An estimated 8 to 12% of people who use a prescription opioid will become addicted. Up to 4% of people who abuse opioids will transition to using heroin. Opioids are powerful, addictive medications that have dire consequences for those who misuse the drugs and become addicted. While misuse dramatically increases the chances of addiction, some people will use opioids just as prescribed and still struggle with cravings and withdrawals. Unfortunately, the withdrawal and detox timeline in opioid addiction is painful and increases the chance of relapse and overdose without outside support. Although opioids are a difficult addiction to kick, it’s not impossible, and there is hope for addicts as well as their loved ones.
Opioids are synthetic derivatives from the opium poppy – the same plant that drugs like heroin and morphine are made from. An opioid is given to patients to treat moderate to severe pain. Unfortunately, these drugs are also highly addictive and hijack the brain’s risk and reward neural pathways.
A human being is born with natural opioid receptors throughout their body. Mainly, these receptors are located in the brain, the spinal cord, and throughout the gastrointestinal tract. Certain neurochemicals, naturally produced in the brain, will bind to these receptors. They are responsible for feelings of pleasure, pain, and well-being. The brain’s naturally produced neurotransmitters like endorphins are known to decrease pain, regulate respiration, and may even prevent depression symptoms.
Synthetic opioid drugs, opiates, and opium will attach to opioid receptors, flooding the brain and body with dopamine that produces extreme highs and block feelings of pain. Some people begin abusing the medications as a way to block emotional pain as well. When someone takes opioids, the chemicals in the drugs attach to the receptors and cause the receptors to go into overdrive.
In its natural state, the brain does not produce large amounts of dopamine. For example, if someone were to break their arm, the brain wouldn’t go into overdrive to produce pain-relieving neurotransmitters to treat the pain. On the flip side, the brain also doesn’t produce massive amounts of opioids that can cause an overdose. What an opioid drug does is mimic the brain’s naturally-occurring opioids, but to a more extreme degree. Unfortunately, the brain and body are primed to receive opioids and respond to them, whether they are natural or synthetic. This is one of the reasons why these substances are so highly addictive.
Opioids impact many different parts of the brain and body. They can affect the brain stem, which controls things like respiratory and cardiac rates. Taking an opioid will reduce a person’s breathing and also inhibit the cough reflex. The limbic system, which controls a person’s emotions, feelings of pleasure and calmness are also impacted when someone takes an opioid or opiate drug.
When synthetic opioids bind to opioid receptors in the spinal cord, then the brain is compelled to send reduced pain signals throughout the body. This is one reason why when someone takes an opioid, especially for the first time, they feel an extreme sense of euphoria and relaxation throughout their body. These feelings and the physical effects of opioids are incredibly addictive.
When someone takes an opioid drug for a long period of time, their body builds up a tolerance to the drug. That means that essentially, the person becomes desensitized to the drug’s pleasurable effects. In order to receive the same effect the person did previously, they need to take more of the drug. This also happens with those managing chronic pain, so they need more of the drug to decrease their pain symptoms.
Due to the dependence that develops as well, a person’s body will need increasing amounts of the drugs to get the same effect and maintain a state of equilibrium. People who become physically dependent on opioids continue to take an increasing amount of the drug, and these risky actions increase a person’s chances of overdosing on opioids.
Abusing opioids for a long time will change the way the opioid nerve receptors operate in the brain. As a result, the brain needs opioids simply to function. Many people who use opioids long-term do not realize that they are physically dependent on the drug. When they try to quit, they find themselves feeling sick and disoriented, which are reliable indicators that they are dependent on and possibly addicted to the drug. Addiction, however, has a strong psychological and behavioral component to it. Someone can be physically dependent on a drug without being psychologically addicted to it.
Withdrawal symptoms occur when someone who is dependent on the substance being in their system tries to cut back or quit cold turkey. Outside intervention can help people who are both physically dependent and addicted to opioids quit the drugs for good without going through painful withdrawal symptoms.
Opioid withdrawals are physical and psychological. The most common symptoms of opioid withdrawal include:
- Flu-like symptoms
- Aches and pains
- Fever, chills, and sweating
- Changes in breathing and blood pressure
- Stomach upset
- Anxiety and irritability
- Intense cravings to use opioids
The withdrawal timeline for opioids lasts roughly two weeks. Within one week, physical symptoms peak and then reside. The psychological symptoms of opioid withdrawal can last for months after cessation. In severe cases, a person will experience prolonged withdrawal symptoms for months or even years after quitting the drugs. This is called PAWS, or post-acute withdrawal syndrome.
Opioid withdrawal is rarely fatal. In severe cases, people going through opioid withdrawal may become depressed, which can increase the chances of suicide. Dehydration is also a risk when detoxing from opioids. Also, the withdrawal timeline is dangerous without outside help and support. People who are going through the pain and distress of withdrawals are often tempted to retake the drugs for a bit of relief. Unfortunately, this dramatically increases the risk of accidentally overdosing on opioids, which can be fatal. Withdrawing from opioids is best to do under the care and supervision of a medical detox facility to prevent complications and health risks.
Under the care and supervision of a medical detox facility, people withdrawing from opioids can receive medical attention for their pain and distress. In medically-assisted detox, a doctor can prescribe medications to help reverse and lessen some withdrawal symptoms. Anti-inflammatories, nausea medications, and opioid replacement drugs like Suboxone can be given to control cravings for opioids and reduce the risk of a relapse.
Detox and withdrawal are only the first steps in overcoming opioid addiction. Post-withdrawal treatment plans and support are critical for maintaining sobriety. For those in recovery, counseling, support groups, therapy, and maintenance medications are ideal for preventing a relapse.
Are you struggling with opioid addiction and painful withdrawal symptoms? You don’t have to go it alone. Please contact the dedicated staff at Launch Centers today. Together, we’ll come up with a tailored treatment plan just for you.