The United States is currently in the midst of an opioid overdose epidemic which leads the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to declare the problem a public health emergency. These circumstances have led many to wonder how they can remove opioids from their life and what are opioid withdrawal symptoms. In truth, the process of opioid withdrawal can be grueling for the patient and, at times, life-threatening depending on how long the individual has been abusing opioid drugs.
However, opioid withdrawal symptoms can display even after minimal use. And while the specifics of withdrawal may vary slightly from patient to patient, there are commonalities that one should expect when beginning the opioid withdrawal process including the timeline of symptoms experienced. Acknowledging the details of this process can help the patient and their loved ones prepare for what is about to come.
Opioid Addiction & The Body
An important part of understanding opioid withdrawal and its symptoms is knowing the facts about how opioid addiction affects the body in the first place. An opioid is any natural or synthetic substance which binds to the brain’s opioid receptors. These areas of the brain are responsible for pain, reward, and other addictive behaviors which explains why they can be such habit-forming drugs.
The brain abnormalities resulting from chronic use of opioids, and other highly addictive drugs, are the underlying causes of opioid dependence (the need to keep taking drugs to avoid a withdrawal syndrome) and addiction (intense drug craving and compulsive use).
The abnormalities that produce dependence, appear to resolve after detoxification, within days or weeks after opioid use stops. But the timeline for the symptoms of withdrawal to end may vary. Most often the drugs are taken orally as pills, except for heroin which is either snorted or injected.
There are scenarios in which opioids are used medically to manage pain. Prescription painkillers like hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxycodone (OxyContin), and morphine are commonly used for this purpose. However, even when legally prescribed, the risk of developing an addiction remains the same as the drugs will still produce the feelings of euphoria and tranquility that are experienced with opioid abuse.
Because the body becomes dependent on the presence of opioids in the body during abuse, the withdrawal process can be dangerous. As a result, it is important to seek medical assistance when attempting an opioid withdrawal. During this opiate addiction treatment program, the professional staff will be able to teach you how to get off opioids and help manage the dangerous withdrawal symptoms that accompany this addiction.
Opioid Withdrawal: What to Expect
Generally speaking, opioid withdrawal will follow a similar timeline and pattern of symptoms for anyone going through this process. But what are opioid withdrawal symptoms? How long does withdrawal take?
The Symptoms & Timeline
When an individual stops or decreases the dosage of opioids they are taking, certain physical and psychological symptoms will begin to manifest. This is what is known as withdrawal. The severity of symptoms will be affected by the half-life of the drug, or how heavily the individual abused it, and how long the patient has been using opioids.
Detoxification, or detox for short, usually marks the beginning of the recovery process and is vital to addiction recovery. During this difficult time, the body cleanses itself of all the toxins and substances from opioids that were responsible for the addiction. Initial symptoms of withdrawal will typically appear within the first day of detox and include:
- A runny nose
- Lacrimation, or tearing
- Restlessness, the inability to rest or relax
- Insomnia, the inability to sleep
- Uncontrollable yawning
- Excessive sweating
- Anxiety, a persistent feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease
- Muscle aches and spasms
- Mood swings
- Inability to concentrate
- Increase Heart Rate
- Hypertension, or high blood pressure
For short-acting opioids, these early withdrawal symptoms will appear within six to twelve hours of the last dose while for long-acting opiates they will begin within thirty (30) hours of the last dose.
Within 72 hours of the start of withdrawal, the symptoms will peak in intensity and usually last about a week, though in some cases late withdrawal symptoms can last weeks or months. Such longer lasting symptoms include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Abdominal cramping
- Strong drug cravings
While this is the most difficult phase of opiate withdrawal, such symptoms subside over time as the body adjusts back to life without opiates. The opioid withdrawal symptoms timeline will generally follow the above outline but will vary from person to person. In addition, therapy and psychological support provided by a mental health professional to treat the addiction as part of a complete substance abuse treatment program can decrease the symptoms and side effects of withdrawal.
Tips to Get Through Opioid Withdrawal
Opioids produce one of the toughest withdrawal processes to get through. As discussed previously, the physical effects of the withdrawal are present for a relatively short period of time, compared to the mental symptoms that can persist for months or longer. The pain of the withdrawal process leads many patients to give up before withdrawal is complete, but the tips below will help mitigate some of the discomforts of initial withdrawal effects.
- Find Support Having a support system, medically or otherwise, is incredibly important to the success of opioid withdrawal. It can be helpful for patients to lean on others to get through this tough time. Being able to talk to someone openly about how they are feeling can help to mitigate the anxiety and internal struggles that might lead to relapse.
- Incorporate Light Exercise Being active and moving the body can actually help to relieve some of the initial withdrawal symptoms. While most patients will not feel like moving at all, exercising releases serotonin in the brain which can help ease some the negative feelings experienced as part of withdrawal, such as depression or irritation. Even just a walk around the block can help patients clear their mind.
- Get Plenty of Rest During the initial stages of detox, sleep is often difficult for the patient. However, they still need to get as much sleep as possible but at least eight hours of sleep per night is recommended. If an individual is attempting to continue work while going through withdrawal, taking a few sick days or a minimized workload for the week may be beneficial.
- Consume Healthy Foods & Liquids The appetite will likely vanish during the first few days of detox, but when it returns, patients should do their best to consume healthy, nutritious foods and liquids. If solid foods are not tolerated by the patient’s stomach, then plenty of water should be consumed to avoid dehydration which will amplify the physical effects of withdrawal. Processed foods should be avoided as much as possible. Instead, eating plenty of vegetables, beans, legumes, and lean protein will help support the body through the process. Artichoke, broccoli, leafy greens, wild fish, and nuts, seeds, and olive oil are especially good foods to eat for liver support as it works to rid the body of opioid toxins.
The available opioid withdrawal treatment methods can vary greatly in cost, commitment, and effectiveness. The variety of options can be overwhelming, but it is important to evaluate what will work best in each individual’s specific case. Some may choose to utilize a detox center for the first few days of their withdrawal and recovery.
These centers employ medical professionals to oversee the dangerous detox process before releasing you to seek additional recovery assistance.
When selecting a treatment method, it is important to recognize that each option does not have to stand alone. Instead, a patient may choose to participate in multiple treatments as part of an overall recovery plan.
Outpatient Treatment Programs
One of the lower cost options available, these programs utilize patient education and a variety of counseling to encourage a sober lifestyle. The programs can vary in cost and intensity and are generally more effective when first paired with a residential stay.
Inpatient Residential Treatment Programs
Taking place in a hospital, or another medical facility, inpatient residential programs typically begin with a medically supervised detox before employing counseling or behavioral therapy support. These programs usually last 28 days but can be longer or shorter depending on the facility. Inpatient residential treatment programs tend to be more effective than outpatient treatment.
Opioid withdrawal symptoms can range from mild to severe, depending on how dependent the individual has been on an opioid drug. Dependency is directly tied to the length of time taking a particular drug, dosage amount, which drug was taken, how the drug was taken, underlying medical conditions, the co-occurring presence of a mental health issue, and certain biological and environmental factors, such as family history of addiction, previous trauma, or highly stressful and unsupportive surroundings.
Withdrawal from an opioid drug will often adhere to the timeline described above, producing the symptoms described throughout the process. Each patient will need to carefully evaluate available treatment options and decide what will work best for them in order to achieve a sober life.
If you are concerned that one of your family members is suffering from an addiction, it’s time to seek help. At Haven House, we are here to teach our patients about the side effects of long term opioid abuse, fight their addiction, and re-establish a healthy lifestyle.