What Is Drug Withdrawal?
It’s a word that’s tossed around a lot in rehab facilities, but the truth is that not many people actually understand what happens to the body during a process of withdrawing. Drug withdrawal symptoms largely relate to the addicted drug, so the symptoms can be either physical or psychological. That means that a person might experience changes in the way they think, feel, or act.
Some drugs are strongly physically addictive. These includes heroin, alcohol, and cocaine. Other chemical substances like hallucinogens create mental dependence. No matter which type of dependence affects a person, the challenge remains the same.
Withdrawal from a drug happens when the body or mind isn’t provided a drug on which it has become dependent. That means the intensity and duration of symptoms are different from one person to another, but the experience is generally the same.In some instances, withdrawal from certain drugs can be life threatening. That’s why it’s imperative to have a medically supervised detox at an inpatient rehab facility. It’s very important to tackle drug withdraw in a safe and supervised environment with carefully trained medical staff. This helps offset some of the real challenges of dealing with withdrawal symptoms.1
During the process of drug withdrawal, a person might experience the following symptoms:
- Abdominal pain
- Heart palpitations
- Nausea and vomiting
To help make the process as least painful as possible, it’s important to get prepared for it. When a patient is ready to face the addiction, it will greatly increase the chance of success to detox in in a rehab facility with professional help.
Medications for Drug Withdrawal
In addition to being in a supportive environment, a rehab center offers the ability to access medications that might help ease withdrawal symptoms. There are many different medications that might be of benefit, depending on the substance of choice. These medications can help with withdrawal symptoms by either replicating the effects of the drug or by treating some of by-product symptoms like irritability and feelings of anxiousness. Other drugs might help reduce cravings and prevent relapses.
No matter the drug of choice, it’s important that to be completely open with the rehab staff. This way, they can prescribe the best possible medication for the particular situation:
- For alcohol addiction, you might be prescribed medications including Librium, Tranxene, or Valium.
- Heroin addictions generally benefit from methadone and buprenorphine.
- Narcotic addictions are generally prescribed buprenorphine and clonidine.
Alcohol withdrawal can produce serious medical consequences if not managed correctly. Many of these symptoms are associated with a condition called delirium tremens (DTs). Often called the DTs, this condition directly impacts blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing. For a person who has been heavily drinking for an extended period of time simply stops, a rapid spike in blood pressure occurs.2
Additionally, a person might experience severe dehydration, seizures, or become unconscious. Fevers are also very common for people who are experiencing alcohol withdrawal, along with sweats, tremors, and sometimes hallucinations. That’s why it’s imperative that alcohol detox be supervised by trained medical professionals.3
Benzodiazepines are often prescribed by physicians to counteract feelings of anxiety, or to relieve muscle spasms and prevent seizures. These medications don’t produce fatal withdrawal symptoms if taken correctly according to doctor’s orders.
However, if a person has been abusing these types of medications, quitting all at once can produce disastrous effects. In addition to the potential for seizures and convulsions, people addicted to benzodiazepines might experience serious mental withdrawal symptoms.4
The psychological symptoms of withdrawal will be different for each person but generally includes some of the following:
- Panic attacks
- Sleep disturbances
Moreover, people who are addicted to these kinds of drugs will also experience physical symptoms, including headaches, spasms, changes in digestion, and heart palpitations. Numbness and tingling in hands and feet has also been reported.4
These types of drugs have great benefit if taken correctly. However, when taken incorrectly, they have a high chance for dependence and abuse.
