Painkiller withdrawal occurs with any individual who is physically dependent on painkillers and attempts to discontinue their use abruptly.
Painkillers are semi-synthetic (man-made) opiates and include such drugs as:
All of the painkillers as mentioned above are habit-forming, and long-term use results in physical dependency. Because painkillers are opiate based, the physical dependence produced by long-term use of these drugs creates a painful and uncomfortable set of withdrawal symptoms. While not life threatening in most cases, it is not uncommon for these withdrawal symptoms to strongly reinforce the continued use of these drugs rather than following through with an attempt to detox and get sober from them.
Painkiller Withdrawal Symptoms
Anyone can become dependent on painkillers, whether an individual has a legitimate medical need or he or she is abusing painkillers non-medically. Discontinuation of these drugs after chronic and prolonged use results in painkiller withdrawal, which is commonly referred to as “dope sickness.” Although the term originated with heroin, painkillers have identical effects and withdrawal symptoms.
The most common symptoms associated with painkiller withdrawal are preceded by a few symptoms of early onset of withdrawal. These symptoms are typically cold sweats, and frequent autonomic yawning and sneezing. For most addicts, these symptoms are an ominous sign of impending full withdrawal, which includes the following symptoms:
- High fever
- Abdominal pain
- Increased anxiety
- Muscle pain and spasms
- Nausea and vomiting
- Cold sweats
- Severe cravings
- High blood pressure
- Increased heart rate
These painkiller withdrawal symptoms can be excruciating for users, and the severity depends on the specific type of painkiller and the extent of its use by the individual.
Some painkillers that are weaker and have long-lasting effects may result in a longer and less intense withdrawal, while strong and immediate release painkillers are more likely to cause a fast, but more intense set of withdrawal symptoms. Despite generalizations, any individual who has been using painkillers for a prolonged period, or who has been abusing them chronically and excessively is at an increased risk of more severe painkiller withdrawal symptoms.
Getting Over Painkiller Withdrawal
Once dependent on painkillers, the obstacle of getting off of these drugs can be daunting and frightening. For many who face this challenge, the fear of enduring painkiller withdrawal can be overwhelming and discouraging. Enduring painkiller withdrawal alone, and when left to one’s own devices often results in an abandonment of the process and the continuation of use.
Like withdrawal from any other drug of addiction, one of the most dangerous parts of painkiller withdrawal is the high potential for relapse during the abstinence efforts of detox.
To lessen the possibility of relapse and ease the symptoms of painkiller withdrawal, there are a variety of methods individuals can use to detox from these addictive drugs.
Traditional Medical Detox
Traditional medical detox is the most common and well-known methods of getting through painkiller withdrawal. In this setting, an individual checks into a detox facility that is equipped to dispense medication to manage the symptoms of painkiller withdrawal. Upon entering the facility, an intake interview and screening is conducted to check for drug levels in the blood and urine, as well as gathering general medical information and client history to determine any potential complications during the detox process
Once an intake is completed, the most common way to finish the detox is with the use of a partial opiate agonist called Suboxone®. Suboxone is a combinations drug that contains buprenorphine and a small amount of naloxone. Naloxone is an opioid antagonist that reverses and blocks the effects of opiates and painkillers. The combination of these two drugs allows the buprenorphine to bind to opioid receptors in the brain, thereby reducing the symptoms associated with painkiller withdrawal. Additionally, the naloxone has an opposing effect, but on a much less intense level, which prevents the euphoric feeling associated with painkillers.
During a medical detox, the dosage of Suboxone is usually tapered on a daily basis, as the symptoms of painkiller withdrawal lessen. Over a period of approximately 7-10 days, an individual is typically able to be completely withdrawn from both drugs.
This process eliminates the full onset of painkiller withdrawal symptoms, and maintains a bad sickness throughout the process, rather than enduring the full intensity of withdrawal.
In addition to Suboxone, other medications can be administered to manage insomnia and anxiety, diarrhea, high fever, and high blood pressure. Most people can get through painkiller withdrawal and detox in less than two weeks, after entering a detox facility for these services, and make a smooth transition to addiction treatment once detox has been completed.
