Use of Medication to Manage Drug Withdrawals

Medication alone isn’t enough to help you get through drug withdrawal successfully, but prescription drugs can make it much easier to get through this difficult stage of recovery. When you enter a drug rehab program, your treatment team will help you decide whether medication should be part of your recovery plan. Choosing the right medications and maximizing the effectiveness of pharmacological therapy requires professional help. You should never try to self-medicate as you go through withdrawal; taking prescription drugs without medical supervision could be dangerous, even fatal.

Medication can help you manage withdrawal in two basic ways: by helping you deal with the side effects of withdrawal, and by helping you handle cravings so you can stay focused on recovery.

When taken correctly according to a doctor’s instructions, these prescription drugs can support you in your efforts to stay clean and complete your rehab program.

Medications That Help You Cope With Cravings

As you withdraw from drugs or alcohol, decreasing levels of these substances in your system will cause strong cravings. Illicit drugs like cocaine, meth or heroin affect the way your brain processes natural chemicals that create feelings of happiness, contentment or excitement. When you stop taking those drugs, your brain must cope with decreased levels of the biochemicals that make you feel good. In order to get back to that state of euphoria or contentment, your brain will prompt intense cravings for drugs. The following medications can help you fight cravings as you go through withdrawal:

  • Methadone. Since the 1960s, this opioid pain medication has been used to help opiate addicts get through the withdrawal process and maintain their recovery. Methadone helps you cope with cravings by activating the same receptors in your brain that respond to heroin, codeine, morphine or other opiates. When taken in the proper doses, methadone prevents withdrawal symptoms and helps you overcome cravings without altering your consciousness, causing sedation or interfering with your daily activities.
  • Buprenorphine. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, buprenorphine may be as effective as methadone when it comes to dealing with cravings and reducing withdrawal symptoms. Like methadone, buprenorphine interferes with the effects of opiates, eases withdrawal symptoms and minimizes the desire for these powerful drugs. But medications based on buprenorphine, such as Subutex and Suboxone, pose a lower risk of abuse and overdose than methadone.
  • Naltrexone. When combined with behavioral modification, family counseling and sustained psychotherapy, naltrexone can be an effective way to get through drug or alcohol withdrawal, notes Clinical Pharmacology. Naltrexone belongs to a class of drugs called opiate receptor antagonists, which block the effects of opioid drugs. When you take naltrexone, either as a pill or as a monthly injection, you won’t feel the positive effects of opiates. This may make it easier to manage your desire for drugs or to minimize the consequences of a relapse if you go back to using.

Prescription Drugs That Ease Withdrawal Symptoms

While some drugs, like methadone and buprenorphine can be used to relieve withdrawal symptoms or to maintain abstinence, others are used primarily to address the specific side effects of withdrawal. These medications won’t take the edge off your cravings, but they can make detoxification more comfortable:

  • Clonidine. Sold under the brand name Catapres, clonidine is approved for the treatment of high blood pressure. In a drug rehab setting, this medication is used to control withdrawal symptoms like shaking, elevated heart rate or agitation.
  • Chlorpromazine. Marketed under the brand name Thorazine, chlorpromazine is a powerful sedative that may be used to treat the psychological side effects of withdrawal, like anxiety or restlessness. This drug may also relieve the gastrointestinal symptoms of opiate withdrawal, such as nausea and vomiting. Chlorpromazine should only be taken with a doctor’s prescription, as this drug can cause a fatal overdose when combined with alcohol or narcotics.
  • Methocarbamol. Sold as Robaxin, this drug is used to treat muscle spasms. Robaxin may be prescribed to prevent the muscle cramps and spasms associated with opiate withdrawal.
  • Benzodiazepines. Drugs in this class of sedative/hypnotic medications are used to help manage the anxiety and agitation that can occur during drug withdrawal. But because benzodiazepines (including Valium, Klonopin, Ativan and Xanax) have a high potential for abuse, their use for drug withdrawal must be managed very carefully.

Medication isn’t a magic bullet for drug withdrawal, but it can be a highly effective part of a comprehensive treatment plan.

The personalized recovery programs here at Axis encompass a variety of resources to help you get through the withdrawal process successfully. Call our drug rehab specialists at any time for answers to your questions and referrals to our top-rated rehabilitation services.