Unfortunately, there’s one harsh reality most addicts have to face. For most, there is no getting to the other side of addiction and into recovery without first enduring detox — at which point, withdrawal begins. Withdrawal starts within hours of the last use of a substance and encompasses the entire process of toxic substances leaving your body, which may inflict mild symptoms like nausea and headaches to serious discomfort, such as tremors and hallucinations.

What Is Addiction?

For those who haven’t experienced it themselves, addiction may never be fully understood or accepted for what it is — something the Mayo Clinic refers to as physical and psychological dependency on an illicit substance or legal medication. With an estimated 23.5 million people addicted to illicit drugs or alcohol, per a 2010 report by the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, it stands to reason that many are going without the help they need to get better. As a matter of fact, in 2010, 20.5 million of the 23.1 million people aged 12 and older who needed substance abuse treatment didn’t receive it, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

What Is Withdrawal?

Withdrawal occurs whenever a person can become physically dependent upon a substance. The chronic use of certain substances actually distorts the way the brain responds to specific impulses and leaves the user ill-equipped to function properly in absence of the abused substance. Thus, when the drug or alcohol is removed from the equation, the user’s body essentially goes haywire. Whenever a person habitually uses a substance that creates feel-good highs too often, the brain soon catches on and attempts to remedy this imbalance by decreasing the amount of dopamine receptors — a process known as neuroadaption — thereby causing the abuser to up their dosage in order to receive the same high effect they’ve become accustomed to. In other words, they become tolerant to the drug.

Not surprisingly, substance abuse impacts several areas of the brain, including those that control the user’s feelings, volition, memory, stress levels, and learning capabilities. Once this tolerance has developed, withdrawal symptoms will flood the patient’s body when they stop feeding it the substance it’s grown dependent on to operate. As dopamine levels plummet, the body reacts poorly; hence, the production of withdrawal symptoms. The worse your dependency was on the drug, the harsher your symptoms are likely to be.

In some cases, the brain is permanently damaged by the substance and cannot be returned to its pre-abuse state even months and years after successful withdrawal and abstinence. One study published by Science Daily notes the minimum of a 5 percent decrease in the presence of N-acetyl-aspartate — an important molecule to the human thought process — in the brains of methamphetamine abusers. Absences of this same molecule have been noted in cases of Alzheimer’s disease and stroke patients.

NewsOK notes the negative impacts of drug abuse on the mind, pointing out the likelihood of brain damage that causes the addict to make poor choices and inhibits them from learning from their mistakes — two factors that could play heavily into why addiction is so hard to battle. According to ABC News, mental illness can be triggered or develop from substance abuse too, noting the increased likelihood of developing depression while abusing or withdrawing from a drug or alcohol.

Symptoms of Withdrawal

During withdrawal, your body must realign itself with functioning on its own, without the aid of the chemical substance the user has been abusing. As addiction progresses, the user’s body and mind become dependent on the drug to facilitate certain behaviors that your body isn’t capable of without the substance. For example, cocaine may cause extreme alertness in many abusers. Upon withdrawal, users will crash from the high they’ve been on and experience extreme fatigue in contrast. The symptoms of withdrawal vary from drug to drug, but generally, most mild cases include these symptoms:

  • Nausea
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Appetite changes
  • Sweating
  • Vomiting
  • Muscle pain
  • Trembling

In more severe cases of withdrawal, symptoms such as seizures and liver complications may be experienced by some.

Will You Experience Withdrawal?

A select few are exempt from painful and lasting withdrawal symptoms. These include people who abused milder drugs — such as marijuana — for only a short period of time or infrequently. Among other substances, the length and severity of symptoms are dependent upon the drug being abused. Generally, phencyclidine (PCP), lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), ecstasy, and dimethyltryptamine (DMT) do not inflict symptoms of withdrawal on users because physical dependency doesn’t develop with these drugs.

