After heavy, prolonged use of heroin, withdrawal symptoms typically set in within 6 to 24 hours after the drug is withheld from the body. Though heroin withdrawal isn’t particularly dangerous, it can be excruciating.
Not everyone will experience all of the possible symptoms of withdrawal from heroin, and the severity of symptoms will depend on how much of the drug is in the body at the time of detox as well as the intensity and length of the addiction.
Symptoms of Heroin Withdrawal
Early symptoms of withdrawal from heroin include:
- Intense cravings
- Anxiety and agitation
- Muscle aches
- A runny nose
- Profuse sweating
- Repeated yawning
Later symptoms of withdrawal include:
- Abdominal cramps
- Nausea and vomiting
- Hot and cold sweats
The Cause of Withdrawal Symptoms
Heroin produces a high level of tolerance very quickly. The brain changes the way it functions chemically in order to compensate for the presence of the drug, and as a result, higher doses are needed to get the same effects. Over time, this may lead to dependence, which means that the brain now operates more “normally” when heroin is present than when it’s not.
When heroin is withheld from the body, it takes time for brain function to return to normal. During that time, withdrawal symptoms occur as the brain’s way of telling you it needs heroin to function normally.
Why Medical Detox is Essential
Withdrawal symptoms associated with heroin are typically intense enough that most people will return to using the drug very quickly just to ease the discomfort. Medical detox, which is medically supervised and offered through high-quality inpatient or outpatient treatment programs, is essential for successful withdrawal from heroin.
During the detox process, medications are administered as needed to help alleviate the intensity of withdrawal symptoms and shorten the duration of detox. A holistic treatment program will also offer alternative therapies like massage therapy, acupuncture or meditation to help alleviate cravings and promote a higher sense of wellbeing during detox and treatment.
Medications Used to Treat Withdrawal Symptoms
Clonidine is the most commonly used medication during medical detox. It reduces the intensity of withdrawal symptoms by up to 75 percent, and it’s particularly effective for reducing anxiety, muscle aches, abdominal cramps, sweating and runny noses. Hydroxyzine is often prescribed to ease nausea, and loperamide helps alleviate diarrhea. Buprenorphine helps to shorten the duration and intensity of detox.
Long-term maintenance for opiate dependency is considered the cornerstone of treatment. Maintenance involves administering daily or monthly doses of safer and less addictive opiates in order to wean individuals off of heroin over time while staving off cravings and withdrawal symptoms. This allows those in recovery to focus on putting their lives back together without the distraction of cravings and withdrawal symptoms, which can lead right back to heroin abuse.
Methadone is the most commonly known maintenance medication, and it’s been found to reduce heroin use and HIV infection associated with sharing needles. Methadone is a slow-acting opiate that doesn’t produce the intense euphoric effects of heroin.
Other medications approved by the FDA for long-term maintenance are buprenorphine and naltrexone. Buprenorphine is similar to methadone in its effectiveness, and while naltrexone has limited effectiveness due to noncompliance, a version of this medication has recently been developed that only requires monthly dosing instead of daily.
Therapy is Essential
Detox alone is rarely enough to help someone beat a heroin addiction. Far more complex than the physical dependence on heroin are the underlying issues surrounding the abuse and addiction. These are addressed through various treatment therapies, including cognitive-behavioral therapy, which helps those in recovery learn to replace self-destructive thoughts and behaviors with those that are healthy.
Recovering from a heroin addiction isn’t easy, but it can be done with the help of a high-quality treatment program that takes a holistic, research-based approach to treatment. People can and do recover from heroin addiction, and making the decision to enter treatment is often the most difficult step. But doing so can help you restore your life, realize your potential and improve your overall physical and mental health and sense of wellbeing.
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