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Why is Opioid Withdrawal Such a Harsh Experience?

Twenty years after the saddening mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, the death toll has now risen. Injuries sustained from that fatal day led to a course of opioid painkillers for one of the students who survived, Austin Eubanks. The prescription subsequently led to opioid addiction. His substance abuse problem continued to blight his life. He abused opioids just to be able to manage the effects of that day’s traumatic incident.

“If I had to offer up a one-sentence definition of addiction, I’d call it a form of mourning for the irrecoverable glories of the first time… Addiction can show us what is deeply suspect about nostalgia. That drive to return to the past isn’t an innocent one. It’s about stopping your passage to the future, it’s a symptom of fear of death and the love of predictable experience.” – Ann Marlowe, New York journalist, and writer

Austin’s story may be extreme, but sadly, it points to the truth about the opioid epidemic in the United States. Idaho has certainly not been excluded from its devastating consequences. This crisis has followed a formula that has become far too common:

Pain + Opioids = Addiction

opioid pain relief

But prescription opioids are not as easy to obtain today as they once were. This fact alone has driven people to seek out an alternative, which they typically find in heroin. Quitting any type of opioid drug is difficult because of the severe withdrawal symptoms that people experience. For many people, the pain of withdrawal is too much for them to handle, and they go back to using again. But what they don’t realize is that changes in their tolerance levels have resulted in them needing much less to get high. This is why there have been so many overdoses involving heroin and prescription painkillers. What is it that makes opioid withdrawal so difficult to handle? This is the question we want to answer today.

What are the Symptoms of Opioid Withdrawal?

Opioid withdrawal tends to happen in stages. At first, the symptoms are mild, but then as time goes by, they become more severe. There are also symptoms that show up later on that are not necessarily evident in the beginning. The earlier symptoms of opioid withdrawal include:

  • Excessive yawning
  • A runny nose
  • Excessive sweating
  • Insomnia and other sleep difficulties
  • Muscle aches and pains
  • Anxiety
  • Anger and agitation
  • Eye tearing

There are also significant cravings that people experience during the early stages of withdrawal. Most people have felt these symptoms if they have ever missed a dose of their pain medication after they’ve gotten addicted to them. They can be uncomfortable, but they’re not so bad that a person cannot deal with them. The problem is that opioid withdrawal doesn’t stop there. As more of the drug starts to leave the body, there are additional symptoms that people experience, such as:

  • Stomach cramps
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Goosebumps
  • Dilated pupils
  • Diarrhea

Also, the cravings become even more intense once the next stage of withdrawal sets in. It’s during this time period when people start thinking about going back to using again.

The Severity of Withdrawal

Not everyone will experience opioid withdrawal symptoms that are especially severe. People are all very different as far as how they react once the drug they were using begins to leave their bodies. But there are a number of factors that may influence how hard withdrawal is, such as:

  • How long they have been using the opioid drug.
  • How long it takes for the drug to clear their system.
  • How healthy the person is.
  • If they choose to quit using cold turkey.
  • If they get professional treatment to get off opioids.
  • If they used additional drugs alongside opioids, such as alcohol or cocaine.

Possible Complications From Opioid Withdrawal

We feel that it is also important to mention the possible complications that can occur when a person stops using opioid drugs. Remember, prescription painkillers, heroin and other opioids are very strong substances. They have a profound effect on the body, which means that coming off them is not likely to be easy. It stands to reason that some people might have complications when trying to stop taking them. Research has shown that it is possible to die from opioid withdrawal. Typically, it is not life-threatening, but the risk of complications is very real. When people suffer through severe vomiting and diarrhea, it can lead to dehydration. In turn, this can cause their blood sodium levels to become elevated, which can result in heart failure.

opioid withdrawal

How Long Does Opioid Withdrawal Last?

Once you stop taking opioids, you’re only going to have one question – how long are the withdrawal symptoms going to last? You’ll feel as though you’re desperate for it to be over, and rightly so. Let’s talk about the opioid withdrawal timeline and you might expect when you quit.

  • Stage 1: Your Symptoms Begin – The start of withdrawal depends on the type of drug you were using. Some people will start to experience symptoms as soon as six hours after their last dose. Others may begin to feel it twelve hours after, and there are some people who will take up to 30 hours. The half-life of the drug is what indicates the beginning of withdrawal. But once it starts, symptoms should be fairly mild.
  • Stage 2: Your Symptoms Worsen – Over the first few days, you’ll find that your symptoms gradually increase in severity. You may notice that you transition from early withdrawal into later withdrawal.
  • Stage 3: Your Symptoms Reach Their Peak – People typically go through the peak of withdrawal at right around the 72-hour mark following their last dose. But once they hit the peak, those symptoms can last for a week, or even longer in some cases.
  • Stage 4: Your Symptoms Start to Resolve – While it may be hard to believe while you’re going through it, opioid withdrawal does get better. Sometime during the second week after your last dose, you’ll notice that you start to feel more like yourself. Many symptoms will disappear completely and others will become less bothersome.
  • Stage 5: You May Experience PAWS – PAWS stands for Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome. It refers to a group of symptoms that people experience after going through the initial stages of withdrawal. Without proper treatment, PAWS can last for a very long time – up to several months. People often relapse when they go through this stage if they don’t have the proper support and help.