Withdrawal from stimulants can present the patient with irritability, depression, and very vivid dreams that are hard for many to handle, especially with fewer drug interventions being available to target stimulant withdrawal symptoms. Individuals who are dependent on heroin or opioid prescription painkillers will likely have to endure muscle pain, watery eyes, diarrhea, agitation and more, and they can be pretty intense, even for the short-term abuser, per MedlinePlus.

MD Health notes the presence of tension, restlessness, and tremor in mild cases of diazepam withdrawal, whereas more intense cases

may exhibit symptoms like photosensitivity, tactile and auditory sensitivities, derealization, seizures and more. Extreme cases of withdrawal from another class of popular prescription drug — benzodiazepines — can include aggression, tingling in the extremities, suicidal ideation, and blurred vision, among a host of other uncomfortable symptoms.

Regular users of marijuana will generally experience feelings of anxiety and depression accompanied by appetite fluctuations, mood swings, dizziness, cramps and more, per Mental Health Daily. Alcohol withdrawal is one of the most painful and intolerable detox experiences for many patients. From hallucinations to palpitations, detoxing from alcohol can be quite serious. Patient notes that around half of all alcoholics experience clinically significant withdrawal symptoms upon cessation of drinking, and while fewer than one in 20 experience a grand mal seizure or delirium tremens, those patients can suffer greatly without adequate care. In milder cases of alcohol withdrawal, anxiety, sleep troubles, headaches and more may cause discomfort, but those symptoms are less intense and far easier to relieve.

How Long Will Withdrawal Last?

For the majority of patients, the detox period is only a week to 10 days long. Many confuse this with meaning withdrawal ends at that point too. This isn’t exactly true. A lot of patients will continue to experience withdrawal symptoms — albeit with less intensity — for up to several months, especially abusers of hard drugs like stimulants that have few medical treatment options. Patients withdrawing from diazepam can also experience lingering symptoms for months, even though primary relief of symptoms generally occurs by six days after their last use of the drug.

Pain Management

To date, the best methods for dealing with the symptoms of withdrawal are prescribed medications like buprenorphine, methadone and benzodiazepines, which are touted as being highly effective in decreasing the discomfort patients feel during detox. Naltrexone is also commonly used in the remediation of alcohol withdrawal syndrome patients. Other coping mechanisms that are growing in popularity among substance abuse communities include the practice of meditation and mindfulness.

Reuters reported on a study geared toward mindfulness as a relapse prevention tactic and notes great success with the mindfulness-practicing participants reporting a 9 percent relapse rate. In comparison, 12-step program participants had a 14 percent rate of relapse, and among the traditional treatment group, there was an even higher relapse rate at 17 percent. In addition, many patients find exercise regimens inclusive of techniques like yoga to be quite helpful in their journey through the aches and pains of withdrawal.

A Healthy Mind

Beyond the scope of addiction itself, co-occurring substance abuse is a real problem for 50 percent of the mentally ill population, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health. With there being 45.9 million Americans with at least one mental health disorder as of 2010, per The New American, that leaves room for a lot of people who are using drugs and alcohol in unhealthy ways. Moreover, 53 percent of drug addicts and 37 percent of people dependent on alcohol actually have a diagnosable mental illness, per Helpguide.

Getting Help

Do you know someone who needs help kicking their addiction? Is it you? Psychology Today notes that these are the signs to watch for:

  • Unable to control the frequency and amount of drug use
  • An urge to continue using the substance
  • Tolerance
  • Withdrawal symptoms ensue whenever substance abuse is ceased
  • Persistent use of the substance interferes with the user’s career, personal life, or responsibilities at home
  • Continued use has inflicted mental, emotional, or interpersonal issues that have caused ill effects on the user’s health, mood or lifestyle

If you’re considering giving up on drugs and alcohol and getting in touch with the person you used to be, don’t let fear of withdrawal prevent you from taking action. And don’t make the mistake of thinking you can do it all on your own; let us help you. By calling today, you’re demonstrating some serious accountability and making a promise to yourself that things are going to change. Your future is waiting for you on the other end of the phone. Call us right now.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.