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NIDA (the National Institute on Drug Abuse) defines withdrawal syndrome as the predictable set of signs, symptoms, and effects resulting from suddenly removing or abruptly decreasing the regular dosage of addictive, intoxicating, and mind altering substances.
In many cases, these withdrawal symptoms tend to vary greatly from drug to drug. However, they are usually an exaggeration of some of the physical functions and processes that the drug you were using was suppressing.
As such, if you were under the influence of a depressant medication or drug - including but not limited to sedatives, opiates, and alcohol - you may rebound from sudden cessation or dosage reduction with stimulated symptoms when you undergo withdrawal.
On the other hand, if you were using excitatory stimulants like methamphetamines and cocaine, it is highly likely that you will experience rebounding depression of your physiological functions after you stop abusing these drugs and withdrawal happens.
That said, acute withdrawal tends to be an unpleasant and uncomfortable experience. In some cases, it might also prove to be dangerous. This is why it is highly recommended that you undergo supervised medical detoxification on an inpatient basis.
Understanding Withdrawal Symptoms
It is impossible to understand withdrawal symptoms without first discussing acute alcohol withdrawal. This is because withdrawing from alcohol comes up with the most dangerous of these symptoms.
Like with other drugs, you should never try to detox from alcohol abuse and alcoholism without the careful handling and monitoring of a qualified and licensed medical team of professionals.
As we mentioned earlier, different drugs come with different withdrawal symptoms. Understanding this differences could help you be prepared for what is highly likely to happen when you start detoxing from your substance of choice.
Consider the following withdrawal symptoms of commonly abused intoxicating substances:
Based on how severe your alcohol abuse was, some of the withdrawal symptoms will appear a couple of hours after your last drink while others might last 7 days or more. These symptoms tend to progress with time and give way to seizure and/or DTs (delirium tremens). At this point you may experience marked hallucination, agitation, confusion, and violent tremors in the legs and arms.
Additional alcohol withdrawal symptoms include but are not necessarily limited to:
- Clammy skin
- Delirium tremens, or DTs
- Elevated heart rate
- High blood pressure
- Increase in body temperature
- Increased heart rate
- Loss of all color on the face
- Loss of appetite
- Mood swings
- Muscle aches
- Severe confusion
- Shallow breathing
- Trouble thinking clearly or concentrating
On the other hand, withdrawing from benzodiazepines like Ativan and Valium might come with symptoms that are potentially life threatening. In this way, benzodiazepine withdrawal symptoms are quite similar to those of alcohol.
However, withdrawing from benzos is unlike alcohol in the sense that the resulting symptoms may last longer - typically between a weeks to several weeks. Since most people take benzodiazepine medications as prescriptions for anxiety, it is not surprising that withdrawal might heighten your anxiety.
Additional withdrawal symptoms that could happen when you stop using and abusing benzodiazepine medications include but are not limited to:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Disturbed sleep
- Elevated blood pressure
- Extreme confusion
- Heart palpitations
- Increased heart rate
- Irregular heart rate
- Muscle pain
- Muscle stiffness
- Panic attacks
- Short-term memory loss
c) Opiates and Heroin
Withdrawing from opiates is also uncomfortable. However, it does not carry the risks of severe withdrawal symptoms that arise when you stop abusing benzos and alcohol. Instead, when you quit opiates and opioids like hydrocodone, heroin, and OxyContin, you might experience withdrawal symptoms that are sometimes similar to flu-like syndromes. They include:
- Abdominal cramps
- Dilated pupils
- Flu like side effects
- Goose bumps
- Muscle aches
- Muscle cramps
- Runny nose
Stimulants include drugs like methamphetamine (or meth), amphetamines, cocaine, and prescription painkillers like Ritalin and methylphenidate. When you stop using these intoxicating and mind altering substances, you may also experience withdrawal symptoms. However, these signs and symptoms of sudden stoppage might not last long and should be gone in a week or two.
Some of the withdrawal symptoms arising from cocaine abuse, for instance, might include:
- Depressed moods
- Drug cravings
- Increase in appetite
- Sleeping for days at a time
- Suicidal thoughts
On the physical front, stimulant withdrawal isn't quite as dangerous as withdrawing from benzos and alcohol. However, you will feel hungry, sleepy, and moody because you may rebound from the typical effects of stimulant drugs.
Psychologically, however, you might find that the withdrawal symptoms include depression and anxiety as well as a heightened risk of self-harm and suicide. As such, it is imperative that you only try to detox from these substances in a treatment facility to ensure you receive the medical care and monitoring that could potentially ensure you do not cause yourself any harm or take your life.
In most cases, withdrawal symptoms as well as the duration of such withdrawal tend to vary greatly. This variation is based on the particular substance of preference as well as the length of your addiction. It might also be affected by the severity of your substance abuse as well as the doses you were taking when you decided to quit.
