5 Ways to Beat Opioid Withdrawal

5 Ways to Beat Opioid Withdrawal

Cold turkey's not the only way.

Quitting a heroin or prescription opioid addiction is a brave and commendable decision; it’s also incredibly difficult. But you don’t have to do it cold turkey. Medicine and medical treatment can help some of the withdrawal symptoms.

Medication can help reduce cravings and some of the other symptoms, like pain, agitation and anxiety. Not just medicine can help; psychotherapy and even alternative treatments can help, too. To understand why treatment helps, it’s important to first understand why people get withdrawals when they stop taking opioids.

Anatomy of opioid withdrawal
Molecules of opioid drugs bind to sections of cells called opioid receptors. These receptors influence a variety of body functions like breathing, mood, depression and pain sensitivity. After a period of using drugs the body develops a tolerance and requires more and more of the drug to get some of the effects. Eventually, the body will require the drugs in order for these receptors to function normally. That’s called dependence. When you’re dependent on the drug and don’t have it, withdrawal symptoms start to show up.

Symptoms of withdrawal
Opioid withdrawal comes in two stages. In the first, symptoms include anxiety, cravings for the drug, rapid breathing, stomach cramps, tearing up, runny nose and dilation of the pupils. Then, goosebumps, tremors and muscle twitching, rapid heart beat, fever and chills, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Symptoms can appear as soon as four hours after the last dose and can last for about a week.

What can help
Going cold turkey will guarantee withdrawal symptoms, but there are some treatment strategies that can help you wean yourself off of opioid dependence and may reduce withdrawal symptoms. Some of these strategies can be used in combination with each other. Talk to a healthcare provider to discuss your options if you’re serious about quitting.

1. Methadone – Methadone is an opioid that has been used to treat withdrawal from other opioids since the 60s. Methadone treatment lasts at least a year and sometimes two or more, during which the opioid user is gradually weaned off of the methadone. It’s taken orally, so it reaches the brain slowly, reducing both the opioid high and withdrawal symptoms.

2. Buprenorphine – Buprenorphine is another opioid, but it doesn’t produce much of a high, making it unlikely to be abused. It’s usually administered after someone has started to experience symptoms of withdrawal from opioids and prevents more withdrawal symptoms. Treatment last at least six months, but can continue for two years or more.

3. Clonidine – Clonidine is used to manage withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, irritability, sweating and runny nose. It doesn’t help reduce cravings, and is most likely to be used alongside buprenorphine or methadone.

4. Marijuana – A 2015 study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence suggests that a marijuana derivative called dronabinol, which is usually used to reduce nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy, may also be helpful in reducing opioid withdrawal symptoms. About 40 people who were taking naltrexone—which blocks the effects of opioids--were also given dronabinol. They reported less severe withdrawal symptoms during detox than a control group. The same study found that marijuana smokers in the study reported lower ratings of insomnia and anxiety, and were more likely to complete the naltrexone treatment.

5. Acupuncture – Acupuncture is an alternative health practice that has been in use for thousands of years. It’s known to relieve pain and to reduce nausea and vomiting after chemotherapy. A 2016 review of studies, published in the East Asian Archives of Psychiatry, suggests that acupuncture can be helpful in reducing depression and anxiety associated with opioid withdrawal, but found no effect on cravings. 

Medically reviewed in January 2019.

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