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Opioid Withdrawal

How to Stop Taking Opioids Safely

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Updated April 17, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Opioids can play a large role in medicating chronic pain, however, for some people they can create bothersome side effects or dependence on the drug. There are a number of reasons why someone may wish to stop taking opioids. This is a personal decision between you and your doctor. If you decide to stop taking opioids, however, don’t go cold turkey. There are a few steps you should take first.

  • Write in your pain journal. Keep track of everything related to your painkillers, including your dosage, the frequency with which you take them, and what effects they have on you (both positive and negative). This is good information for your doctor to have to determine the best route for cutting out opioids.
  • Do some research. It’s good to have a plan before you go and see your doctor, so he knows what you are aiming for. What are your expectations? Do you want to simply switch painkillers, or do you want to try and live painkiller free? A little online research can help give you some ideas for your long-term pain relief plans. Just be sure to discuss anything researched online with your doctor before trying it out.
  • Talk to your doctor. Don’t try to quit without help. Even if you have only been taking an opioid painkiller for a short time, you may still be at risk for developing withdrawal symptoms if you quit on your own. Talk to your doctor about why you want to make a change, and let him or her help you do it the right (and safe) way.

Opioid Withdrawal – What to Expect

Cutting out opioids usually involves gradually reducing the painkiller dosage as opposed to stopping the medication outright. Some people can develop a dependence on opioid painkillers within a matter of weeks. Tapering off of the drugs can help avoid some unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.

When transitioning off of opioid painkillers, some people may require a prescription for other pain-relieving medications to ease withdrawal symptoms, and to prevent breakthrough pain.

Opioid Withdrawal Symptoms

The signs and symptoms of opioid withdrawal can include any of the following:

  • Anxiety
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Higher blood pressure
  • Excessive sweating
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
  • Muscle aches and pains
  • Restless legs
  • Dilated pupils

If you notice any of the following symptoms, or if your expected withdrawal symptoms become worse, be sure to inform your doctor immediately.

Opioid Dependence Versus Addiction

It should be noted that there is a big difference between physical dependence on a painkiller versus a true addiction. Dependence is when the body has become accustomed to the medication. Addiction, however, generally implies that the substance is interfering with one’s life in some way. Opioid addiction may be treated with other drugs, including:

  • Methadone
  • Buprenoprhine

Learn more about the criteria addiction from about.com’s Guide to addictions.

Sources:

Medline Plus. Opiate Withdrawal. Accessed 1/21/10. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000949.htm

National Institute on Drug Abuse. NIDA InfoFacts: Prescription and Over-the-Counter Medications. Accessed 1/21/10. http://www.nida.nih.gov/infofacts/PainMed.html

National Institutes of Health. Oxycodone and Acetaminophen Tablet. Accessed 1/21/09. http://dailymed.nlm.nih.gov/dailymed/archives/fdaDrugInfo.cfm?archiveid=4370#section-12.1

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