Asked by Margie, Washington
I recently stopped taking Vicodin for my fibromyalgia pain. I had been taking it for about three years. I quit cold turkey and am wondering what is the best thing for the withdrawal [symptoms], like natural things I can take to help me get through this?
Living Well Expert
Dr. Jennifer Shu
Children's Medical Group
Thank you for writing. Vicodin (a combination of acetaminophen and hydrocodone) is an opioid agent often prescribed for pain. Also called narcotics, opioid agents are derived from opium and act on the central nervous system to change the way the body responds to painful stimuli. In addition to hydrocodone, opiate drugs include codeine, oxycodone, morphine, heroin and many others.
Those taking narcotics for more than a few weeks can develop tolerance to the medication and require higher doses in order to relieve pain. Narcotic medicines may also be habit-forming, as the body becomes physically or psychologically dependent on the effects. Once a person becomes dependent on a drug, withdrawal symptoms will occur if the medication is stopped suddenly.
Although narcotic withdrawal is not life-threatening, it can certainly be uncomfortable and physician supervision is advised. To best help you with your situation, I consulted Dr. Stuart Gitlow, associate professor of psychiatry at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and a specialist in addiction medicine. In his practice, Gitlow recommends gradual reduction of opioids with physician oversight rather than sudden cessation. A gradual reduction would allow you to avoid the symptoms of withdrawal.
Withdrawal symptoms typically begin within a day or two of stopping the medicine. In the case of Vicodin, the withdrawal includes generalized pain, rapid heartbeat, fever and chills, sweating, nausea, diarrhea and overall discomfort. These difficulties can last one to two weeks though the worst is usually over within a week.
There are some medications that can help with opiate withdrawal but they tend to be prescription medications rather than over-the-counter remedies. These may include buprenorphine, a type of opioid which has milder withdrawal effects; a medicine called clonidine may help decrease sweating, muscle aches and agitation. Your doctor may also recommend a fever reducer and medications to treat nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
Individuals seeking alternative therapies may find acupuncture, hypnosis or meditation to help ease their withdrawal symptoms. Herbal remedies for narcotic withdrawal have been less well-studied but may include kava, valerian or passion flower, which may help ease insomnia and anxiety. Be sure to discuss the use of herbs or homeopathic treatments with your physician as they may have adverse interactions with medications and in large doses may produce serious side effects such as liver toxicity.
I urge anyone in this situation to stop their narcotic medications under their doctor's supervision. I wish you the best of luck with your health.
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