Painkiller detox and withdrawal can be extremely difficult. When someone is addicted to a narcotic, it changes parts of their brain and also causes shifts in the systems of their brain designed to regulate reward and mood behaviors. When someone is a user of prescription drugs, particularly if they’ve been abusing them for a long period, it impacts virtually every system of their body, which is why withdrawal leads to physical symptoms. Symptoms of withdrawal that can occur during the detox period range from mild to severe, and they can become incredibly uncomfortable, although not life-threatening.
Some of the most common questions regarding painkiller withdrawal and withdrawal symptoms include:
- How long do painkiller withdrawal symptoms last?
- What are the stages of painkiller withdrawal?
- Can you die from painkiller withdrawal?
- What is cold turkey withdrawal like?
- Is there painkiller withdrawal relief?
When a person has been taking painkillers, particularly for a long time, their body needs to recover from that usage. Withdrawal can occur not only with stopping cold turkey but even just reducing the amount taken.
There tend to be both early and late stage symptoms of withdrawal, and they’re not considered life-threatening, but they can be difficult to manage in terms of discomfort. Symptoms will usually start within about 12 hours after taking the last dose of an opioid.
The symptoms of opioid withdrawal can last anywhere from a few hours to several days and even up to weeks. The length of time you experience withdrawal symptoms usually depends on individual factors including how long you took painkillers or opiates and how much you’ve used the drug.
Withdrawal symptoms aren’t just difficult physically when you stop using painkillers and opioids. There is also very much a mental component and mental discomfort that comes along with the experience as well.
In some cases, medications can be given to help people deal with withdrawal symptoms, and they’re usually given during the detox phase. These medicines are intended to make the process of moving out of physical dependence more tolerable, but with some of these drugs, there is still an addiction component that can occur, so using these medications has to be done carefully and under professional medical guidance.
An overdose of painkillers is usually marked by the presence of three major symptoms according to the World Health Organization. These symptoms include pinpoint pupils, loss of consciousness and slowed breathing.
While these are the primary defining characteristics of an overdose, other signs a painkiller overdose is occurring can include skin that feels cold or clammy, drowsiness, low blood pressure, a weak pulse or vomiting.
Some of the things that can increase the likelihood of a painkiller overdose include:
- Snorting painkillers or injecting them
- Constantly increasing the doses taken
- Taking unknown doses
- Taking opioids that contain other drugs, or that are counterfeit
The process of withdrawal from painkillers or any opioid refers to tapering down the use of certain substances or stopping altogether. These drugs work in such a way that the stimulate the reward center of the brain, which is why they’re addictive, as well as the fact that they make people feel no discomfort when they’re on them.
Some of the early symptoms that can come along with painkiller withdrawal stages include:
- Muscle aches
Then, as the painkiller withdrawal stages progress, symptoms of late-onset withdrawal can include more uncomfortable symptoms like abdominal cramping, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting.
With most prescription painkillers, withdrawal symptoms will usually begin within a few hours after the last dose is taken, and the withdrawal symptoms are very similar to what’s experienced with heroin.
It’s difficult to answer the question of how long does it take to withdraw from painkillers because a lot of factors play into this answer. People report very different withdrawal experiences across the board. A solid estimate to answer the question of how long does it take to withdraw from painkillers is about a week, although this can be longer. While most symptoms start to appear around six hours after the first dose, it can take up to 48 hours for there to be symptoms of withdrawal with painkillers.
If someone was taking extended-release painkillers, this means they’ll stay in the body for longer, so the onset of withdrawal symptoms will take longer.
In most cases, the peak of withdrawal symptoms for people who are addicted to painkillers is the second or third day after the symptoms began. Usually, by the end of the first week, symptoms will start lessening.
It’s important to note that while many of the more severe physical symptoms will start to subside after about a week during the withdrawal process, there can be chronic symptoms associated with painkiller withdrawal that can continue for weeks or months. These include anxiety and depression.
Painkiller withdrawal stages begin with symptoms such as aching in the muscles or joints, and there may be some other symptoms initially present as well, such as cramping, sweating, and nausea. These first painkiller withdrawal stages can feel somewhat like coming down with the flu. Then, during the following days, there is a peak in the system as the body attempts to rid itself of toxins. This is the reason vomiting, sweating and diarrhea occur.
After around five days for most people, the physical withdrawal symptoms will start to go away, but this is when psychological symptoms begin to manifest themselves. Stopping the use of painkillers and opiates isn’t just about physical dependency, and the withdrawal process is just as much about managing the psychological symptoms as the physical. Many people will experience feelings of anxiety and depression, and as their thinking becomes more clear, they may start to feel remorseful for their actions when they were using painkillers.
The withdrawal process can be one that’s physically and mentally difficult, and in many cases, incredibly tough to get through. That’s why it’s important for people who are addicted to prescription painkillers to seek medically supervised detox and withdrawal programs.
The goal of these programs is to help people move through the painkiller withdrawal stages as comfortably as is possible and manage both the physical and emotional symptoms effectively in a way that will allow them to be successful.
