Opioid Withdrawal Timeline: Stages, Symptoms & Treatment

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Last Updated - 07/05/2024

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Key Takeaways

  • Opioid withdrawal is a significant condition with symptoms like anxiety, muscle aches, and increased heart rate emerging hours after the last dose.
  • Medically supervised detoxification can manage withdrawal symptoms using medications such as methadone, buprenorphine, and clonidine.
  • Opioids affect the body by binding to receptors in the brain and other organs, leading to pain relief and euphoria but also risks like tolerance and dependence.
  • Opioid withdrawal unfolds in stages, with symptoms peaking within 2 to 3 days and potentially lingering for weeks to months in the late stage.
  • Factors affecting withdrawal duration and severity include opioid type and dosage, individual health, and lifestyle factors.
  • Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) combines FDA-approved medications with counseling and behavioral therapies to treat opioid use disorder.
  • Therapeutic approaches like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) are crucial for managing psychological aspects of opioid withdrawal.

Understanding Opioid Withdrawal: Symptoms and Causes

Opioid withdrawal is a significant medical condition that occurs when an individual who has been using opioids heavily and for a prolonged period either stops or reduces their intake. The withdrawal process is characterized by a range of symptoms that can vary in intensity and duration, depending on several factors including the type and amount of opioid used, duration of use, and individual health and lifestyle factors.

Common Symptoms of Opioid Withdrawal

Common symptoms of opioid withdrawal can emerge within hours of the last dose and may include the following:

  • Anxiety
  • Muscle aches
  • Increased heart rate
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Drug craving. 

These symptoms occur because opioids interact with specific receptors in the brain, altering the normal release of neurotransmitters and impacting the body’s ability to regulate pain and emotion. When opioids are suddenly absent, the body experiences a rebound effect, leading to the symptoms of withdrawal.

Medically Supervised Withdrawal

Medically supervised withdrawal, also known as detoxification, can help manage these symptoms through the use of medications like methadone, buprenorphine, and clonidine, which can alleviate discomfort and reduce cravings. However, detoxification is often just the first step in a comprehensive treatment plan, as long-term recovery typically requires additional therapy and support to address the underlying causes of opioid dependence.

The Clinical Opioid Withdrawal Scale

The Clinical Opioid Withdrawal Scale (COWS) is a commonly used tool to assess the severity of withdrawal, guiding treatment decisions. Opioid withdrawal is a critical phase where individuals are at higher risk of relapse, emphasizing the importance of professional medical support during this time.

Understanding How Opioids Affect the Body

Opioids are a class of drugs that include both legal prescription medications such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, and illegal drugs like heroin and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. These substances have a profound impact on the body by binding to opioid receptors, which are found in the brain, spinal cord, and other organs. Once attached to these receptors, opioids effectively block pain signals between the brain and the body, providing pain relief and often a sense of euphoria.

Opioid Effects Beyond Pain Relief

The interaction of opioids with the body’s receptors goes beyond pain control. They also play a role in: 

  • Mood regulation
  • Stress response
  • Physiological functions (respiratory, gastrointestinal, endocrine, immune systems)

The physiological response to opioids is complex and can lead to the development of tolerance, where higher doses are needed to achieve the same effect, and dependence, where the body adapts to the drug’s presence.

Risks of Long-Term Opioid Use 

Long-term use can lead to significant risks, including the potential for misuse, addiction, and overdose. It is essential that individuals who are prescribed opioids for pain management are closely monitored to mitigate these risks. Understanding the body’s response to opioids is crucial in managing their therapeutic use and addressing the challenges posed by opioid misuse and dependence.

Understanding Opioid Receptor Functions

Opioid receptors are critical components in the body’s response to opioids, whether they are naturally occurring peptides or synthetic opioid drugs. There are three primary types of opioid receptors, each with unique functions and interactions with ligands: 

  • mu receptors (MOR): The mu-opioid receptors (MOR) are particularly noteworthy for their role in inducing feelings of relaxation, satisfaction, and pain relief. 
  • delta receptors (DOR): Delta receptors affect mood and emotional responses.
  • kappa receptors (KOR): Kappa receptors are implicated in the regulation of mood and stress.

The complexity of opioid receptor function is a subject of ongoing research, as scientists work to untangle the intricate ways in which these receptors influence human physiology and contribute to the effects of opioid drugs, including pain relief and potential for addiction. The discovery of these receptors has been pivotal in understanding how opioid drugs produce their effects, leading to improved treatments for pain and insight into the mechanisms of opioid addiction.

