Opiates are powerful pain relieving drugs with a high potential for addiction. Because these substances can cause both physical and psychological dependence, stopping their use abruptly can plunge a person into opiate withdrawal syndrome, with a long list of symptoms affecting both body and mind.
What Makes Opiates So Addictive?
Opiates are drugs naturally derived from the seeds of certain poppy plants. This group includes heroin, morphine, codeine and opium – potent substances that can relieve pain and boost sensations of pleasure and relaxation.
These drugs are part of a larger class now called opioids that also includes a number of synthetic opiate-like drugs manufactured in laboratories, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone.
Legal opiates are often prescribed to reduce moderate to severe pain from injuries, surgeries and illnesses. They act on receptors in the brain to suppress pain messages from the body and promote feelings of pleasure and comfort.
Opiates depress activity in the central nervous system, which is responsible for autonomous functions like breathing, heart rate and digestion. At the same time, they stimulate activity in the brain’s limbic system, home to emotions such as pleasure.
The combined effects of enhanced pleasure, diminished pain, and slowed reactions make these drugs highly addictive. Over time, the brain and body develop a tolerance for them, so that users need to take more and more – or combine them with other drugs – to get the same feelings.
As use continues, the brain’s neural pathways change and the body adjusts to the effects of the drug, so that stopping the drug abruptly plunges the user into withdrawal syndrome – a complex of symptoms that appear when the body and brain are no longer receiving the drug.
Opiate Withdrawal Syndrome
Opiate withdrawal syndrome is characterized by several uncomfortable and potentially life threatening symptoms that usually begin to appear within 12 to 48 hours after stopping the drug.
These symptoms are widely called “flu-like,” including headache, body aches and pains, runny nose, sweating, fever and chills. Other symptoms can include stomach cramps, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. In cases of very severe addiction, withdrawal can trigger more serious symptoms such as psychosis, hallucinations or disorientation too.
These acute withdrawal symptoms usually subside over the course of a week or two. For most people, withdrawal poses serious discomforts but not serious risks. But for people who are in poor health or who are addicted to multiple drugs, withdrawal becomes more complicated and these individuals might need intensive medical supervision during “detox,” or the process of clearing the system of drugs.
Although acute withdrawal syndrome lasts a relatively short time, the cravings and psychological symptoms can persist for much longer, interfering with a person’s recovery from addiction and triggering relapses. Counseling, therapy and medication support can help recovering addicts manage those symptoms and keep them from derailing their progress over time.
Managing Opiate Withdrawal Syndrome
Every individual is unique – and every treatment plan must be tailored to specific needs., But in general, recovery from strongly physically addictive opiates can be helped by medications such as methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone, which work to quiet cravings and other symptoms so users can benefit from treatment and resume normal lives. The symptoms may linger for weeks, months or more, so these “maintenance medications” may be used for long periods of time along with other support such as groups or counseling.
Because long use of powerful opiates does indeed carve new pathways in the brain, returning those pathways to “normal” can take time. Getting the right support during opiate withdrawal syndrome and beyond can help people struggling with opiate addictions to regain healthy lives. If you’re concerned about using opiates or making the decision to stop, we can help. Contact us at 800-442-6158 Who Answers? for information and help finding the right resources and treatment plan for you.