Consider the following timelines for major drugs of abuse:
- Alcohol: Alcohol withdrawal may give way to seizures and tremors lasting from 3 days to a couple of weeks
- Benzodiazepines: You may experience seizures and/or anxiety lasting several weeks or - in some cases - months
- Cocaine: You will be depressed and feel restless for 7 to 10 days
- Prescription painkillers and heroin: These display flu-like withdrawal symptoms that could last 3 to 7 days
Why Withdrawal Symptoms Occur
According to the 2011 NSDUH (National Survey on Drug Use and Health), close to 25 million people in the US above the age of 12 had abused intoxicating and mind altering drugs in the month immediately before the survey. As such, these people could be classified as current and active drug users.
Alcohol and other addictive substances tend to change how your brain regulates mood and processes emotions. Most of these changes arise from the flood of neurotransmitters - including serotonin and dopamine - that drugs create in the brain. In the process, you might experience an artificial feeling of euphoria and happiness - or a high from the drugs.
Abusing alcohol and drugs in a continuous way may interfere with the reward and motivation circuitry and chemistry in your brain. Eventually, you will develop intense substance cravings and dependence.
After you form dependence on your substance of choice and suddenly remove it from the system, you are highly likely to experience withdrawal symptoms. As we mentioned earlier, different intoxicating and mind altering substances come with different symptoms and timelines.
They will also depend on how these substances interacted with your various bodily and brain functions. In particular, your body will absorb drugs and they will remain active in your system for varying time periods. This phenomenon is commonly referred to as the half-life of a drug. The half-life, on the other hand, is directly correlated to the various withdrawal timelines of different substances of abuse.
In the same way, the duration and severity of the withdrawal symptoms you experience will be heavily influenced by how dependent and addicted you are to a particular substance. They will also depend on many other factors, which include but are not necessarily limited to:
- Any co-occurring addictions
- Any existing mental health and medical factors
- Duration of substance abuse
- The dose you used to take every time
- The preferred mode of use, such as swallowing, ingesting, injecting, smoking, and/or snorting
- The types(s) of intoxication substances you abused
- Your family history
- Your genetic makeup
For instance, if you have been regularly injecting heroin in relatively large dose for a couple of years, you have a family history of substance abuse and addiction, and you display underlying mental health conditions, it is highly like you will experience more severe withdrawal symptoms for a longer time period than people who have been using the drug in relatively smaller doses for a shorter duration.
Importance Of Detox
Substance abuse and addiction are conditions that come with many different symptoms. These symptoms could affect you in unique - albeit harmful and adverse - ways. Therefore, you need to learn how to manage them before they get out of hand.
In particular, withdrawing from various substances of abuse particularly after a relatively long period of active use and dependency might come up with a variety of withdrawal symptoms.
To this end, you should only ensure that you stop using your preferred substances after you check into an addiction treatment, detox, and rehabilitation facility. This way, any severe and potentially fatal or dangerous withdrawal symptoms will be managed effectively.
In most cases, you might be required to undergo medical detox to manage your withdrawal symptoms as your body gets rid of all traces of drugs and resultant toxins that might be in the system.
Through medical detox, it means that you will have medical professionals at hand to maintain your safety and wellness. These experts will also monitor your emotional states and vital signs and bring them under control whenever they act up.
In most cases, the intention and goal of medical detox is to help you achieve safe and comfortable levels of physical stability. At this point, the experts can start addressing all the psychological manifestations (if any) of your withdrawal.
In particular, if you are addicted to benzodiazepines, opioids, or alcohol, it is imperative that you undergo medical detox. This is the only way you can manage the usually dangerous withdrawal symptoms that arise when you stop abusing these substances.
By so doing, you can remove all these substances from your body in the safest way. As such, you are highly unlikely to experience any adverse consequences. In case you do, they will be managed easily so that they don't become so difficult and comfortable that you want to start using again if only to make them go away.
In other situations, your substance of preference might be weaned out or tapered slowly from your body. This should also happen under the express direction, monitoring, and care of qualified medical professionals and addiction specialists.
Treatment For Withdrawal Symptoms
Since different drugs come with different withdrawal symptoms and timelines, it is imperative that you undergo treatment at an accredited detox and rehabilitation facility - if only to protect yourself from any dangers and risks that might occur as you stop abusing these intoxicating substances.
At the detox center, your treatment will also be highly tailored to your particular condition and addiction, as well as to the specific drug you were abusing and the side effects it causes when you stop abusing it.
Since additional medical and mental health issues might complicate your withdrawal - including but not limited to poly-drug abuse, other addictions, and existing conditions like anxiety and depression - the detox facility will also consider these issues and deal with them even while helping you manage your addiction and withdrawal symptoms.
After you fully recover and the remaining traces of the drugs you were addicted to have been eliminated from your body, you can begin the rehabilitation process to deal with any other problems that might be linked to your addiction. It is recommended that you undergo inpatient or residential substance abuse treatment because it provides the best, most comprehensive levels of care and comes with the highest success rates.
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