According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, about 435,000 people were regular heroin users in 2014, and the rate of heroin abuse continues to increase in the US. Many of these users become addicted to the drug and risk severe physical and psychological complications.
When a person who is struggling with heroin abuse is ready to detox from the drug or enter rehab, one of the first questions asked is usually, “How long will the withdrawal symptoms last, and how bad will they be?” Sometimes, this unknown can make the person hesitant to attempt detox.
While withdrawal from heroin can be uncomfortable, withdrawal symptoms are manageable and can be navigated with an understanding of the process and the timelines involved. Knowing more about the process can make the goal of recovery from heroin abuse less intimidating.
Stopping Use of Heroin
Anyone who has tried to stop using heroin or other opiates is aware of the difficulty that can arise in quitting “cold turkey.” According to research in Addiction Science & Clinical Practice, heroin bonds with certain hormone receptors in the brain and causes changes that can lead to tolerance, which is a need for more of the drug over time to achieve the original effect, resulting in intense cravings. This can also result in dependence on the drug, which means the person feels unable to function without it.
These issues combined make it difficult to stop using heroin. The body continually craves more of the drug, and if the person tries to stop using, the body reacts by producing withdrawal symptoms that are uncomfortable, prompting the person to relapse and start using again.
Withdrawal can also be dangerous. When a person stops using heroin, the body loses its tolerance to the drug. If the drug is then taken again at the dose the person was using before attempting to quit, there is a high risk of overdose.
Detox from heroin results in withdrawal symptoms that are similar to those for other opioid drugs. These include both physical and psychological symptoms that vary in severity based on a number of factors, including the person’s size and weight, the degree and length of time of heroin abuse, and whether or not detox has been attempted previously.
These symptoms follow a somewhat predictable course through the detox process. According to the National Library of Medicine’s Medline Plus, the symptoms include:
- Aches and pains
- Runny nose and watery eyes
- Restlessness and anxiety
- Digestive upset and pain
- Nausea and vomiting
- Dilated pupils
A Note about Rapid Detox
There are some methods of heroin detox that can be dangerous. This includes rapid detox under anesthesia, a method that is often promoted to get people through the detox process more quickly and with less intense withdrawal symptoms. However, this method is not everything that it claims to be.
The U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention reported that this method of detox has resulted in some adverse reactions, including death. Various issues caused these reactions. As a result, rapid detox is not recommended as a safe method of detox.
Even if there were no risk, this type of detox is not effective for achieving long-term recovery. In fact, a study printed in the Journal of the American Medical Association demonstrates that this form of treatment is more likely to result in relapse. Instead, a controlled, inpatient treatment program is more likely to result in safe recovery and long-term abstinence from the drug.
Medical Detox from Heroin
Knowing that these symptoms, while intense, are not dangerous may help some people decide to make the effort to quit using heroin. In addition, it can be helpful to know that treatment centers can provide medical support through the detox process to mitigate some of the withdrawal symptoms and make the process easier to manage.
As described in a study from Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, medical detox can provide support in the form of other, less-addictive opiate medicines that can taper down from the heroin dosage, which makes the detox process a little less intense than abruptly stopping use. Some of these drugs can be used to stabilize the person’s cravings after detox until some of the results of therapy have taken hold.
In addition, medical detox can provide other methods to support the withdrawal process and lower the intensity of the symptoms that are experienced during withdrawal. When followed with research-based, comprehensive rehab treatment, such as that found in inpatient treatment programs, people who undergo medical detox are more likely to achieve recovery and maintain abstinence from future heroin use.