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Opioid Withdrawal and Treatment

Dependency on narcotics can occur very rapidly or after a prolonged period of time. Read on to learn more about narcotic withdrawal and treatment for it.

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Opioids are a class of drugs that are derived from the opium poppy and includes both prescription medications and illicit drugs.1 Opioid have a high potential for abuse and addiction, possibly leading to serious medical concerns.1, 2 Long-term use of opioids, even when taken under the supervision of a medical professional, can potentially lead to physical dependence and as a result, withdrawal symptoms when use is stopped or greatly reduced.

Opioid withdrawal symptoms can be challenging to overcome without having a support network in place. Luckily, opioid detox and treatment programs can be effective at helping individuals achieve and maintain recovery. Understanding more about opioid withdrawal and treatment can be a good first step to take on your journey towards recovery.

What Are Opioids?

Opioids are primarily prescribed to manage acute moderate to severe pain associated with traumatic injuries and surgery and chronic pain associated with cancer and end of life care.1 Some common prescription opioids include codeine, fentanyl, hydrocodone (Vicodin), morphine, and oxycodone (OxyContin or Percocet).1 Other opioids are illegal in the United States, and include drugs such as opium or heroin.1 Misusing prescription opioids involves taking them differently than prescribed, taking medications that aren’t prescribed, or using prescribed medications to get high rather than their intended purpose.1

Opioid misuse can increase the risk of developing dependence, and/or addiction.1 Since opioids activate areas of the brain associated with pleasure and reward while interrupting pain signals between the body and brain, they can lead to feelings of euphoria and relaxation which reinforce the desire to continue using.1 Over time, the brain and body become reliant on opioids to function, resulting in uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms if use is stopped.1, 2

What Causes Opioid Withdrawal?

Dependence is a physiological adaptation of the body to a substance, wherein the body becomes so used to the drug being present in the system that when the individual cuts back on their use or quits, withdrawal symptoms emerge. With significant levels of physiological dependence, a person may continue to compulsively drink or use drugs to avoid unwanted withdrawal symptoms.

Over time, consistent use of opioids can lead to physical dependence.1 Since opioids cause a release of certain chemicals, the brain naturally produces less of these neurotransmitters to compensate.3, 4 them and will experience painful and distressing withdrawal symptoms when they try to cut back or stop using.1, 3

Opioid Withdrawal Symptoms

When a person who is dependent on opioids tries to stop using, they may experience withdrawal symptoms.1, 6 These symptoms can make it very difficult to stop using.1 Common opioid withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Anxiety.2, 6
  • Depressed mood.6
  • Diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting.1, 2, 6
  • Difficulty sleeping.1, 2, 6 
  • Dilated pupils.2, 6 
  • Greater sensitivity to painful stimuli.6
  • Increased pulse, blood pressure, body temperature, and breathing rate.2, 6
  • Irritability.6
  • Intense muscle and bone pain.1, 2, 6
  • Strong urges to use opioids.1
  • Sweating.2, 6
  • Tearing eyes and runny nose.2, 6

Treatment of Opioid Withdrawal and Addiction

It can be very challenging to deal with opioid addiction and go through withdrawal, but effective treatment does exist. The recovery process commonly starts with medical detox, where medication is provided to ease the symptoms of withdrawal while you are supervised around the clock to ensure that you are safe and comfortable as you wean opioids from your system.2, 7

Once you finish detoxing, staff will help you transition to formal addiction treatment, where you will be able to learn the skills needed to stay sober.7  This can take place at an inpatient or outpatient facility, or some combination of both, depending on your unique needs.7 At inpatient programs, you stay at the facility for the duration of treatment, while at outpatient programs, you live at home and follow a normal routine while attending scheduled treatment appointments at a clinic.

Effective treatment should be tailored to your specific needs, including your physical and mental health, as well as any employment, social, or legal issues that you may have.7 Once you are in addiction treatment, you will attend group and individual behavioral therapy sessions regularly.7 Behavioral therapy will help you:

  • Change your thoughts and behaviors regarding opioids and other substances
  • Increase your motivation to stay sober and remain in treatment
  • Develop coping skills to deal with stressors
  • Manage triggers associated with opioid use
  • Improve your relationships with the people around you.

Medications can be used to reduce cravings and lessen the likelihood of relapse.7, 8

Rehab for Opioid Addiction

Once you have successfully completed detox, attending a treatment program can be highly beneficial as long-term treatment addresses the underlying issues associated with opioid addiction.7 While detox or withdrawal is the first step on the road to recovery, it doesn’t address the underlying factors that contribute to addiction; it just helps to remove substances from your body.7 Attending inpatient or outpatient rehab can allow you to receive behavioral therapy in both individual and group settings, as well as family therapy, maintenance medication, and other services if needed.1, 7 Staying on maintenance medications during recovery can help your brain chemistry rebalance as you adjust to a sober lifestyle.9

As the leading provider of addiction treatment in the United States, American Addiction Centers (AAC) may be able to help you overcome opioid addiction. If you’re struggling with opioid addiction, contact one of our knowledgeable and compassionate admissions navigators at to learn more about how we can help you, and answer any questions you may have about treatment and recovery.