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Heroin withdrawal is one of the most excruciating experiences an addict can face. The physical withdrawal is painful and uncomfortable, and the mental heroin withdrawal is just as awful. Withdrawal comes in two stages: acute and post-acute.

The first stage, the acute stage, is very strong and agonizing. This stage usually starts as soon as 6 hours from the last use of heroin or opiates. Acute withdrawal can last for up to ten days, with the peak of the symptoms typically appearing around 48-72 hours after the last drug use.

The symptoms of acute heroin withdrawal will vary by person, but can include:

  • Bodily aches
  • Insomnia
  • Upset stomach
  • Nausea
  • Irritability
  • Cravings
  • Restlessness

There are many things that can be done to ease these symptoms, the most common being the use of a prescription withdrawal medication such as Suboxone while under a doctor’s care. Other helpful remedies are soaking in a bath with epsom salts, meditation, massage, acupuncture, and eating a healthy diet. All of these things along with more can ease the withdrawal symptoms and allow the patient to get back to a high quality of life.

The second, post-acute heroin withdrawal syndrome (PAWS), lasts much longer. While the symptoms of PAWS are not as severe, the extended time period can be extremely frustrating for those struggling. Post-acute withdrawal syndrome can last anywhere from a few weeks to months or, in some cases, years. The symptoms are not so much physical but more mental. They can cause recovering heroin addicts to relapse, so it is very important to care for this period and seek help from a sponsor or friend whenever cravings occur. The symptoms in this period are shared by most people in recovery but are hard to predict because they can dissipate and return after long periods of time.

The symptoms include:

  • Craving – This is a combination of wanting to escape from the other symptoms and wanting the high that came with using again.
  • Depression– The depression felt here is caused by the lack of opioids that the patient had while using. The body relied on the drug to produce euphoria for so long that the process which produces natural chemicals for the same effect became atrophied.
  • Sleep disturbance – Insomnia is common in users recovering from heroin addiction.
  • Sensitivity to stressors – Because of the other symptoms, the pressure of normal stressors can become too overwhelming. Social pressure in particular can often be too much to handle.

The most effective ways to manage post-acute heroin withdrawal are to practice self-care, to continue to maintain a healthy lifestyle, and to utilize the new coping skills that were learned while in treatment. We focus very strongly on what life will be like during and after post-acute withdrawal so that when patients complete treatment, they know what to expect and have a solid plan for managing these challenges.

While heroin withdrawal is challenging and can be frustrating, life without drugs is worth the reward. Our goal is to show each patient what that looks and feels like so they can seek out ways to be high on life instead of on substances.