Gordon says.
  • Family therapy. Many programs bring family members into the program to heal damaged relationships and shore up the addict's support network. Support from family members is key to helping addicts stay clean over the long run, Garrett O'Connor, MD, chief psychiatrist at the Betty Ford Center, tells WebMD.
  • Medication. An FDA-approved medication, Campral, helps people with alcohol dependence who have quit stay alcohol-free. Another FDA-approved drug, Suboxone, treats addiction to opiates (including heroin and some prescription painkillers); it reduces withdrawal symptoms and cravings. Suboxone has a similar effect as methadone but is less prone to abuse, Gordon says.
  • Introduction to 12-step programs. The Scripps McDonald treatment center in La Jolla, Calif., recommends "90 meetings in 90 days" for all of its patients, says Fred Berger, MD, center medical director. Many centers encourage patients to attend Alcoholics Anonymous or other forms of group therapy for a year or more after treatment.

How Addiction Works

It's the same old story: Celebrities check in. They check out with stories of a miraculous turnaround. And then, sometimes, they check right back in again. Is it poor self-control, or poor treatment?