prescription opiates withdrawal and detox

Modified: 4th Jul 2019

Last updated on July 4th, 2019 at 02:10 pm

Since 1999, more than 200,000 Americans have died from prescription opiates.

How could something that’s supposed to relieve pain and work as medicine be so deadly? There’s no doubt that the medical community still has a long way to go when it comes to treating pain and addiction.

Detox offers hope and a chance at a better future to those addicted to opiates. But the debilitating effects of withdrawal can make detox harder to achieve.

Despite how hard detox can be, it’s still possible to overcome its challenges.

What Causes Prescription Opiates Withdrawal?

What makes opiate withdrawal so painful and difficult to overcome? To understand, it’s important to understand opiates addiction.

There are opiate receptors naturally scattered throughout our bodies. They’re especially concentrated in the brain and spinal cord.

When we experience pain, neurotransmitters attach to these receptors. These receptors then release pain-relieving endorphins in response. Opiates mimic these effects by attaching to these receptors when consumed.

Opiates block pain signals when they attach to opiate receptors. As this occurs, dopamine and endorphins release throughout the body, resulting in euphoria. The brain then refrains from producing any more endorphins. 

Over time, the central nervous system builds a tolerance to the effects of opiates. The brain starts to crave these effects more intensely with each use. As a result, users will feel the need to use more frequent or stronger doses.

The brain soon grows unable to produce endorphins altogether. It produces the symptoms of withdrawal as a way of signaling that it needs more opiates to function.

Prescription Opiates Withdrawal Symptoms

There are different types of prescription painkillers that all serve a primary purpose:

To relieve pain. However, some of them are short-acting and used to treat temporary, moderate pain. Meanwhile, others are longer lasting and treat severe, intense, and prolonged pain.

Despite these differences, both short-acting and long-acting opiates produce similar withdrawal symptoms. Here is a list of opiates that produce similar withdrawal symptoms:

  • Oxycodone (short-acting)
  • Hydrocodone (short-acting)
  • Codeine (short-acting)
  • Morphine (long-acting)
  • Fentanyl (long-acting)
  • Hydromorphone (long-acting)

The symptoms of acute withdrawal resemble the flu in many ways. The main symptoms of acute opiates withdrawal include:

  • Chills/goosebumps
  • Nausea
  • Muscle aches
  • Diarrhea/vomiting
  • Headaches
  • Sweating
  • Tremors
  • Stomach cramps

Coughing, excessive yawning, watery eyes, and runny noses are also common. Some experience blurred vision and dilated pupils, as well.

The side effects of opiate withdrawal are not only physical. They’re deeply psychological. These symptoms include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Foggy mind
  • Concentration difficulty
  • Agitation
  • Suicidal thoughts

The longer you’ve used prescription painkillers, the more intense these symptoms usually are.

Heavy or long-term users may experience high blood pressure and rapid heart rate. They may even experience difficulty breathing. Cravings are also common during opiates withdrawal. 

Duration of Prescription Opiates Withdrawal

Opiates addiction alters the brain’s chemistry. It takes time for it to learn how to function again without opiates. Getting through detox is the fundamental step towards helping your brain recuperate.

When does a withdrawal from prescription opiates take place?

Withdrawal from short-acting opiates begins within 6-8 hours after the last use. Withdrawal from long-acting opiates can begin within 12-30 hours after the last dose.

The higher the dosage, the longer it will usually take for the withdrawal effects to kick in. It also depends on the severity of one’s addiction and how long they’ve been using.

Dull muscle aches, light sweating, queasiness, and restlessness are typically the earliest symptoms. Runny noses and yawning are also common.

Within 24 hours, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea may develop. Profuse sweating, hypertension, and rapid heart rate can occur.

These symptoms can last for a few days and they usually peak within 72 hours. However, they can last longer among those who are severely addicted. Others may not feel these symptoms as intensely.

Prescription Opiates Withdrawal Timeline

6-8 Hours: Physical symptoms of acute withdrawal from short-acting opiates occur.

12-30 Hours: Physical symptoms of acute withdrawal from long-acting opiates occur. Psychological symptoms of withdrawal begin. Some physical symptoms of withdrawal start to peak.

Days 3-5: Acute withdrawal symptoms taper down. Flu-like symptoms may still occur.

Days 6-7: Physical withdrawal effects have subsided. Some flu-like symptoms can still occur. Psychological symptoms are likely to still persist.

Detoxing from Prescription Opiates on Your Own

Is it possible to detox on your own?

While it is possible to detox on your own, it is not recommended. Because withdrawal symptoms can be so intense, the possibility of relapsing is higher. Those who detox under the supervision of a doctor have a much lower chance of relapsing and a much higher chance of completing a detox successfully.

Doctors can ease the discomfort of withdrawal. They can supervise your progress and administer withdrawal management medication.

Complications can arise as the result of detoxing from opiates. Severe dehydration is a common complication that occurs from excessive fluid loss. It’s also possible to develop aspiration pneumonia during detox – though this is not as common.

If you or a loved one do decide to detox on your own, there are some things you can do to prepare. Make sure to stay hydrated with lots of electrolytes.

It helps to eat easy-to-digest foods when you’re nauseous. Broth, saltine crackers, and even ginger can help with nausea.

It’s also important to make sure a loved one is nearby to offer help and support. It’s recommended to consult with a doctor before beginning self-detox, as well.

Medical Detox for Prescription Opiates

Medical detox provides the highest level of care than any other form of detox.

It’s recommended to those with a higher risk of experiencing severe withdrawal. It’s also recommended to those who are more likely to relapse.

How Medical Detox Works and What to Expect

During medical detox, patients have 24/7 access to medical and mental health care. They’ll receive an individualized treatment plan based on their physical and psychological assessments.

As their withdrawal symptoms progress, patients are able to receive immediate care. They’re able to rest comfortably, talk to counselors, and receive withdrawal management medication.

Medications Available for Prescription Opiates Detox

Those with severe addictions to opiates can manage their symptoms with certain medications. These medications mimic opiates without causing addictive effects. They can help the body taper off opiates, which is far less painful than quitting cold-turkey.

Doctors tend to administer Naltroxene to those who need to wean off gradually. It blocks pain signals the same way opiates do without causing the euphoric “high”. However, many doctors won’t prescribe Naltroxene until later on in detox.

To combat nausea and vomiting, doctors administer Clonidine. This medication can also alleviate muscle cramping, sweating, and even anxiety.

Suboxone is another common withdrawal management medication. It helps with cravings and physical withdrawal symptoms by mimicking opiates. However, it doesn’t produce the euphoric effects of opiates.

Understanding Withdrawal & Detox from Prescription Painkillers

Detoxing from prescription opiates is often the hardest step in recovery. But it’s a major step that forms the foundation of a happier, healthier, and sober life.

By detoxing in an environment with the best care, patients can get ready to take the next step in recovery. Before beginning detox, learn more about what your health insurance will cover.