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

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.

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 Go into Heroin Withdraw

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.

Addiction, Detox, Drug Detox, Heroin Addiction, Heroin Rehab, Opiate Addiction, Opiate Rehab, Recovery, Treatment