Getting Through Heroin Withdrawal

By:    Medically Reviewed: Tom Iarocci, MD   Published: August 11, 2014

Breaking free of heroin addiction means getting through withdrawal and living for more. Professional help and support can aid in this process.

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Heroin use is prevalent in the United States and worldwide.

Over 150,000 people in the U.S. used heroin for the first time in 2012 – just some of the shocking numbers reported by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Users often become both physically and psychologically addicted to the drug quickly. 

Once an addiction takes hold, breaking free of the drug may mean dealing with heroin withdrawal. Although coping with addiction and getting through withdrawal can be challenging, there are treatments that can help users get clean and live for more. 

 

Symptoms of Heroin Withdrawal

Detox is the process of ridding the body of a drug and dealing with the impact the drug’s absence has on normal biologic functions. Once the body has become used to a drug like heroin, stopping suddenly can produce unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. 

The severity of withdrawal symptoms may vary based on a person’s history of use, and whether it’s just heroin or multiple substances, but symptoms usually start soon after the last use. “Heroin withdrawal symptoms may start anywhere from 6 to 12 hours after someone has last used,” says Vannessa Lindsey, a certified Alcohol Drug Counselor, and CEO of Another Choice, Another Chance, a nonprofit organization specializing in chemical dependency in Sacramento, California.

The initial stage of heroin withdrawal is craving for more drug and fear of getting withdrawal symptoms. As withdrawal progresses, anxiety and agitation heighten, and physical symptoms including the following take hold:

  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Abdominal cramping and diarrhea
  • Agitation, anxiety, sweating
  • Muscle aches
  • Insomnia

 

Early stage heroin withdrawal symptoms usually last about a week with symptoms peaking around day three.

 

Options in Heroin Detox

One approach to ridding the body of heroin is known as rapid detox. Rapid detox is a medically supervised procedure that involves placing a person under anesthesia in order to inject large doses of opiate blocking medication. The procedure is performed to speed up the withdrawal process. Although it may be effective for some people, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center, there is no evidence rapid detox actually decreases the duration of withdrawal symptoms, and rapid detox has been associated with serious adverse events and deaths in some cases.

“In addition to rapid detox, there is medicated assisted detox and inpatient hospitalization or medical residential detox programs, which all have proven beneficial in helping detox people from heroin,” says Lindsey.

Whether a person chooses an inpatient or outpatient detox program, supportive care including medications can help ease symptoms. “One drug that has been used to help patients detox and withdrawal from opiates is buprenorphine,” says Lindsey. Drugs like buprenorphine and methadone can be part of a complete treatment program that also includes counseling and behavioral therapy.

 

Coping with Psychological Addiction

Getting through withdrawal and dealing with the physical addiction to heroin is only part of the battle. Heroin also causes a psychological addiction, which can be just as difficult to deal with. After someone stops using the drug, anxiety, depression and social problems can develop. Cravings may also occur even after initial withdrawal symptoms have subsided.

“It’s usually best for someone dealing with heroin addiction to seek professional services, such as a licensed, accredited addiction treatment facility. In treatment, individuals learn ways to manage cravings through various coping skills, such as detraction techniques,” says Terin Driggers LMSW, director of Clinical Oversight at American Addiction Centers. “Individuals also learn the value of a strong, healthy support system and have the opportunity to develop that system in a safe, therapeutic environment.” 

 

Staying on the Road to Recovery From Addiction

The road to recovery does not end once withdrawal symptoms have passed. Long-term recovery may involve changing behavioral patterns or even ending relationships, which hurt the recovery process.

There are things people can do to increase their chances of long-term recovery from heroin addiction. “It is important to take personal inventory and be honest with yourself about your struggles. Surrounding yourself with people that will encourage pro-recovery behaviors and continue to inspire and help you meet your goals is also essential,” says Driggers.

Next Steps

For Patients

  • If you have an addiction to heroin, get professional help to cope with withdrawal symptoms and to help plan for life after heroin.
  • Set both short and long-term treatment goals, which will help you recognize your progress.
  • “Reach out for help when you notice (or others tell you) you are struggling or you relapse – don’t isolate,” said Driggers.

For Family Caregivers

If you have a loved one suffering from heroin addiction, there are a few things you can do to help.

  • Become educated on ways to cope with physical and emotional symptoms so you will know what to expect.
  • Be ready to pounce on available services at the moment people are ready for treatment, and be supportive afterwards; make sure any prescription medications are filled.
  • Continue to be supportive of your loved one and the recovery process.  
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