Stages of Opiate Withdrawal
Opiates are addictive in part because they activate parts of the brain associated with pleasure. However, that is only part of the story. A person who takes painkillers or other opioids will find themselves chemically dependent on the drugs. Once this happens, overcoming addiction can be extremely difficult. The physical and emotional withdrawal symptoms pose a tremendous challenge to individuals looking for recovery.
How Opioids Work in the Brain
Your body naturally produces opioids, which attach to special receptors in the brain. These neurotransmitters help the body naturally regulate pain and stress.
Chemical opioids attach to the same receptors in the brain and have a similar effect of producing euphoria. However, they are significantly stronger than anything the body can produce on its own. These fake neurotransmitters flood the system and eventually prevent the body from producing opioids of its own. Part of what causes drug withdrawal symptoms is this lack of dopamine and related chemicals in the brain as the body adjusts to the absence of opioids.
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Stages of Opiate Withdrawal: A Timeline
Drug withdrawal presents a set of physical and emotional symptoms that can be extremely difficult to endure. However, it’s important to remember that withdrawal is temporary.
If you or a loved one is facing detoxification and rehab, know that the worst of the symptoms will last just a few days. Knowing what to expect and having a timeline of events in mind can help to ease some of the psychological pressure when facing withdrawal and recovery.
Withdrawal symptoms for short-acting opiates will begin within 12 hours of the last dose. For long-acting opiates, symptoms may start within 30 hours. Over the next two days, symptoms will continue to worsen, peaking around the 72 hour mark. By the end of the third day, most physical symptoms will have resolved. Psychological symptoms and cravings may continue for a week or more.
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Early withdrawal symptoms include the following:
- Drug cravings
- Agitation or anxiety
- Muscle aches
- Sweats and fever
- Increased blood pressure and heart rate
- Sleep disruption
These initial symptoms may cause restlessness and mood swings.
The later stage of withdrawal produces flu-like symptoms:
- Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea
- Goosebumps and shivering
- Stomach cramps and pain
Depression and intense drug cravings may accompany this stage. These symptoms will generally peak within 72 hours and resolve within five days. From a physical standpoint, recovery is well underway. Physical symptoms of withdrawal may disappear quickly after the third day of detox. However, psychological symptoms may linger, and drug cravings may persist or come and go in the weeks and months that follow.
What About Drug Replacement?
In some cases, an alternative substance like Suboxone may be provided to help mitigate the effects of chemical dependence. This drug is classified as a “partial opioid agonist,” which means that it is a weaker type of opioid that cannot be abused. Other replacement drugs, like methadone, may also sometimes be used.
Addiction clinics and rehab facilities offer these medications as a stepping stone to help reduce the severity of drug withdrawal symptoms. However, users will still undergo withdrawal when weaning off of the replacement drug, and recovery will take longer when these medical aids are offered. There is also the risk of finding a way to abuse these medications.
The Importance of Support During Withdrawal
Drug detox and addiction recovery services are crucial to helping people recover safely throughout the stages of opiate withdrawal and stay away from drugs long-term.
One important but often overlooked symptom of withdrawal is suicidal ideation. Not everyone who undergoes withdrawal feels suicidal, but the feelings of depression can be overwhelming. People in the grip of withdrawal may experience mood swings and dark thoughts that seem to have no end point. The feeling that life may never be better than it is in that dark moment or that the addict can never be happy again without drugs can be overwhelming. For this reason, a strong support system is essential to the safety of people overcoming addiction. Recovering addicts need to know that their symptoms are temporary. They also need to be protected from opportunities for self-harm and relapse.
Protecting recovering addicts from relapse is especially important because many deadly overdoses occur during relapse. Because the user’s body is no longer accustomed to the drug, it will be more sensitive. What would have been a normal dose for the user before withdrawal can become a deadly overdose in the weeks that follow.
The best drug rehabilitation programs provide a strong support network for recovering addicts throughout all stages of recovery, including the difficult weeks that follow acute drug withdrawal. By continuing to offer support after the initial symptoms have faded, the rehab program can provide the best environment for successful and permanent drug cessation.