Opiates are potent narcotics that can cause severe addiction. Either sold on the street or legally prescribed, these drugs alter pathways in the brain that are associated with pleasure and comfort, creating a dependence with potentially serious consequences for a person’s life and health.
Recovering from addiction means stopping the drug – but abruptly quitting can cause withdrawal syndrome – a collection of symptoms that can range from simply uncomfortable to life threatening.
How does Addiction Begin?
Opiates are part of a larger class of drugs collectively known as opioids. Opiates such as heroin, morphine and codeine are naturally occurring derivatives of certain kinds of poppies – the “opium poppies” known even to ancient cultures. In recent years, other opiate-like drugs such as oxycodone and hydrocodone were synthesized for medical use as painkillers.
Collectively, all of these are now called opioids. And they all work in similar ways to stimulate the brain’s limbic system, seat of emotions such as pleasure, and depress the central nervous system to reduce pain messages sent from the body to the brain.
The combination of relaxation, comfort and pleasure sensations can be highly addictive, and the more those neural pathways are stimulated, the more a user seeks that feeling. As the brain and body develops a tolerance for the drug, higher and higher doses are needed to achieve the same effect.
Stopping leads to severe physical discomfort – withdrawal. To avoid the symptoms, users continue to seek out and use the drug in a cycle of dependence that can be very hard to break.
Opiate Withdrawal Symptoms
Breaking that cycle involves stopping the drug. But the withdrawal symptoms that come from quitting abruptly can be severe – and for some people, potentially life threatening. The constellation of symptoms that characterize opiate withdrawal are collectively called opiate withdrawal syndrome, and they can include headache, muscle and joint aches and pains, a runny nose, coughing, wheezing, stomach cramps, diarrhea and vomiting.
Less common but more severe effects of withdrawal can include hallucinations, mood changes, aggression and irritability, and even psychosis in severely addicted individuals or people addicted to multiple drugs.
Alcohol addiction can pose its own set of serious withdrawal symptoms, so those using both alcohol and opiates may need special monitoring and support during the withdrawal period. People with serious health conditions along with addiction may also need hospital support during withdrawal.
Managing Withdrawal Successfully
Although many people struggle with withdrawal on their own, the discomfort can trigger a relapse which puts them back into a cycle of using the drug, then stopping, so that they never completely quit. For most people, withdrawal works better with the help of trained professionals who can offer short term medication and other support during and after the process.
Managing withdrawal symptoms can be as simple as providing anti-nausea medications, pain medications such as ibuprofen for aches and cramping, or opioid antagonists like naltrexone, which blocks the drug’s action in the brain.
Acute symptoms of withdrawal usually subside within a week or two, but may linger. Because long term use of opiates actually rewires the brain and creates new pathways related to pleasure and reward, the cravings and habits associated with the drug can last for a considerable time.
To help people manage these symptoms over time, recovery programs may include maintenance drugs like methadone, which keep cravings at bay so that users can get the most benefit out of treatment and work to rebuild their lives.
Opiate addiction can have serious consequences for life and health – and can even be fatal. But stopping the drug can create its own difficulties. Managing opiate withdrawal symptoms can be distressing and uncomfortable, but addiction specialists and trained healthcare professionals can help users get through opiate withdrawal syndrome and start the path toward recovery. If you’re concerned about opiate use or addiction, we can help. Contact us at 800-442-6158 Who Answers? to find the options that are right for you.