Josh Chandler | July 27, 2017

What Happens to Your Body During Heroin Withdrawal?

What does your body experience during heroin withdrawal? How does it change? We’re answering these questions and more in our latest post, learn what to expect here…

If you or a loved one are considering heroin detox, the fear of the withdrawal process can be frightening.

You know it won’t be pleasant. But you’re looking forward to the days beyond it when you can walk the recovery path free from the immediate physical, emotional, psychological and financial effects of the drug.

Heroin withdrawal isn’t easy. And staying sober will be a daily challenge for some time.  But recovery is possible.

Knowing what to expect can help prepare you for the challenges you must face.

Let’s explore what to expect during withdrawal.

Heroin’s Effect On the Body

It’s important to take a look at how heroin affects the body to understand the science behind heroin withdrawal.

Short Term

When you use heroin, it travels to your brain. Once it arrives, the body converts it to morphine. This morphine connects itself to opioid receptors in the brain. This causes a release of the hormone dopamine.

Dopamine is the body’s natural positive reinforcement mechanism. Normally, dopamine is released when we do good things like exercise, get good grades or make others happy. You could equate it to joy.

Dopamine is also a natural pain-killer. If you accidentally cut yourself, it hurts. Then dopamine eases the pain.

The initial binding of the morphine creates what is described as a “rush”, a sudden feeling of pleasure as dopamine is released into the bloodstream.

Heroin is believed to directly impact the brain stem where our most primal body functions like breathing and heart rate are managed.

In addition to these, automatic body functions are controlled here like:

  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Tear production
  • Vomiting
  • Bowel movements
  • Body temperature
  • Automatic response to stimulus (eg, shivering, flinching, sweating)

It will be very clear why this is relevant when we discuss withdrawal symptoms.

Long Term

In the long term, heroin changes the brain structure. As a result, long-term imbalances in hormones and brain function occur.

This may make it difficult to make decisions and manage stressful situations.

Because so much dopamine is being released into your body, your body builds up a tolerance to the levels of dopamine in the system.

Over time, it will take more and more heroin to feel that rush.

And the mind and body will be less able to experience emotional or physical pleasure without using. This will be experienced as physical pain.

Using begins to feel “normal”. The time in between becomes agony because you aren’t producing dopamine without the heroin.

Physical Withdrawal Symptoms

Intense Craving for Heroin

The first thing you’ll notice when withdrawing from heroin is an intense craving for the drug. Your body becomes physically dependent on heroin and will begin to crave it as soon as you stop using.

To avoid giving in to this temptation, choose an inpatient rehab facility that will keep you away from the drug and give you the support you need to move past this initial stage of sobriety. Heroin withdrawal symptoms don’t have to derail you.

Short Term

The short term has been described as being like a severe flu including:

  • Runny nose
  • Restlessness
  • Tearing
  • Excessive sweating
  • Insomnia
  • Uncontrollable yawning
  • Muscle aches and spasms

Notice how these are those primal and automatic brain stem functions that were affected by the heroin. During this time, your body will feel out of control.

This will usually last 24-48 hours, but can vary in individuals and by the duration of the addiction. Someone who’s been using 5 months will typically come out on the other side of withdrawal faster than someone who’s used a few years.

Long Term

The longer term symptoms are much more pronounced, but know that they will pass. They include:

  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Abdominal cramping
  • High blood pressure
  • Fatigue
  • Dilated pupils
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Dehydration

During this time, the body, primarily the brain stem, is adjusting to life without heroin. Remember, that the heroin actually changed the brain structure. So your brain will feel very strange without it.

The worst of withdrawal is over in 3-4 days. By day 7, you’ll begin to feel more normal.

Psychological/Emotional Withdrawal

Additionally, you’ll be experiencing severe psychological effects. These can seem even worse than the physical because they’re deep inside you, driven by fear and sadness. These symptoms make it even harder to deal with the physical pain that the heroin prevented.

Short Term

  • Anxiety
  • Aggression
  • Irritability
  • Mood swings
  • Depression
  • Inability to concentrate

Long Term

  • Hyperactivity
  • Paranoia

All of these symptoms can carry through to day 7, but the two listed above are commonly the most prominent.

How Long Do Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms Last?