Understanding Opioid Dependence and Tolerance

Opioid dependence and tolerance are critical factors in the cycle of opioid addiction and withdrawal. Dependence occurs when the body adapts to the presence of the drug, and withdrawal symptoms emerge when opioid use is reduced or stopped. Tolerance is characterized by the need for increasing doses of opioids to achieve the same effect, a result of the body’s adaptation to the drug’s effects over time. Research from the National Institutes of Health explains that opioid tolerance, dependence, and addiction are manifestations of brain changes resulting from chronic opioid abuse.

Neurobiological Mechanisms Leading to Opioid Dependence

The neurobiological mechanisms involve the alteration of dopamine (DA) neurons in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and nucleus accumbens (NAc), which are part of the brain’s reward system. These changes can lead to a ‘changed set point’ in the brain, affecting DA release and contributing to the cycle of addiction. The locus ceruleus (LC), which is involved in arousal and vigilance, also plays a role in the dependence process.

Withdrawal Symptoms Due to Opioid Dependence

The Cleveland Clinic outlines that opioid dependence can lead to withdrawal symptoms such as nausea and diarrhea, while tolerance can result in needing higher doses to produce the same effect. The development of tolerance involves cellular adaptations at various levels, including the receptors, circuitry, and overall system, according to PubMed.

As dependence and tolerance develop, they pose challenges to treatment, necessitating a comprehensive approach that includes both pharmacological interventions and behavioral support.

Understanding the Stages of Opioid Withdrawal

Opioid withdrawal is a challenging process that unfolds in early, peak, and late stages, each with distinct symptoms and timelines. The Clinical Opioid Withdrawal Scale (COWS) is often used by healthcare professionals to assess the severity of symptoms during every stage of withdrawal, and it determines the appropriate level of medical intervention. This scale considers a range of symptoms to provide a withdrawal score that guides treatment decisions. It is essential to approach opioid withdrawal under medical supervision to ensure safety and increase the chances of successful detoxification and long-term recovery.

Early Stage Opioid Withdrawal (Hours to Days)

The initial phase of opioid withdrawal is a critical period that can start within hours of the last dose and may last for several days. 


During this early stage, individuals may experience a range of symptoms that signal the body’s response to the absence of opioids. Symptoms can include restlessness, anxiety, insomnia, muscle aches, increased tearing, runny nose, excessive sweating, and frequent yawning. 


During this early phase, individuals may find some relief through supportive measures like distraction or engaging in pleasurable activities. Research indicates that the early stage symptoms, while uncomfortable, are generally manageable and non-life-threatening.

Peak Stage of Opioid Withdrawal (2-3 Days)

The peak stage of opioid withdrawal is a critical phase where symptoms intensify and become most severe. This period typically begins within 24 to 72 hours after the last opioid dose and can last for several days. During this stage, individuals may experience a range of symptoms that can significantly impact their physical and emotional well-being.

  • Physical Symptoms: These may include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle aches, and abdominal cramping. Intense cravings for opioids are also common, which can challenge an individual’s resolve to quit.
  • Emotional and Psychological Symptoms: Anxiety, irritability, and insomnia are frequent during the peak withdrawal stage. These symptoms can exacerbate the discomfort experienced during this period.
  • Management of Symptoms: It’s important to note that while these symptoms can be extremely uncomfortable, they are rarely life-threatening. Medications such as methadone, buprenorphine, and clonidine can be prescribed to alleviate withdrawal symptoms and manage cravings.

Understanding the peak stage of opioid withdrawal is essential for those undergoing detoxification, as well as for healthcare providers managing the process. Proper medical supervision and support are crucial during this stage to prevent relapse and ensure safety. 

Late Stage Opioid Withdrawal (Weeks to Months)

The late stage of opioid withdrawal, also known as the protracted or post-acute withdrawal phase, can present challenges for individuals recovering from opioid dependence. During this time, symptoms may become less intense but can linger for weeks to months, potentially leading to discomfort and increasing the risk of relapse. 


Common symptoms experienced during this stage include chronic anxiety, insomnia, and depressive symptoms, which may persist even as individuals work towards long-term recovery. The late stage of withdrawal is characterized by a shift from the acute physical symptoms to more prolonged psychological and emotional challenges. Symptoms such as anhedonia, the reduced ability to experience pleasure from previously enjoyable activities, and ongoing cravings for opioids can make this stage particularly difficult.


