Debunking Recovery Pseudoscience

Science or quackery? When it comes to addiction treatment programs, that question is intensely important. After all, people who get the treatment that they need for addiction have a great opportunity to get well, while those who don’t get the real assistance they need might be mired in addiction for a much longer period of time, and the amount of pain and suffering they might feel as a result could be difficult to measure.

While it’s impossible to list all of the treatments rooted in pseudoscience that are being offered to people with addictions at the present time, this article will outline a few of the techniques that seem to be making an appearance among those in the addiction treatment community, along with words about replacement programs that are rooted in solid science.

Blaming and Punishment

Substance use and abuse has long been associated with personality defects. People who have addictions are often referred to by derogatory names, like “junkie” or “boozehound,” and they’re yelled at or shunned for their habits. This sort of thing has been happening for years, but recently, some treatment programs have been taking the idea of punishment to the next level. These practitioners hope to cure addiction by slapping, kicking or otherwise beating their clients until they agree to stop abusing substances. News coverage of the technique is a little shocking, particularly as some of these articles contain photographs of people being beaten by doctors in white coats, accompanied by quotes from people who swear that the technique helped them.[1]

Unfortunately, a significant amount of research suggests that addictions can’t be beaten or punished into retirement. For example, a significant amount of research has been conducted on the effectiveness of long prison sentences for people who abuse drugs or sell drugs. While these people might not be beaten, caned or electrocuted during their sentences, they are certainly being punished. And the research suggests that they don’t improve as a result. In one such analysis conducted in Connecticut, researchers found that 79 percent of people who spent time in prison were rearrested within five years of release.[2] This just isn’t a technique that works.

A better approach involves education, coaching and compassion. The idea here is that people with addictions did make a choice to start abusing drugs, but that their ongoing abuse did a form of chemical damage inside the cells of the brain that makes recovery difficult or impossible without help. Therapy aims to help people understand their addictions and build up their defenses, so they can make better choices in the future about their long-term health. Some communities are using this approach by replacing prison sentences with drug court work. Instead of being incarcerated, people are coached and healed. A woman who participated in this form of treatment in New York[3] had this to say about the technique:

“I want to say that I think drug court is the best alternative to incarceration, because it fosters human motivation and the will to change, and provides a framework within which that change can take place. Without this program, so many sick, addicted people would be locked up instead of rehabilitated. When you take drugs away from an addict and provide that addict with the help he or she needs, you can see a changed human be the result. I am one of those people.”

That’s a remarkably powerful statement about the power of treatment, not incarceration or punishment, and it helps to demonstrate why so many communities are moving from blaming to helping.

Cold-Turkey Withdrawal

Just as some people think that pain should be a part of recovery, they think that a painful, cold-turkey withdrawal points the way to long-term health. People who cling to this belief suggest that a painful withdrawal process leads to long-term fear about drug addiction, meaning that people who struggle to get clean will never use again, simply because they won’t want to go through the pain again.

In reality, some people who go through a cold-turkey withdrawal to some types of drugs can face life-threatening complications. These dangerous drugs include:

  • Alcohol
  • Valium
  • Klonopin
  • Xanax

These drugs slow the mind to such a degree that it can lead to an electrical explosion during withdrawal.

In addition, studies suggest that people who have a painful detox once experience a measurable level of fear at the idea of detoxing again,[4] but this certainly doesn’t mean that people won’t use again. They still have cravings they can’t beat and urges they don’t know how to control, and they might use in response to these triggers. Their detox fear might work against them in these situations, as they’ll be too scared to attempt to get clean. In a way, a painful detox makes recovery less likely, not more likely.

A viable alternative involves providing therapy, medications and support to people who are going through detox. They’ll get through the process safely, and they won’t be left with fear that could hold them back, should they relapse.

Rapid Detox

Proponents of a rapid detox want to spare their clients any kind of detox pain, and on the surface, this seems like an excellent proposition. People who go through this process are placed under sedation and in a chemically induced form of withdrawal while they’re knocked out. When they awaken, they’re considered “cured,” and there’s no additional therapy provided.

In an article about the process, an administer of these treatments suggests that people with addictions “just want their life back,” and this treatment can provide it in as little as a weekend. But to experts, this type of therapy is far from effective.[5]

Detox is sometimes associated with nausea, and people who are sedated and nauseated might vomit, choke on that vomit, and die. This means that this particular form of treatment is considered much riskier than standardized forms of detox, which don’t come with the same kind of choking risk.