You’ll experience symptoms of heroin withdrawal for a week or so. That sounds like an eternity to someone who is in extreme physical pain and discomfort. However, when you compare it to a lifetime of addiction, it’s a very short time.

Sometimes, medication can be used to help reduce the impact of stopping heroin.

Medications such as methadone, buprenorphine, naloxone, suboxone, and clonidine can help to reduce anxiety and agitation as well as the physical effects of going sober. These drugs should only be used under the supervision of a qualified medical professional.

Remember that even though heroin withdrawal is extremely difficult, your body is getting better every day that you go without the drug. Your immune system and your health are improving on every level.

Can You Die From Withdrawal?

This is a common question that people want answered.

Let us be very clear — you will feel like you’re going to die during withdrawal.

But death during heroin withdrawal is incredibly rare. It’s almost non-existent in a treatment center setting. You’re much more likely to die from a heroin overdose than during the heroin withdrawal process.

Cold Detox

“Cold detox” is a common term used in clinics. It refers to the “going cold turkey”. During a cold detox, you completely stop using the heroin without replacing it with a “harm reduction” drug like methadone.

This shocks your system. But it does allow you to “get over” the worst of it faster.

There is some debate related to cold detox. It is riskier. If done outside a facility, the person may end up in the hospital for severe dehydration.

There is also an increased chance of relapse with cold detox because your body is so adapted to the drug.

Heroin-related overdose deaths have increased 400% since 2010.

Medication-Assisted Detox

Medication-assisted detox is the preferred method for detox nationally.

Methadone reduces the severity of the withdrawal symptoms. But when used as part of the heroin withdrawal process, it doesn’t remove them entirely.

After Heroin Withdrawal

You would think that after you’ve gone through heroin withdrawal you’d never want to go back.

But the fact is that breaking the addiction cycle and repairing your brain takes time. Withdrawal is only the first step.

During your addiction to heroin, you likely burned a lot of bridges with people. And you’ve not only forgotten how to manage stress; your brain no longer has the same physical capability to do it that it once did.

This can make relapse a near inevitability unless you work to repair your brain and re-learn life skills you’ll need to stay sober.

You can heal. You can stay in recovery. You can rebuild your life and reclaim joy. But you have to be willing to do the work.

This often involves spending some time in either inpatient or outpatient rehab — depending on the severity of your addiction. During your time you’ll work with counselors and teachers who help you with things like:

  • Stress management
  • Dealing with cravings
  • Building and retaining new relationships
  • Mending relationships
  • Looking for a job
  • Finding housing
  • Teamwork
  • And much more

You’ll learn and practice the skills you need to make your withdrawal experience so worth it.

Making That Life-Changing Decision to Detox from Heroin

Making the decision to get help isn’t easy. But staying on the current addiction path is a one-way street to destruction.

With support from professionals who understand what you’re going through and what you need to get healthy, you can get on and stay on the recovery path.

If you or a loved one is ready to make this life-altering decision and find lasting healing on the other side of the hardship, please check out how we can help you through treatment.

Tips For Managing Withdrawal Symptoms

1. Commitment and Support

First, you must commit yourself to quitting and acknowledge that it may be unpleasant. But also remember that the physical experience is actually a short amount of time.

Before beginning, take time to write yourself a letter. Talk about why you want to get clean and what things you want to do and accomplish afterward. When you begin to feel cravings or think you might quit, read your letter to remind yourself why you are doing what you’re doing.

You’ll also want to gather as much support around you as possible. Ask non-using family and friends to be with you (or be available to talk) as you withdrawal to support and encourage you.

2. Nourishing Foods and Rest

Before you begin your detox, stock up on plenty of healthy, easy to digest foods and beverages. Try to avoid processed foods and junk foods, but also make sure you have things that are simple to make if you aren’t feeling up to cooking.

Soups, whole grains, vegetables, and lean proteins are all good choices. Herbal teas (such as ginger tea) and electrolyte drinks are good for settling your stomach and making sure you don’t become dehydrated.

Get yourself set up with a comfy spot to rest, and consider having an extra set of sheets available in case you experience excessive sweating. Try to get plenty of sleep, or if you can’t sleep, at least rest to help your body recover.

3. Distraction

One of the best things you can do while withdrawing from heroin is to keep yourself distracted. Spending too much time focusing on your symptoms and your cravings will make the experience will seem longer and worse than it is.

