Opiate and Opioid Drug Withdrawal

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Opioid and opiate drugs are used for medicating chronic pain. However, you can experience adverse effects or develop dependence and experience withdrawal when you stop using the medication. These drugs including codeine, Vicodin (hydrocodone), Dilaudid (hydromorphone), methadone, Demerol (meperidine), morphine, Oxycontin (oxycodone), and Percocet.

Any decision to try to stop taking these medications must be discussed with your physician so it can be done in a way that avoids withdrawal symptoms. These can occur if you have been using these medications for a few weeks, especially with heavy use. Going "cold turkey," suddenly stopping the medication, puts you at risk.

Steps to Take When Considering Stopping Opiate or Opioid Medications

There are a few steps you should take first.

  • Write in your pain journal. Keep track of everything related to your painkillers, including your dosage, the frequency with which you take them, and what effects they have on you (both positive and negative). This is information is helpful for your physician to have to determine the best route for cutting out opioids.
  • Do some research. It’s good to have a plan before you go and see your physician, so he knows what you are aiming for. What are your expectations? Do you want to simply switch painkillers, or do you want to try and live painkiller free? A little online research can help give you some ideas for your long-term pain relief plans. Just be sure to discuss anything researched online with your physician before trying it out.
  • Talk to your physician. Don’t try to quit without help. Even if you have been taking a narcotic painkiller for only a short time, you may still be at risk for developing withdrawal symptoms if you quit on your own. Talk to your physician about why you want to make a change, and let her help you do it the right (and safe) way.

    Opioid Addiction Discussion Guide

    Get our printable guide to help you ask the right questions at your next doctor's appointment.

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    What to Expect in Opiate/Opioid Withdrawal

    Cutting out opiates and opioids safely involves gradually reducing the painkiller dosage as opposed to stopping the medication outright. Some people can develop a dependence on narcotic painkillers within a matter of weeks. Tapering off of the drugs can help avoid some unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.

    When transitioning off of narcotic painkillers, some people may require a prescription for other pain-relieving medications to ease withdrawal symptoms, and to prevent breakthrough pain. Opiate/opioid addiction may be treated with other drugs, including methadone, buprenorphine, and clonidine.

    You may be able to go through withdrawal treatment at home if you have a strong support system and appropriate medications. But some people need the support of an inpatient detoxification program or a hospital admission.

    Opioid/Opiate Withdrawal Symptoms

    The signs and symptoms of withdrawal can include any of the following:

    • Anxiety
    • Rapid heart rate
    • Higher blood pressure
    • Excessive sweating
    • Abdominal cramping
    • Nausea and vomiting
    • Diarrhea
    • Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
    • Muscle aches and pains
    • Restless legs
    • Dilated pupils

    If you notice any of these symptoms, or if your expected withdrawal symptoms become worse, be sure to inform your physician immediately.

    Dependence Versus Addiction

    It should be noted that there is a big difference between physical dependence on a painkiller as opposed to a true addiction. Dependence is when the body has become accustomed to the medication. Addiction, however, generally implies that the substance is interfering with one’s life in some way. Opiate/opioid addiction may be treated with other drugs, including methadone, buprenorphine, and clonidine.

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