As with alcohol, withdrawing from heroin can produce serious physical side effects. In addition to becoming mentally dependent, many users become physically dependent on heroin. This is one of the reasons why it’s so hard to break the habit. Withdrawal brings overwhelming cravings along with physical manifestations like sweating, chills, and nausea. Most often, people attempting to quit heroin will also experience muscle spasms, nasal congestion, and vomiting.5,6
Even more troublesome is that long after the initial withdrawal phase, addicts can still suffer from these symptoms. Sometimes they can last for months and occur alongside feelings of restlessness, anxiety, and being on edge.5,6
Pharmacotherapy, that is, the combination of medication and therapy, is often extremely successful for heroin addicts. That’s because medications help combat the addiction by relieving these physical and mental symptoms. All the while, therapy allows a person to explore the nature and root of their addiction in a safe space.5,6
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that creates feelings of wellbeing. Using cocaine directly alters the way the brain processes dopamine. It’s also a stimulant that speeds up involuntary body processes like heartbeat and breathing rates. When someone becomes addicted to cocaine, they become accustomed to the feelings of heightened mental focus and excessive energy.7
Stopping cocaine use can produce physical and mental withdrawal symptoms, including feelings of fatigue and extreme depression. Many people experience strange dreams and might be exceptionally hungry. Most are on edge and anxious and that their mental faculties have slowed dramatically.7
Like cocaine, meth directly affects the way dopamine is processed in the brain. Meth often makes users feel alert, stimulated, and awake. The powerful effects of meth on the mind make it exceptionally difficult to stop using.8,9
Most often, as people detox from meth they will feel hungry, very tired, and extremely depressed. That’s because the brain has been reliant of meth to produce and release dopamine. Once that stimuli is removed, it takes time for the brain to reset and adjust. Some users experience significant feelings of anxiety and suicide ideations. Cravings are often intense, which is one of the reasons detoxing in an assisted rehab facility is so important.8,9
Currently, there are no approved drug treatment medications for addiction to stimulants like meth. However, some addicts have found benefit in using antidepressant medication to offset some of the challenges of breaking free from the drug. Research suggests that specific antidepressant medication can help addicts by preventing the way the drug is synthesized in the brain. More research is needed, but early results are promising.10
From Withdrawal to Recovery
If statistics on substance abuse are any indication, the fear of drug withdrawal isn’t enough to prevent drug dependence in the United States. In a study of drug-related deaths in Florida during the years 2003 to 2009, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the following alarming statistics.11
- 16,550 deaths were caused by a drug overdose
- Up to eight people died of a drug overdose every day
- 1 percent of overdose deaths involved prescription drugs
- 9 percent of overdose deaths involved illegal street drugs
How many of these drug users would have survived if they’d made it through the process of withdrawal?
It’s no secret that the physical effects and psychological cravings of drug withdrawal can be a form of hell for a chemically dependent person. The quality of the best exclusive inpatient addiction treatment program can make a tremendous difference in an addict’s chances of success.
If you’re committed to starting a healthy new life and you’re willing to accept help from qualified addiction specialists, you’re already ahead of the game.
- Hodding, G.C., Jann, M., Ackerman, I.P. (1980). Drug Withdrawal Syndromes: A Literature Review. West J Med, 133(5), 383-391.
- Greenberg, G.D., Phillips, T.J., Crabbe, J.C. (2016). Effects of acute alcohol withdrawal on nest building in mice selectively bred for alcohol withdrawal severity. Physiol Behav. 165:257–266.
- Mirijello, A., D’Angelo, C., Ferulli, A, Vassallo, G., Antonelli, M., Caputo, F., Leggio, L., Gasbarrini, A., Addolorato, G. (2015). Identification and management of alcohol withdrawal syndrome. Drugs, 75(4), 353-365.
- Park, T.W., Saitz, R., Nelson, K.P., Xuan, Z., Liebschutz, J.M., Lasser, K.E. (2016). The association between benzodiazepine prescription and aberrant drug-related behaviors in primary care patients receiving opioids for chronic pain. Subst Abus, 37(4), 516-520.
- Li, Y., Xia, B., Li, R., Yin, D., Wang, Y., Liang, W. (2017). Expression of brain-derived neurotrophic factors, neurotrophin-3, and neurotrophin-4 in the nucleus accumbens during heroin dependency and withdrawal. Neuroreport, 28(11):654–660.
- Seip-Cammack, K.M., Reed, B., Zhang, Y., Ho, A., Kreek, M.J. (2013). Tolerance and sensitization to chronic escalating dose heroin following extended withdrawal in Fischer rats: possible role of mu-opioid receptors. Psychopharmacology (Berl), 225(1), 127-140.
- Belin, D., Deroche-Gamonet, V. (2012). Responses to Novelty and Vulnerability to Cocaine Addiction: Contribution of a Multi-Symptomatic Animal Model. Cold Spring Harb Perspect Med, 2(11):a011940.
- Wearne, T.A., Cornish, J.L. (2018). A Comparison of Methamphetamine-Induced Psychosis and Schizophrenia: A Review of Positive, Negative, and Cognitive Symptomatology. Front Psychiatry, 9:491.
- Su, H., Zhang, J., Ren, W., Xie, Y., Tao, J., Zhang, X., He, J. (2017). Anxiety level and correlates in methamphetamine-dependent patients during acute withdrawal. Medicine (Baltimore), 96(15), e6434.
- Berigan, T.R., Russell, M.L. (2001). Treatment of Methamphetamine Cravings With Bupropion: A Case Report. Prim Care Companion J Clin Psychiatry, 3(6):267–268.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2011). Drug Overdose Deaths—Florida, 2003-2009.