In addition, studies suggest that rapid detox is no more effective than long-term therapies. In fact, some studies[6] suggest that people who go through rapid detox are asked to pay a big bill for a treatment that isn’t more helpful than treatments that have been proven to work. They often relapse, and they often need long-term therapies to heal. This isn’t the sort of thing that can be done in a weekend. And since rapid detox isn’t associated with therapy, the process doesn’t give people the skills they’ll need to avoid relapse triggers in the future. They may not have drugs in their bodies now, but they may not know how to keep those drugs away in the future. That’s why comprehensive therapies are more effective. Here people have a real chance to learn.

Organ Cleansing

Pseudoscience techniques often focus on the detox phase of care, and sometimes practitioners build on detox by suggesting strange techniques during rehab. For example, some practitioners suggest that people with an addiction history should endure cleaning procedures for the liver, colon and stomach. These techniques are designed to remove any toxins drug abuse has left behind, so people can start sobriety with a healthy body that hasn’t been marred and scarred by drugs.

While good nutrition and healthy water intake is important for anyone who has been neglecting his/her health due to addiction, there’s no real evidence that going through a cleansing procedure could reduce future cravings for drugs or make people go through a spontaneous recovery.

However, studies[7] have associated some types of cleansing with terrible outcomes, including:

  • Cramping
  • Vomiting
  • Bloating
  • Kidney failure
  • Death

Rather than using extreme cleansing techniques to purify the body, experts suggest that clients should pair good nutrition with psychosocial therapy, so they can heal their bodies and learn how to stay healthy in the future.


In addition to pushing unusual cleansing techniques, some providers suggest that addictions can be completely cured if clients will go through a form of hypnosis. Practitioners simply suggest that the addiction should fade away while the person is hypnotized, and the cravings will magically disappear as a result. Some providers suggest that addictions can be cured this way in a matter of weeks, not years.[8]

While it would be ideal if people could simply fall asleep in therapy and awaken with a renewed sense of the importance of sobriety, few researchers would suggest that hypnosis is the only treatment an addicted person needs. Again, people who have addictions need to explore why they began using drugs, and they need to develop skills that can keep them sober in the future. Hypnotherapy can’t help to build skills or boost knowledge. As a result, it shouldn’t be the only therapy given to people who have an addiction. It just isn’t enough.

No Quick Fixes

Many of these pseudoscience methods have one thing in common: the promise of a quick recovery. Providers of these treatments promise their clients that they’ll get better incredibly quickly, with very little time needed for the hard work that comes with therapy. They will be cured quickly, with no followup required and no risk of a relapse. Unfortunately, this just isn’t the way that a robust recovery works. People who have addictions really do need to spend long periods of time in recovery, and they really do need to attempt to handle hard work in order to heal. Shortcuts are pseudoscience, and they don’t really help.

That’s why Foundations Recovery Network facilities specialize in evidence-based therapies. We stick with the techniques that have been proven effective in people who have addictions and/or mental illnesses, and we apply those treatments in ways that have the best chance of providing long-term healing. Our facilities are soothing and healing, so the work isn’t a punishment, but we do tell our patients to expect to stay in touch with us for months or even years in order to find recovery. That’s just honest, and it’s good science. If you’d like to know more about this, please call.


[1] “Beating Addiction Out of You, Literally.” (Jan. 2013). The Siberian Times. Accessed May 19, 2014.

[2] “Recidivism.” (Feb. 23, 2014). State of Connecticut Department of Correction. Accessed May 19, 2014.

[3] “Confronting the Cycle of Addiction and Recidivism: A Report to Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye by the New York State Commission on Drugs and the Courts.” (June 2000). New York United State Unified Court System. Accessed May 19, 2014.
[4] Milby, J.; Gurwitch, R.; Hohmann, A.; Wiebe, D.; Ling, W.; McLellan, A.; & Woody, G. (September 1987). “Assessing Pathological Detoxification Fear Among Methadone Maintenance Patients: The DFSSS.” Journal of Clinical Psychology. Accessed May 19, 2014.[5] Davis, R. (2008). “‘Rapid Detox’ a Quick Fix for Opiate Addiction?” USA Today. Accessed May 19, 2014.

[6] Lawental, E. (July 31, 2000). “Ultra Rapid Opiate Detoxification as Compared to 30-Day Inpatient Detoxification Program: A Retrospective Follow-Up Study.” Journal of Substance Abuse. Accessed May 19, 2014.

[7] Raymond, J. (Aug. 1, 2011). “Detox Danger: Trendy Colon Cleansing a Risky Ritual.” NBC News. Accessed May 19, 2014.

[8] “Hypnosis for Addiction.” (Feb. 17, 2014). Epoch Times. Accessed May 19, 2014.

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