The good news is that with the right treatment, PAWS can be avoided and people can recover successfully. But without getting support and help, opioid withdrawal is likely to be extremely difficult and only cause people to relapse.

Why are Opioid Withdrawal Symptoms so Harsh?

Opioid withdrawal is so difficult to get through because of how powerful these drugs are. They are highly addictive, which is not something that most doctors would discuss with their patients; at least not in the past. Today, those conversations are becoming much more common. But considering the fact that more than 130 people die every day because of overdosing on opioids, it’s really too little too late. All opioids produce similar withdrawal symptoms. This includes prescription painkillers like Vicodin and Oxycodone, and it includes heroin and opium. They are all very similar, chemically. These drugs are so highly addictive because they do two things.

  1. Block the sensations of pain in the body.
  2. Trigger the release of excess dopamine.

When these two are combined, the result is a drug that people want to continue taking the drug again and again. When a person experiences a dopamine rush, they feel better than they ever have before. But the feeling doesn’t last long, which makes the user want to experience that again. Eventually, the brain starts seeking opioids as a reward, and the person ends up being unable to function without them. Over time, the individual stops being able to function properly without their usual dose of opioids. When they don’t have access to their drugs of choice, there are serious problems. Withdrawal symptoms start and won’t stop until they administer the drug again, or get treatment. In this video, Travis Rieder discusses his experience with opioid drugs and how hard it was to get off them. He thought that his withdrawal symptoms would never end, and his doctor wasn’t of much help. His best advice was to go back on the medications in order to get relief.

The Physical Impact

It’s one thing to look at a list of opioid withdrawal symptoms; it’s quite another to really dig deeper into how those symptoms impact lives. This type of withdrawal is physically excruciating. In fact, there are those who have even referred to it as physical torture. A man by the name of Matt Ganem was only 16 years old when he tried his first opioid painkiller. It was one Oxycontin pill, but it started him on the slippery slope of addiction. He says, “You’re literally coming undone at the seams, you’re crawling out of your skin…it’s basically like you’re living in hell.”

When opioids are used for a long period of time, the body gets used to functioning at a slower rate. But once the drug is removed, the body just unravels. The hypothalamus is the part of the brain that regulates body temperature. It gets completely off course, which is what results in excessive sweating during withdrawal. Also, consistent opioid use leads to constipation. When the drugs are stopped, the result is either severe diarrhea, excessive vomiting, or a combination of both. People experience aching bones and muscles that are often compared to what people go through when they have the flu. But they are much worse. Matt turned to heroin when he could no longer access Oxycodone, which is what often happens with opioid addicts. Fortunately, he was able to get help to get off all drugs and now, he helps others get into treatment.

The Psychological Impact

The hippocampus – which is the part of the brain that handles emotions – goes into overdrive when opioids are stopped. This results in severe anxiety. If anxiety was the only consequence of opioid withdrawal that people experienced, they may be able to get through it. But unfortunately, it gets much worse. Many people who are addicted to opioids become depressed to the point where they get suicidal. The reality is that people who abuse these drugs have underlying mental health issues before they start using. Taking painkillers or heroin is something that makes them feel better in the short-term, but those underlying issues are still there.

The chances of experiencing these mental health issues are greater when people try to recover on their own. They can be better controlled in a professional environment, which can make for an easier recovery.

Real Stories of Opioid Withdrawal

There are so many stories of people who have gone through opioid withdrawal, and we wanted to share some of them here. The pain that these individuals went through is very real. Anyone who is considering quitting their use of these drugs should learn from what others have dealt with.

Madora’s Story

Madora Pennington was born with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. This is a genetic disorder that results in severe nervous system problems, extreme fatigue and excruciating pain. When she was just 13 years old, it was nearly impossible for her to walk around her school. By the time she was 20, she had started contemplating suicide to end her agony. In 2008, her doctor put her on an opiate regimen that – at the time – seemed to be the answer. She felt as though it saved her life, and her doctor was more than willing to supply her with an endless amount of medication. Her doctor warned her that she may never be able to get off the cocktail he prescribed, but that didn’t matter to her. She wanted relief, and that was what she got. The benefits were immediate. The mysterious bruises stopped appearing on her body. Her skin didn’t tear anymore. She was able to build muscles and experience real progress with her disease. As her condition improved, she lowered her dose. Eventually, she got to the point where she was ready to stop taking them altogether. She went to her pharmacist for advice, and was told to just go slowly. She stated, “But soon every cell in my body screamed for Vicodin. In a life filled with pain, even I never knew such anguish could exist.” She became so sick that she thought she was dying. She continued on, even making a chart as she tapered off so she could see when the end was near. But the drugs had done extensive damage on her body. It wasn’t until her doctor recommended a low dose of naltrexone that she was finally able to experience true freedom.

