Opioids are a class of drugs that affect the opioid receptors in the brain. Natural opioids, including heroin and opium, are derived from the poppy plant, but man-made synthetic drugs that affect the same receptors are also known as opioids.
They have sedative and pain-killing effects, and opioids such as morphine, codeine and fentanyl are commonly used for the management of pain. They can be extremely addictive, however, even if taken for legitimate reasons.
If you develop a dependency or opioid addiction, you are likely to experience a range of physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking the drugs. Opioid withdrawal symptoms can be very unpleasant and potentially dangerous. It is always best to seek professional help.
Common Opioid Withdrawal Symptoms
Opiate withdrawal symptoms can vary between individuals depending on the heaviness and length of drug use, the type and strength of opioids involved and a range of other factors. Some people might experience mild symptoms, while others can experience severe and life-threatening opioid withdrawal symptoms.
So, what are opioid withdrawal symptoms? Some commonly experienced symptoms can include:
- Restlessness and insomnia
- Flu-like symptoms
- Muscle and joint aches
- Nausea and vomiting
- Fevers and chills
- Shaking and tremors
- Stomach cramps
- Raised or irregular heartbeat
You might also experience strong cravings for the drug, especially if you have been taking large amounts recreationally. If you are taking opioid-based prescription medications for chronic pain, you might also experience a short-term increase in the level of pain experienced.
In rare cases, some people have reported experiencing seizures during withdrawal from opioids. While the symptoms of opioid withdrawal tend to be very unpleasant, they are not generally life-threatening, but deaths can occur due to withdrawal complications. Persistent vomiting and diarrhoea, for example, may result in dehydration, hypernatraemia (elevated blood sodium level) and resultant heart failure.
These sorts of deaths are avoidable with treatment, and undergoing supervised detox at a rehab clinic or similar setting can help avoid potential complications.
The opioid withdrawal timeline can also vary widely depending on similar factors to the symptoms that may be experienced. In general terms, for short-acting opioids such as heroin, the onset of opioid withdrawal symptoms can begin within 8-24 hours after last use and last for 4-10 days.
For long-acting opioids such as methadone, the onset of opioid withdrawal symptoms may begin within 12-48 hours after last use and last for 10-20 days. The worst symptoms will tend to peak way before this, but some symptoms, such as cravings, can last much longer.
What Causes Opioid Withdrawal?
Long-term use of opioids can cause changes in the brain, such as the mesolimbic reward system and the locus c0eruleus, which is related to wakefulness, breathing, blood pressure and general alertness, among other functions.
In simple terms, the brain becomes used to the presence of opioid drugs through repeated usage. Exposure to large doses of opioids leads to the brain functioning abnormally when they are not present. This can lead to increasing tolerance – meaning you need more and more of the drug for the same effect – as well as a dependency on the drugs. This dependency produces withdrawal symptoms when the drug is removed and is one of the reasons why overcoming opioid addiction is so difficult without expert help.
Coping with Opioid Withdrawal at Home
Coping with opioid withdrawal can be very challenging. Even when they are committed to quitting opioids, many people fall at this hurdle.
Withdrawal symptoms tend to be so unpleasant that it is very tempting to alleviate the symptoms by taking more of the drug. It is always advisable to seek professional help and, if possible, to undergo a medically assisted and supervised detox. There are some steps you can take to make things easier and improve your chances of success.
- Drink plenty of water. Dehydration can be a contributory factor in the withdrawal process and can actually be one of the most dangerous.
- Eat healthy food. You might not feel like it, especially if you are nauseous, but eating healthily can help replace lost nutrients and build up energy. A high-fibre diet with plenty of complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains and vegetables, can help.
- Work on your anxiety. Relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation and mindfulness can be valuable for some people. As well as anxiety, they can help you to manage pain and take your mind off cravings.
- Get support. An opioid addiction can strain many relationships, but getting through the detox can be much easier if you have a support network in place.
Even if you are managing your own opioid withdrawal at home, you should always seek medical advice and assistance. Replacement therapy with another opioid like methadone may be advised for people with a heroin addiction. Methadone is generally considered to be much safer, and the withdrawal symptoms are easier to get through when the patient is eventually weaned off the drug entirely.
Seeking Help for Opioid Addiction
If you are thinking of seeking help for opioid addiction, you are certainly not alone. Nearly half (49%) of all adults receiving treatment via government-backed drug and alcohol services were doing so for problems with opioids.
Outpatient addiction treatment programmes of the sort typically available through drug and alcohol services can be very valuable, but there are also drawbacks to trying to get through withdrawal at home. Residential rehab will provide opioid withdrawal treatment and everything you need to get you through the opioid detox process.
Beyond this, it will also address every element of your addiction, with therapies designed to help you explore the root causes of your substance misuse and develop strategies to prevent relapse in the future.
If you or someone you know is struggling with opioid addiction, get in touch today to find out how we can help.