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10 Jun Understanding Drug Withdrawal


Withdrawal is the state that a person enters when they stop using a substance to which they have formed a dependence. They may experience withdrawal because the substance is no longer available to them or because they are purposefully trying to overcome their dependency. Withdrawal symptoms can range from a mild headache or feelings of irritation to life threatening convulsions and seizures. The symptoms of withdrawal depend on the drug that a person has been addicted to and the length of their addiction.

Why Does Withdrawal Occur?
When a person uses a particular drug over an extended period time, their body begins to make compensations for the damage that the drug is doing. One example is that if a person is using an opioid such as cocaine, their brain is overstimulated to produce more dopamine, the chemical responsible for activating the brain’s reward system. Over time, the brain becomes accustomed to the cocaine stimulating dopamine release and no longer releases dopamine on its own.

When the dopamine supplies in the brain are depleted, the person using the drug experiences a hard crash that makes them fell sick and tired. When the addict then tries to quit using cocaine, the brain sends out alarm signals that there is a shortage of dopamine and that the person needs to take the cocaine order to provide this essential chemical. These alarm signals are felt in the form of withdrawal symptoms.

Stages and Symptoms of Withdrawal
Withdrawal symptoms generally occur in two stages: acute and post acute. Acute withdrawal is the period immediately after a person stops using the drug and usually lasts from a few days to a few weeks, depending on the length of the addiction, the specific drug, and the person’s tolerance level. Acute withdrawal is the stage where most of the physical symptoms of withdrawal occur. These can include nausea, vomiting, muscle spasms and cramps, sweating, racing heart, and others. Some of the more severe, life-threatening symptoms could include seizures, hallucinations, stroke, and heart attack. One of the most severe acute withdrawal symptoms, delirium tremens or DTs, is associated with alcoholism.

The post-acute stage of withdrawal begins when physical symptoms abate, leaving an addict to deal with the emotional symptoms of breaking their dependence. These symptoms include fatigue, anxiety, irritability, mood swings, disrupted sleep patterns, and low energy. These symptoms can crop up periodically for a few days at a time for an average of two years after a person stops the drug abuse behavior. These symptoms may seem more manageable than the physical ones, but the long term nature of post-acute withdrawal can really wear a person down and make recovery very difficult.

Managing Withdrawal
The symptoms of withdrawal are what make breaking an addiction so difficult. These symptoms can best be managed when the person sticks to a prescribed treatment plan and receives the proper support. The sometimes violent symptoms of acute withdrawal are best weathered in a professional medical center under a physicians care. There are medications available to help ease these symptoms and to protect the addict from as much harm as possible. Continued therapy helps those in recovery to stay focused and motivated during the long climb through post-acute withdrawal.

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