It’s important to remember that no two people are alike, and no two withdrawal experiences are going to be exactly alike. The timeline may be relatively similar for a lot of individuals addicted to painkillers, but there are outliers as well who experience the stages more quickly, or for whom withdrawal takes longer. It’s also important to note that some of the symptoms of withdrawal from opioids can linger for weeks or months.
When someone is addicted to or dependent on painkillers, and they decide to stop using them, they will begin with a detox. Some people may explore their detox options which can include a rapid detox, home detox, or medical detox.
In most cases and in particular for heavy, long-term prescription painkiller users, the best course of action is a medical detox. The reason is that withdrawal symptoms can be severe, so people who opt for a home detox on their own aren’t often successful and will ultimately fail and go back to using the drug. There are some instances where a cold turkey withdrawal can not only be difficult and lead to failure but can also be somewhat dangerous for the person experiencing the symptoms.
The goal of any medical detox or inpatient painkiller detox protocol is to create a program that minimizes withdrawal symptoms as much as possible and helps with the safe, effective cessation of the use of opiates.
Once someone completes an inpatient painkiller detox protocol, they will usually then start a community-based rehab program that will include a combination of one-on-one and group therapy, medical supervision and other therapeutic activities that can aid in recovery.
What about the common question of how long does it take to detox from painkillers? Some of the factors that play a role in how long a medical detox will be for a person include the following:
- How long has the person been using opiates? If someone has been using painkillers for years, detoxing is going to be much more challenging as compared to someone who’s been using them for a few months. Also, if someone has been functioning on opioids the majority of the time, detox options are going to be harder for
- What type of drug was being taken? Even though prescription painkillers and opioids are often categorized together, the particular drug or painkiller being taken can play a significant role in how long it takes to detox.
- What is the level of tolerance? With painkillers, there is often the tendency for the body to build up a tolerance, which is what leads to physical dependence. The level of tolerance and the dosage a person was taking of the painkiller is significant in determining how long detox will take. For people who were taking higher doses of painkillers, it may be necessary to do an inpatient painkiller detox protocol that involves gradually tapering off the drug, rather than immediately stopping altogether.
- Is the addiction psychological as well as physical? For some people, they may experience only the physical dependency to painkillers, but not the psychological component, but many people experience both dependence and addiction, which makes the detox process more difficult.
- Which route is the person taking? Detox options include going cold turkey, tapering or replacement therapy. When going cold turkey, you drop your dosages down to nothing, but this can be when the most powerful withdrawal symptoms occur. With tapering detox options, the person would, as an example, cut their medication dosage down by about 25% every few days, until ultimately the dose was zero. Another detox option is replacement therapy. This involves going on a less powerful opiate such as Suboxone, to stop using the drug you’re originally addicted to. This can be effective in some ways, but dangerous in others because many people will then become addicted to the replacement drug.
Another option that’s often touted for detoxing from painkillers is called rapid detox. With rapid detox, the concept is that you go under anesthesia and then you’re given opioid antagonist medications that speed up withdrawal symptoms, so then you wouldn’t experience the acute symptoms since you would still be under.
Despite the claims that rapid detox can help you move through withdrawal more easily, a lot of research has come out in recent years showing that there’s not necessarily evidence to support this. There is also the potential for this method to be dangerous for someone who has certain medical conditions.
In most situations, during an inpatient detox program, which tends to bring the best results, you’re evaluated to determine your level of dependence on painkillers. You’re given a physician exam, and then a treatment plan is created, that may focus on tapering or other methods to move you through the detox process.
Once you complete detox, you can begin your treatment for your addiction, which is the time when the underlying causes and issues that led to your addiction are addressed.
The detox process is one that’s very individualized, so there’s no definitive answer as to how long it will take, or even what the person will experience, although the above information can give you a general idea of what to expect.
For some people who want to detox at home rather than in a medical detox facility, there may be a tendency to look for home remedies or over the counter medications that can help them through the process.
Unfortunately, more often than not, attempting to detox at home leads to the inability to stop using painkillers, because there aren’t the necessary supportive resources in place. Detox is a very difficult situation, and it should be done in a facility or setting where there are medical guidance and oversight, as well as the necessary resources.
Depending on the individual, some detox facilities may administer medications during detox that are designed to mitigate withdrawal symptoms and manage physical and psychological cravings.
Some of the medications that might be used when detoxing from painkillers include:
- Methadone: Methadone acts on the brain similarly to the way other opioids do, but it has a longer half-life, so it doesn’t necessarily produce the extreme highs of other drugs. It can help people with their opiate withdrawal symptoms, but it can lead to its own addiction, so this is something that’s used cautiously by care providers.
- Buprenorphine: This is something else that may be used as part of a detox protocol, and it tends to be less addictive than methadone.
- Naltrexone: This is considered an opioid antagonist, which prevents opioids from triggering the brain’s reward system. This can hinder the ability to get high, which can discourage use or abuse of painkillers and other opioids.
These are just a few of the medical interventions that might be used in a detox setting. Again, it’s important that people who are abusing painkillers understand that using home remedies or over the counter remedies are probably going to lead them to failure in their quest to stop using.
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