Rebekkah’s Story

Rebekkah was prescribed painkillers after an ankle injury when she was just fourteen years old. She was given the drugs without any words of caution; she just knew that they would make her feel better. But eventually, her addiction moved from prescription drugs to heroin. By the second day, Rebekkah was starting to experience more severe withdrawal symptoms. She was very restless, unable to sleep, and sweating severely. The fatigue was overwhelming, and she was suffering. When she looked in the mirror, she stated she saw “nothing” because she was completely spiritually empty. Rebekkah used her experience to show other people how dangerous opioid drugs are. This video details her journey during withdrawal.

It was such a hard trial for Rebekkah, but she saw hope with every passing day. She felt as though she was coming back from the dead.

How do People Manage Opioid Withdrawal Symptoms?

There are many ways to manage opioid withdrawal, but not all of them are beneficial or even recommended. Most people will gravitate toward quitting cold turkey, or doing a self-detox at home. Both of these sound like easy options – even heroic – but they are dangerous because of the possibility of complications and the risk of relapsing. Professional opioid treatment is the best way to manage opioid withdrawal symptoms. Detoxing is the first step because it deals directly with withdrawal. People can get relief for their symptoms and they learn that quitting really is possible. The next step is to go to rehab for counseling and therapy. This is the step that helps people understand why they got addicted and learn how to avoid getting in that situation again.

Do Opioid Addicts Have Hope for Recovery?

Yes! There is hope for recovery through professional treatment. This might be where you are right now, and it may seem as though all hope is lost. We want you to know that it is not, and that you can overcome your addiction to opioids.

Professional Opioid Addiction Treatment in Idaho

If you live in Idaho, there are so many ways for you to get the support you need to stop using opioids. It doesn’t matter if you’re addicted to Oxycodone or heroin; both cause the same types of withdrawal symptoms, like we mentioned above. Getting off these drugs requires a two-step process during recovery.

Drug Detox

The first step is to go through detox. In the beginning, this should only be done on an inpatient basis. There are many outpatient detox programs for people to choose from, but detoxing that way can be dangerous. People are much more likely to relapse, and if they do, they could end up overdosing. During inpatient detox, every person should be assessed to determine what they need to be successful. Some people will need to be weaned off the drug slowly. Others will need certain types of medications to help them with their symptoms. There are many medications that have been approved to treat opioid withdrawal, such as Suboxone and Buprenorphine.

Drug Rehab

During drug rehab, withdrawal symptoms are more controlled and should be minimal. This is the time when people focus on what led to their substance abuse problems. They go through many different types of counseling and therapy as they learn more about their addictions. The main goal of drug rehab is to determine what led to the addiction. Many people start using opioids to treat their pain, but then they notice that the drugs help with their mental health issues. These individuals suffer from co-occurring disorders, and it’s critical to treat the addiction and the mental illness at the same time.

opioid rehab program

Our Outpatient Rehab Program

At Ashwood Recovery, we offer a comprehensive outpatient drug treatment program. We have two locations in Idaho; one in Boise and one in Nampa. We recognize that our clients all come to us with unique needs, and we strive to meet them on an individual basis. We offer three levels of care at our facilities. They are partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient treatment and traditional outpatient rehab. Our clients are carefully assessed to determine which level they need. So many people are suffering because of opioid addictions in Idaho. We want them to know that there is hope for them to recover, and we can guide them. With our support, it is possible to heal and go on to live a happy, healthy and prosperous life.

We Offer Referrals for Detox and Medication Management Services

At Ashwood Recovery, we do not offer inpatient detox services. But because we know how important it is to detox off opioids, we provide our clients with referrals. We only refer to programs that we know and trust. After detoxing, our clients can return to us for therapy. We provide them with medication management services, including Vivitrol services, if that is a medication that was recommended for them.

Learn More About Opioid Withdrawal and What Your Treatment Options are in Idaho

The National Institute on Drug Abuse states that:

  • In 2017, more than 70,000 people died from drug overdoses in Idaho.
  • Close to 48,000 of these deaths involved opioid drugs.
  • The biggest increase was seen among deaths that involved Fentanyl, or similar drugs.
  • Fentanyl accounted for more than 28,000 of these deaths.
  • During that same year, 70.3 opioid prescriptions were written for every 100 people in Idaho.
  • This is much higher than the national average of 58.7 for every 100 people.

We’re nowhere near the end of the opioid crisis in Idaho, or elsewhere in the United States. But is the problem getting better? Only time will tell. At Ashwood Recovery, we want people to know that we understand what they’re going through. It’s terrible to live your life chained to an addiction, but so many people think they don’t have any other choice. We want people to know that they do, and that we’re here to help them.

Do you have questions about opioid withdrawal that we didn’t cover here? Contact us today and let’s talk about your treatment options.