Painkiller Withdrawal

Long term use of painkillers can cause physical dependence on the drug, which means that when a person wants to quit they go through withdrawal. A medical professional can help people going through painkiller withdrawal find the most effective way to deal with its effects.


When people abuse some drugs, such as painkillers, the drugs change the way the person's brain functions. Painkillers can take the place of some of the chemicals that help the brain to function normally. The person's body comes to depend on the drug to provide those chemicals and allow the person to feel normal. Once a person has a physical addiction to painkillers they may need more of the drug to get the same effect, which is called tolerance. When the person stops taking painkillers, they go through withdrawal.

It's difficult to predict who will develop this type of physical addiction to painkillers, or how long it will take for addiction to develop. Painkiller addiction affects nearly 2 million Americans, and treatment rates for painkiller addiction have doubled in recent years.

Some of the symptoms of painkiller withdrawal include:

  • Fever
  • Sweating
  • Chills
  • Cold flashes
  • Aches
  • Pain in muscles and bones
  • Shaking
  • Legs moving involuntarily
  • Restlessness
  • Insomnia
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea

Another dangerous side effect of painkiller withdrawal is craving painkillers, which can lead the person to take risky actions to get the drugs, to overdose on painkillers, or to take more dangerous drugs like heroin. Though the initial symptoms of painkiller withdrawal pass once the body has detoxed from the drug, the cravings can be longer lasting. Once a person is addicted to a drug, their addiction never goes away, and they have to try to avoid relapsing into dependency again. Luckily, there are some ways to help people going through painkiller withdrawal.

A person who is addicted to painkillers and wants to quit should do so under medical supervision. Addiction is a disease that can be treated by modern medicine. Though painkiller addiction cannot be cured, it can be managed.

There are several drugs available that help a person who is going through painkiller withdrawal control their cravings. These drugs work by interacting with the same part of the brain as the painkillers. This keeps the body from craving the painkillers, but these drugs do not cause a high so they won't be abused, and they are not believed to have the same negative effects as painkillers.

Methadone is a synthetic opioid, like painkillers, but does not have the same effects. It blocks painkillers from interacting with the brain and helps reduce painkiller cravings and pain killer withdrawal symptoms. It has been used for over 30 years to treat heroin, which affects the same parts of the brain as painkillers.

Some of the side effects of methadone may include:

  • Feeling tired
  • Constipation
  • Retaining water
  • Sweating
  • Rashes
  • Changes in sex drive

Buprenorphine is a new drug that is similar to methadone. Physicians can give it in their office, and its effects are long lasting and usually don't cause as many side effects.

Naltrexone also blocks the effects of painkillers and is used to treat painkiller overdose and addiction. It does not, however, relieve cravings, so it is a less popular choice than the other two medications.

People taking medication for painkiller withdrawal and addiction may find that they are stigmatized by others, such as not being eligible for organ transplants.

In addition to medications, a person recovering from painkiller addiction may benefit from talking to a therapist and joining a support group.

Sources:

California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs, "Painkillers" [online]
National Institute on Drug Abuse, Research Report Series, "Prescription Drugs: Abuse and Addiction" [online]
SAMHSA Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, "Medical Assisted Treatment, Medical Community Bulliten" [online]


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