Rapid Opiate Detox
Rapid opiate detox has been perceived as a quick fix to painkiller withdrawal, as it is typically completed within 48 hours. The process of rapid opiate detox has come under some scrutiny with scattered fatal complications during the process, so it is vitally important to have a medical consultation before undergoing this medical procedure.
The process of rapid opiate detox is as follows:
- An individual checks into a hospital
- Once the intake process is completed, he or she will be placed under general anesthesia
- While unconscious, he or she will be given an opiate antagonist, which initiates an immediate full painkiller withdrawal
- During this time, the individual is constantly monitored and given appropriate medications via IV to maintain stability
- After several hours, all opiates are flushed from the body of the user, and he or she is given some time to recover from the process
Although this is the fastest known way to get through painkiller withdrawal, there are some setbacks, which include:
- Individuals typically feel the effects of painkiller withdrawal after regaining consciousness
- Despite the rapid completion, this procedure is not covered by medical insurance and costs a minimum of $5,000
- Any overlooked medical condition or complication may result in dangerous or fatal circumstances, so it is essential to fully understand the risks before engagement in rapid opiate detox
Many people who are dependent on painkillers, especially those who have been taking them for several years, may not be willing, or able to stop taking them completely. This is also extremely common for individuals who suffer from chronic pain. While this creates an almost impossible quagmire for addicts who also have chronic pain, currently the best solution is on Suboxone maintenance.
In this, there is no detox from painkillers, but rather a switch from them to Suboxone for maintenance purposes. Although this does not get an individual off of opiates, the naloxone in Suboxone is the closest thing to a safety net for these people to prevent them from experiencing the addictive euphoria associated with other painkillers.
Most healthcare providers agree that this is not the optimal solution, and are hopeful for another method to safely and efficiently withdraw individuals from painkillers and maintain abstinence after that.
Moving On After Painkiller Withdrawal
Once an individual has made it through the painful process of withdrawal, however, he or she chooses to do it, there is still more work to be done. Even if a person has not been addicted to these drugs, acclimating to life without taking painkillers is often tough to do without some help and support. This may require no more than some individual therapy or counseling, but it is important to examine a few key aspects of life while an individual was taking painkillers to determine the most effective course of action after withdrawal and detox.
If the following are true, addiction treatment may be necessary:
- Taking more painkillers than directed on the prescription
- Taking painkillers that have been prescribed to someone else
- Taking painkillers in a ways they are not intended to be taken (i.e. crushing and snorting or dissolving and injecting)
- Doctor shopping to get multiple prescriptions from various doctors
- Taking painkillers to dull emotions
- Legal trouble as a result of buying or using painkillers
- Health complications from misuse of painkillers (i.e. overdose, hospital visits from accidents while under the influence of painkillers
All of the aforementioned circumstances constitute addiction, and the need for an addiction rehab program. Any non medical use of painkillers constitutes abuse, and should be addressed in an addiction treatment environment to prevent future relapse and abuse of addictive drugs.
On the contrary, if none of the above circumstances are true, and the following are consistent, addiction rehab may not be necessary:
- Painkillers have been taken as directed without any deviation from prescription directions
- No unmanageability in life has occurred as a result of taking painkillers
- Painkillers have only been prescribed by one doctor for legitimate medical purposes
As addictive as painkillers are, they are also effective medications for pain management, and it is important to recognize that dependence on these drugs is not equivalent to addiction. Addiction is a behavioral problem and is rooted in the brain, whereas dependence is a physical condition.
While an individual who has been taking painkillers responsibly for a prolonged period may need a detox to get through painkiller withdrawal, counseling to get used to living without these drugs may be sufficient for proceeding after detox has been completed.
Determinations regarding the best course of action should be made on an individual basis.
If you or someone you love is dependent on painkillers and concerned about going through painkiller detox, there is help available, and many different ways to get through the process with minimal discomfort and pain. Please call us now to speak with a certified and compassionate counselor who can talk with you about your situation and the most practical next steps to overcome painkiller withdrawal. Painkiller withdrawal can be endured safely, and with minimal discomfort, so please call for help now.