An inside look at heroin withdrawal

Published On: Dec 03 2012 06:18:46 PM CST   Updated On: Dec 03 2012 10:07:30 PM CST

The road to recovery for heroin users is anything but easy.

Gundersen Lutheran's Director of Addiction Medical Services, Dr. William Bucknam, said the reason withdrawal from opiates is so difficult is that the drugs go to the part of the brain that regulates appetite, sleep and energy.

The brain stops secreting its own natural substances to regulate those things. So when the drug is taken away, it takes a while for those functions to kick back on.

That's when withdrawal kicks in.

Former opiate addict Emily Lodoen can still remember how it felt overdosing on her kitchen floor.

"I said to my husband at the time, 'I feel lightheaded.' And the next thing I knew, I woke up with him crying over me. He was like, literally sitting right above me and crying and saying my name and 'Please wake up. Please wake up,’” said Lodoen.

But that wasn't enough to stop her from continuing to use opiates. First came prescription painkillers, then heroin.

"It wasn't even the almost dying that made me want to quit. It wasn't losing three of my children. It was that I felt so completely empty inside, as if the void inside of me had taken over my entire being. And that was really the point of desperation for me. That was my bottom," said Lodoen.

So after using opiates every single day for seven years, she quit cold turkey.

"I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy,” said Lodoen. “I shook a lot. There was very little time that I spent feeling relaxed, that my body could be still. I sweat a lot. I had, you know, a fever I suppose, chills and feeling hot as well."

But unlike withdrawal from addictions to alcohol and drugs like Valium and Xanax, withdrawal symptoms from opiates rarely turn deadly.

"People feel like they would rather die than go through the withdrawal. It's that uncomfortable. But they're not going to. It's not medically dangerous," said Bucknam.

Even after withdrawal symptoms go away, that doesn't mean an addict's struggle is over.

“Craving goes on for much longer than the physical withdrawal. And with addiction disorders in general, we don't have a cure," said Bucknam.

Lodoen never went back to opiates, and life hasn't been the same since.

"It feels like freedom," she said.

For Lodoen, withdrawal symptoms lasted two weeks. That's not the case for everybody. Depending on what kind of opiate a person is on and how long he or she has been addicted, withdrawal can last anywhere from a few days to a few months.

Bucknam said while there is no cure for addiction, there are treatments. There are several medications available to help ease the effects of addicts' withdrawal symptoms.