How Can I Deal with Opiate Withdrawal Pain?

N. Swensson

Opiate withdrawal pain occurs when a person who is physically dependent on a drug such as heroin, methadone, or oxycontin stops taking it. The painful symptoms can begin as little as 12 hours after the last use of the drug and may include muscle aches and cramping, vomiting, and hot or cold flashes. Detoxification programs are available that provide medical supervision and treatment of withdrawal symptoms, usually by administering an opiate drug and gradually decreasing the dose until the person’s body has adapted to not having it. Other medications may also be used during detoxification and on a regular basis after the initial withdrawal to ease cravings and anxiety. Other treatment programs such as Narcotics Anonymous also are available to addicts to help them continue to stay sober.

Some addicts fear withdrawal symptoms so much that they can't stop taking the drug out of fear that they'll get sick.
Some addicts fear withdrawal symptoms so much that they can't stop taking the drug out of fear that they'll get sick.

Opiate drugs may be prescribed legally as painkillers, but some addicts purchase these medications illegally without a prescription. Others, such as heroin, are controlled substances and cannot be obtained legally. Any of these types are potentially addictive and can cause opiate withdrawal pain if the person stops taking the drug. Some addicts fear withdrawal so much that they believe they cannot stop taking the drug because they will get sick. Opiate withdrawal pain can be dangerous if not medically treated, and the risk of overdose is higher in people who have just completed a detoxification program.

A person addicted to heroin may scratch excessively during the withdrawal process.
A person addicted to heroin may scratch excessively during the withdrawal process.

Methadone is one of the most popular medications for managing withdrawal symptoms. When a person enters a detoxification program, he or she will be given an initial dose of methadone to stop opiate withdrawal pain from happening. This dose will be gradually decreased over a period of about one to four weeks, depending on the severity of the person’s physical dependence. Another medication called clonidine is also used to treat anxiety, muscle aches, and other withdrawal symptoms. Clonidine can be given as a prescription that a person may continue to take after leaving the detox program to calm cravings and other unwanted problems. Although not all experts agree that taking this type of maintenance medication is the best treatment method, some evidence suggests that it is more effective than counseling or other long-term treatments not involving medication.

It can be dangerous for a person to stop using heroin unsupervised.
It can be dangerous for a person to stop using heroin unsupervised.

Another treatment for opiate withdrawal pain is called rapid detox. It involves putting the person under anesthesia and giving him or her medications that block opiate receptors in the brain. There is controversy over whether rapid detox is effective at reducing the actual time a person spends in treatment. Some also argue that this method is dangerous and has been fatal.

Bed rest is helpful when dealing with withdrawal.
Bed rest is helpful when dealing with withdrawal.

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