Funny movies and television shows are a good way to pass the time, and you’ll want to make sure you have books and magazines on hand to read. Now is a great time to revisit your favorites.

Exercise is another excellent distraction that will also help you feel better. Even a simple walk around the block will do you good. The fresh air and endorphins will make your symptoms much more tolerable.

4. Medication

There are both over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription medications that you can use during your detox. Stock up on OTC meds like acetaminophen or ibuprofen for pain, dimenhydrinate for nausea, and loperamide for diarrhea.

Prescription medications such as buprenorphine, clonidine, or naltrexone can also help manage the symptoms of heroin withdrawal. These are quite effective, but they do require a doctor’s supervision.

5. Professional Detox

If you feel like you need more support and help than you have available to you, going to a professional detox treatment center might be the right choice for you. Such programs can provide you with medical attention (including medication) and support around the clock.

Medical management of your detox can help reduce the length and severity of your symptoms. It also increases your likelihood of staying clean in the future.

Sobriety Treatment After Heroin Detox

If you want to stay healthy and sober after your heroin detox, the next step is to go through an intensive rehabilitation treatment program.

Why go through the pain and struggle of detox if you’re not going to stay clean?

Inpatient vs. Outpatient Treatment

Heroin treatment specialists can help you move through a program where you handle underlying issues and create new habits. These changes assist you in building and sustaining a sober lifestyle post-treatment.

There are a variety of therapy options, including both inpatient and outpatient treatment.

Many times inpatient treatment is more effective because it removes you from your old environment and helps you make changes without access to drugs.

Therapy and Psychological Help

Therapy is an important part of tackling the underlying reasons you started using heroin. Looking for symptoms of a co-existing problem like depression, PTSD, or bipolar disorder can shed some light on the issue.

Mental health and wellness are critical to a successful recovery from drug addiction.

Many people who abuse drugs have a mental illness that they’ve tried to hide through substance abuse. Quality, effective therapy in a rehab facility can help you overcome your difficulties and get the treatment you’ve always needed.

Alternative Therapies

There are a variety of alternative, holistic therapies that can be extremely helpful as you create a new, drug-free life. Experimenting with yoga, exercise, art therapy, massage, and meditation can help you shift mindsets about your life and drug use.

Combining these approaches along with traditional medical and mental health care can be the difference between relapse and a healthy sober life.

Success After Treatment

To succeed after your treatment program, it’s important to know that heroin withdrawal symptoms may flare up again occasionally. This is called Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome, and you can have irregular attacks for months or years.

Post-acute symptoms are not as severe as the initial detox timeframe and are sometimes managed with medication. However, you may still experience anxiety, depression, fatigue, irritability, and insomnia.

Don’t let these attacks derail your sobriety! Instead, recognize them as temporary annoyances and continue to move forward.

To avoid relapse after completing a rehab program, be sure you get help transitioning out of treatment safely. You’ll need support as you face old friends, return to your neighborhood, and have temptations once again.

Creating a plan is essential. A sober living program can be a great intermediate step between inpatient treatment and a return to your old neighborhood. You can gain the support you need to move forward in your new habits and live a different kind of life.

If you do have to return home, identify what triggers you will face and determine how to deal with them. Then, identify your new priorities and set goals.

Setting short-term, medium-term, and long-term SMART goals can give you something to focus on other than your old way of life.

Look for meetings and choose a sponsor or mentor to be accountable to. Staying connected with others who are on the path of sobriety is a vital part of staying encouraged. You’ll need to build new relationships based on your new priorities.

Overcoming heroin withdrawal symptoms and staying sober is a lifelong journey, and no one does it without help. Let us be there for you. For information about Muse Treatment’s detox and treatment programs, contact us today!


Addiction,Detox,Drug Detox,Heroin Addiction,Heroin Rehab,Opiate Addiction,Opiate Rehab,Recovery,Treatment,
Josh Chandler
Josh Chandler
After growing up in Chicago and North Carolina, Josh chose to get help with substance use disorder and mental health in California because of the state's reputation for top-tier treatment. There, he found the treatment he needed to achieve more than five years of recovery. He's been in the drug and alcohol addiction rehab industry for four years and now serves as the Director of Admissions for Resurgence Behavioral Health. Josh remains passionate about the field because he understands that one phone call can alter the course of a person's life.

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