Most addictive drugs have both a mental and physical component, and opioids are no different. Physical addiction in particular means that the addicted person is compelled to keep taking the drug in order to avoid feeling physical pain from withdrawal. Every drug’s withdrawal symptoms are slightly different and are addressed accordingly by drug treatment programs. However, they all share the same root: the drugs have altered the user’s brains such that the only time they can feel comfort or pleasure is while high, and a sober brain, which most people would consider to feel perfectly normal, actively causes pain. In this article, we’ll be looking closely at opioid withdrawal and what it means to an addict or recovering addict. We’ve treated several clients from the Cleveland, Ohio area.
Opioids are an extremely dangerous drug to be addicted to, and its withdrawal period is extremely difficult to get through without substance abuse treatment. After 12 hours since the last use, heroin addicts will begin feeling the symptoms of withdrawal. The first symptoms are generally relatively mild, like increased sweating and tearing, muscle aches, insomnia, and a feeling or agitation or anxiety. Of course, “mild” here is used in comparison to deadly withdrawals like alcohol withdrawal. Someone experiencing these symptoms is unlikely to describe them as mild, considering how uncomfortable they are to feel. Knowing how unpleasant these feelings are, and how soon after drug use they manifest, it’s easy to see why a user of opioids might become physically dependent on them. Especially since many opioid addicts were hooked unintentionally after being prescribed painkillers, they had no way to see their drug addiction coming.
As withdrawal continues, the symptoms will get more severe, prompting the addict more than before to find and use more drugs. They will be gripped by an intense feeling of nausea, often accompanied by vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal cramping. This is a miserable feeling to suffer through, as a person’s entire body feels sick and painful. But as one of many steps to recovery, it’s something an addict needs to do.
The Ridge’s expert addiction treatment program puts even the most complex cases of opiate addiction on the path to recovery. Read more.
It’s a small blessing, but a blessing nonetheless that opioid withdrawal isn’t life-threatening. That doesn’t mean it’s completely safe, though. Addicted people are generally very malnourished, and that can include being dehydrated. If an addict goes through the withdrawal process alone with no doctors, nurses, or counselors to help, they can easily make themselves dangerously dehydrated from too much vomiting and diarrhea. This can cause serious complications, but rarely results in death. More dangerous is aspiration—the act of breathing vomit into the lungs. The bacteria found in stomachs was never meant to be in a person’s lungs, so dangerous infections are likely to occur if this happens.
The worst side-effect of opioid withdrawal isn’t the withdrawal itself, actually: it’s the risk of early relapse. When an addict detoxifies and breaks their physical addiction, their tolerance for their drug of choice decreases. If they aren’t receiving addiction treatment, and aren’t changing their lifestyle, chances are good that relapse is imminent. If they take a dosage that was sufficient when they were in the depths of their physical addiction, it may actually be too much for them to handle, leading to an accidental overdose.
For opiate patients in drug treatment programs at The Ridge, we use Suboxone, a brand name medication with the generic name buprenorphine, to help manage withdrawal. Suboxone is a partial opioid, meaning that it binds with the brain’s opioid receptors but doesn’t produce a euphoric high. Because the opioid receptors are active, the brain’s withdrawal process won’t be as severe as if all opioid consumption were stopped at once. If a opioid addict tries to relapse while taking Suboxone, the medication will prevent the addictive drug from having an effect, since the brain’s opioid receptors will be bonded with Suboxone, leaving nowhere for the addictive drug to be felt.
Although opioid withdrawal isn’t the most dangerous, it’s still a much better idea to detoxify and recover while in treatment than by oneself. Substance abuse treatment will make sure an addict is safely guided through withdrawal and learns how to live differently in order to keep from relapse. Opioid addiction is powerful, but with treatment, education, and inner strength, it doesn’t have to be in charge of an addict’s life.