How to deal with opiate withdrawal

Opiates produce a feel-good sensation in the body, reducing pain and anxiety, and creating a feeling of euphoria in large enough doses. The feeling produced by opiates is similar to the feeling produced by the body’s natural pain-relief and happiness chemicals, endorphins. This similarity is due to the fact that opiates and endorphins share a similar chemical structure, according to PBS Frontline.

Unlike the feeling created by endorphins, however, the sensation created by taking opiates is unnatural, though opiates do still have the ability to alter the body’s responses. When taken over a long period of time, the body’s nerve receptors adjust to the presence of the opiates, building up a resistance to them, which results in a need to increase the dosage to get the same feeling of euphoria. The body also becomes dependent upon an external substance to manage pain and emotional states, decreasing the impact of endorphins for natural emotion and pain management.

Physical Dependence

This physical dependence on opiates makes withdrawal especially difficult for abusers. Once the body adjusts to the level of pain relief and euphoria provided by opiate use, when opiates are removed from the equation, it takes time for the body to readjust to its natural pre-dependence levels. During this withdrawal, emotional lows feel lower and physical pain feels amplified. The physical pain alone often makes it difficult for abusers to stop using opiates on their own. The safest, most effective way for a user to end a dependence on opiates is to get professional help.

Opiate Forms

Several well-known substances fall under the category of opiates. These include:

  • Heroin, an illegal street drug derived from morphine
  • Morphine, a common prescription pain reliever for moderate to severe pain
  • Oxycontin (oxycodone), a common prescription pain reliever for moderate to severe pain
  • Codeine, a common prescription pain reliever for mild to moderate pain
  • Hydromorphone, a common prescription pain reliever for severe pain, sold under the brand name Dilaudid
According to MedlinePlus, the health information site of the National Institute of Health’s U.S. National Library of Medicine, approximately 9-percent of the population misuses opiates over the course of their lifetimes.


Since the pain that comes with opiate withdrawal prevents many abusers from being able to quit, a professional detoxification process has the potential to help users who can’t quit on their own. Whether going through professional detox or detoxing without professional help, though, users can expect the same basic symptoms. For several days, users may experience muscle pain, anxiety, insomnia, cramping, vomiting and diarrhea. These symptoms begin within 12 hours after the last usage of an opiate.

The severity of symptoms depends upon the extent of the addiction. The longer a person has been using opiates and the more opiates a person takes on a daily basis, the worse the detoxification process tends to be. Professional detoxification programs help ease the symptoms of withdrawal, often through the use of methadone.


opiate withdrawal

Methadone is a synthetic opiate used as both a pain reliever and as a medical solution to opiate abuse. Professional detoxification programs often administer methadone during the detoxification process to alleviate the worst of the symptoms of opiate detox. The amount of methadone administered to an opiate abuser is lessened over the course of process, so that the individual is slowly weaned off of the substance. This makes the detoxification process less painful, which helps ensure success.

Often, methadone is continued beyond the detoxification process to prevent users from relapsing back into their former opiate abuse. Though the practice of administering methadone to opiate users has been controversial, experts in the medical industry have come to a consensus that many users of opiates cannot stop using opiates without a substitute, and methadone provides a medical substitution for illegal opiate abuse.

The positive results that have come from methadone maintenance programs, during which abusers get regular doses of methadone, include:

  • Consistency in emotional state – methadone-maintained users don’t have the emotional highs and lows associated with irregular, illegal opiate use
  • Increased safety – methadone-maintained users don’t have the risks of disease associated with intravenous injection of illegal opiates
  • Decrease in crime – methadone-maintained users have no need to engage in criminal behavior to obtain opiates
Additionally, studies have shown that opiate abusers who maintain their opiate-dependence through methadone programs have lower rates of depression, and greater chances of holding jobs and maintaining rewarding family lives. According to the Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide, 25-percent of opiate users treated with methadone eventually end their dependence on opiates.

Reducing the Symptoms of Withdrawal

Even with professional detoxification, opiate withdrawal proves a painful experience for many, especially long-term users who take large amounts of the opiate to which they are addicted. While methadone provides the most effective means of eliminating the symptoms of withdrawal, there are a few things that users can do for themselves to lessen the pain does still develop.

During the detoxification process, individuals should maintain a healthy diet. This means eating even when nausea and cramping makes food unappealing and drinking plenty of fluids to counteract vomiting and diarrhea and to prevent dehydration. Yoga, basic stretching and gentle physical activity, such as walking, reduces the muscle pain associated with opiate withdrawal, as do warm baths for many people.

Detox is hard on the body and the psyche, so those making the effort to quit should be diligent about self-care to make the process less taxing.


opiate withdrawal

Due to the ability of opiates to change the body’s nerve receptors, physical dependence on opiates is strong. There is a psychological component to opiate addiction as well, though. The sense of euphoria produced by opiates is as addictive for most users as the physical dependence, so even after the elimination of the physical component through detoxification, opiate abusers crave the drug for the feel-good aspects.

Post-rehabilitation counseling helps those with opiate addictions handle cravings and find healthier ways to deal with the physical or emotional pain that often precipitates opiate addiction in the first place. A trained therapist can help a user who has relied on opiates to cope with emotional pain deal with past trauma and current life situations, a medical doctor can help a user who has relied on opiates to cope with physical pain find develop a healthy pain management routine, and support groups, such as Narcotics Anonymous, can provide users with a support system after rehab to help prevent relapses into past habits.

Human beings can only withstand so much pain. That’s why the human body has its own natural response system to fight physical and emotional pain when it occurs. Since opiates provide relief that is so similar to that of the body’s natural responses, it’s not surprising that they are so highly-addictive.

Take a Step to Recovery

Opiate addiction is not easy to reverse, and the psychological addiction lasts years after the physical dependence is gone. Due to changes in the body from opiate use, withdrawal from opiates generally proves the most difficult part of the rehabilitation process, though, so once users get the help they need to make it through the detoxification process, it’s possible for them to maintain their addiction through abstinence or methadone programs and live full, healthy lives free of opiate dependence.

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