Medically Reviewed by Dr. Mohammed Saeed, MD.
For many opioid addicts, continuing to abuse the drug may be less about overcoming the addiction itself and more about a hesitation to face the challenges of withdrawal. Because opioid abusers fear the uncomfortable symptoms that accompany the withdrawal period of recovery, many addicts hesitate to begin their journey toward sobriety. But why do the body and mind experience such dramatic physical and mental unpleasantness when opioids become absent after a long stint of abuse?
For anyone considering treatment for opioid addiction, it’s important to understand what causes withdrawal in order to better prepare for and manage the symptoms that lie ahead. But, before you can completely grasp the concept of withdrawal, you’ll need to understand addiction in order to see the whole picture.
How Opiate Addiction Affects the Brain
Addiction occurs as a result of chemical changes in the brain, which are caused by imbalances of specific neurotransmitters. For those of you who barely scraped by in high school anatomy, be patient—this sounds much more complex than it actually is. You’ve likely heard of a chemical in the brain called dopamine. In essence, it’s a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of joy and elation and is naturally released by the brain to reinforce positive behaviors, such as exercise and fun. The brain creates and regulates its own dopamine supply naturally, but the consumption of opioids interferes with this process because it, too, has properties that create dopamine.
You may think, “Great! More dopamine equals more joy and happiness, so what’s the problem?” The problem is that opioids release dopamine in such excessive quantities that the brain responds by ceasing its own production of it. Therefore, if an addict were to simply discontinue abusing opioids, the brain would experience a complete absence of dopamine, which is more commonly known as withdrawal.
Opiate Withdrawal Symptoms and Risks
To put it simply, withdrawal is a period of time in which the brain is desperately trying to adapt to the absence of these chemicals and re-learn how to produce and regulate its own dopamine. During this time, which can vary in duration from 3 days up to a few weeks, recovering addicts may experience harshly uncomfortable symptoms. These can include aches, agitation, fever, nausea, vomiting, and bouts of depression. This is also a period where cravings are most intense, as the body and mind desire dopamine once again.
If you or someone you know is attempting to break free of opioid addiction, consult with a healthcare professional before quitting, as many side effects of withdrawal can be extremely dangerous. Healthcare professionals will also be able to offer medications and guidance to help alleviate some uncomfortable symptoms of withdrawal.
It’s always best to prepare in advance for what the withdrawal period has in store for you, so make sure that you have a great support system and the resources you need to achieve sobriety and a healthier lifestyle.