What most of us think of as drug withdrawal is more accurately known as acute withdrawal; it begins when an addictive substance is stopped abruptly, or its dose reduced. Acute withdrawal is significant distress that occurs at the beginning of a withdrawal syndrome. It is typically more acutely distressful than later stages of withdrawal that may occur. Withdrawal is defined by the American Society of Addiction Medicine as “the onset of a predictable constellation of signs and symptoms following the abrupt discontinuation of, or rapid decrease in, dosage of a psychoactive substance” (1).
Onset of Acute Withdrawal
Each addictive substance has its own time frame for the onset of acute withdrawal symptoms. These begin relatively soon after the regular dose is stopped or reduced. Such symptoms can be stopped with resumed use. In fact, it is the beginning of withdrawal symptoms, or the fear of them, that prompts continued use during addiction.
Some estimated times of withdrawal onset are listed below for various classes of substances. Please note that these are estimates. Individual differences occur. Factors vary among people who use the same addictive substance. The amount and frequency of use, co-occurring health complications, historical extent of use, and other substances used determine the severity of withdrawal.
Also, some specific substances in a class of drugs may stay in the body longer and affect the time it takes for withdrawal to begin after a change in use. For example, the opioid class of drugs is typically thought to cause acute withdrawal symptoms 4-10 days after reduced or stopped use. Methadone, however, which is an opioid, can have delayed acute withdrawal symptoms that take up to 2 weeks to occur. Additionally, there are individual differences that may prolong acute withdrawal such as the need for tapering, or a gradual lowering of dosage, over a longer period for some.
Typical time frames for acute withdrawal from commonly abused substances are:
- Alcohol 5–7 days
- Benzodiazepines 1–4 weeks
- Cannabis 5 days
- Nicotine 2–4 weeks
- Opioids 4–10 days
- Stimulants 1–2 weeks
Protracted withdrawal is a prolonged period of distress caused by substance withdrawal. It is sometimes called PAWS or Post-acute Withdrawal Syndrome. It is typically less intense than acute withdrawal and is often likened to a lingering low-level distress. A comparison of acute and protracted withdrawal is much like the difference between an acute episode of flu followed by a prolonged period of lowered immunity, fatigue, overall poor health and vulnerability to another infection (2). It is aptly described in the following statement:
Most clients in treatment for substance use disorders (SUDs) do not immediately feel better after stopping their substance use. In a pattern unique to each client, symptoms related to substance abuse may be felt for weeks, months, and sometimes years. Clients may be affected by less intense versions of the acute signs and symptoms of withdrawal as well as by other conditions such as impaired ability to check impulses, negative emotional states, sleep disturbances, and cravings. These symptoms may lead clients to seek relief by returning to substance use, feeding into the pattern of repeated relapse and return to treatment (2).
Negative Impact of Protracted Withdrawal
Protracted withdrawal can significantly impact the quality of one’s life overall. The chief risk of protracted withdrawal, however, is a return to active addiction. Withdrawal symptoms are a primary cause of relapse.
A return to substance use ‘resolves’ distress at least temporarily. When substances are re-introduced, there is typically a sense of relief in intoxication, however, the addiction progresses, and any relief is temporary, or simply a perception caused by intoxication.
Common Symptoms of Protracted Withdrawal
It is impossible to list all the possible symptoms of protracted withdrawal and its expected course. Individual differences in use history, co-occurring conditions and concurrent life stressors that would exacerbate any distress are important. However, symptoms do fall into discrete categories. Symptoms from various categories may occur simultaneously, or at various times, and in various combinations throughout a period of protracted withdrawal. Symptoms of protracted withdrawal are:
Physical Signs and Symptoms
The brain’s attempts to return to its own regulation without the substance. A simple way to think of this is that neurons are rejuvenating and re-wiring. There is a long list of possible physical symptoms. Some of the most common are tremors, insomnia, fatigue, aches, headaches, night sweats, poor coordination, and poor fine and gross motor skills.
The cognitive, or intellectual signs and symptoms of protracted withdrawal, can include slowed processing of information, difficulties concentrating, poor retention of newly learned information, impaired decision-making and problem-solving, slowed retrieval of words, usual perceptions and difficulty with abstract thinking.
Memory disturbances are common in protracted withdrawal. Some are what we typically think of as a ‘black out’ phenomenon during addiction. One simply doesn’t recall events that occurred during a period of active substance use. Other types include overall poor short and long term memory as well as fabricated or confused memory.
Mood disturbances in protracted withdrawal can cover the range of all mood disturbances–depression, anxiety, anger, tearfulness and excitement or euphoria, for example. Mood swings are common. There may also be what are known as incongruent moods. These are emotional reactions that seem inappropriate to the context in which they occur.
Sexual problems are also common. These typically are an inability to become aroused or sustain arousal. Difficulty achieving orgasm is also relatively common.Sexual problems can be related to brain chemistry and neuronal impairments, but also commonly arise overall poor health and from ongoing stress. At times they are related to sexual activity during addiction that cause guilt and remorse in abstinence.
Social issues are common during protracted withdrawal, too. There is often a persisting sense of loneliness and a tendency to be withdrawn, isolated and apathetic toward interaction and intimacy. Anxiety and a heightened self-consciousness are typical and can make social situations particularly uncomfortable. Some experience suspicious and paranoia. Guilt, shame, feelings of inadequacy and the fear of judgment and rejection are also common.
Spiritual problems in protracted withdrawal may involve religious conflicts, but they typically manifest in a broader sense. A felt sense of meaningless, having no purpose, feeling empty and disconnected from others and the world are more common.
Common Symptoms and Specific Drugs
Some common protracted symptoms are given below for specific substances. These findings are from research and anecdotal evidence reported by clinicians.
- mood swings
- poor concentration
- body aches and pains
- sleep disturbances
- emotional flatness
- poor concentration
- poor impulse control
- poor emotional regulation
- sleep disturbances
–above information adapted from references 4-9.
Treatment of Protracted Withdrawal
Acute withdrawal is commonly treated with a variety of support therapies and medical supervision. Gradual withdrawal and the use of medications to ease withdrawal symptoms are common practice. Treatment of protracted withdrawal has remained difficult in mainstream addiction treatment. Chinese Medicine has proven to be effective, however. Particularly the use of Chinese herbalism has been documented as efficacious.
If you have become abstinent from an addictive substance in the last year to 18 months and have any of the symptoms above, you may benefit from Chinese Medicine. In the Louisville area, you can contact Jeffrey Russell at 502 299-8900 to explore treatment options.
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