Factors influencing the duration and severity of late stage withdrawal symptoms include the type of opioid used, the duration of use, individual health, and lifestyle factors. Treatment options during this phase may include continued medication-assisted treatment (MAT) to manage cravings and prevent relapse, as well as therapy and counseling to address the psychological aspects of recovery. It’s important for individuals to have access to comprehensive treatment plans that include both pharmacological and behavioral support to increase the chances of successful long-term recovery.

Key Factors Affecting Opioid Withdrawal Duration and Severity

The timeline of opioid withdrawal is a complex process influenced by multiple factors, each playing a significant role in the duration and severity of withdrawal symptoms. Understanding these factors is crucial for managing withdrawal and supporting recovery. The primary factors that affect withdrawal are the type and dosage of opioid and lifestyle factors. However, the method of cessation—whether tapering off the drug or stopping abruptly—can influence the withdrawal timeline as well, with tapering generally resulting in a less intense withdrawal phase. Lastly, the availability and use of medication-assisted treatment (MAT) and other therapeutic interventions can alleviate symptoms and potentially shorten the withdrawal timeline. Understanding these influencing factors provides insight into the personalized nature of the withdrawal process and the importance of a tailored approach to treatment.

Impact of Opioid Type and Dosage on Withdrawal Timelines

Several factors regarding opioid use can determine the severity and duration of withdrawal:

  • Type and potency of opioid: Prescription opioids, heroin, and synthetic opioids like fentanyl vary in potency and effects, which in turn influence the withdrawal timeline. Individuals using opioids with higher potency, such as fentanyl, may experience more intense withdrawal symptoms. Also, short-acting opioids tend to produce more immediate withdrawal symptoms, while long-acting opioids may lead to a delayed onset but prolonged withdrawal period. 
  • Quantity of opioid consumed and the duration of use also heavily impact the withdrawal timeline, with higher doses and longer use leading to more severe withdrawal experiences.
  • Mode of administration: Whether the drug is injected, snorted, or taken orally can also affect the withdrawal process.

It is crucial for healthcare providers to understand the specific opioid and dosage used by an individual to tailor the withdrawal treatment plan effectively.

Impact of Individual Health and Lifestyle Factors on Opioid Withdrawal

Individual health and lifestyle factors, such as a person’s overall physical and mental health, play a role as well. Those in better health may experience milder symptoms or a shorter withdrawal period. Evidence suggests that lifestyle choices such as tobacco use, diet, and physical activity are among the leading causes of chronic diseases and can significantly impact overall health status, including during the withdrawal process. Research has established a strong link between these factors and the body’s ability to cope with stressors, including withdrawal symptoms.

The Effect of Sleep and Other Lifestyle Variables on Withdrawal

Factors like sleep patterns and quality also influence the withdrawal experience. Studies have shown that inadequate sleep can exacerbate withdrawal symptoms, making the process more challenging. Lifestyle variables such as sleep, hygiene, nutrition, and stress management are essential for maintaining physical and mental health during opioid withdrawal. Mental health is also significantly affected by lifestyle choices, and a positive lifestyle can promote better mental health outcomes during withdrawal.

Managing Opioid Withdrawal: Evidence-Based Treatment Approaches

Managing opioid withdrawal effectively is crucial for individuals seeking to overcome opioid dependence. Medically supervised withdrawal, commonly referred to as detoxification, employs medication to alleviate withdrawal symptoms. According to clinical guidelines, this process should be carefully monitored by healthcare professionals to ensure safety and efficacy. The Clinical Opioid Withdrawal Scale (COWS) is a valuable tool for assessing the severity of withdrawal and guiding treatment decisions.

The Tapering Strategy in Opioid Cessation

It is essential to approach the cessation of opioid use with a gradual tapering strategy, as abrupt discontinuation can lead to severe withdrawal symptoms and potential complications. The Mayo Clinic advises that individuals who have been on opioid medication for an extended period should reduce their dosage slowly to minimize withdrawal effects.

The Goal of Treatment for Opioid Withdrawal

Ultimately, the goal of treatment for opioid withdrawal is to transition patients safely to long-term therapies for opioid use disorder, which may include continued medication management, therapy, and counseling.

Understanding Medication-Assisted Treatment for Opioid Use Disorder

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) is a comprehensive approach to the treatment of opioid use disorder (OUD), combining FDA-approved medications with counseling and behavioral therapies. The goal of MAT is not only to treat withdrawal symptoms but also to address the underlying causes of opioid dependence, thereby facilitating long-term recovery. MAT has been recognized for improving patient survival, increasing retention in treatment, and decreasing illicit opiate use and other criminal activity among those with substance use disorders.

Key Medications

Three medications are primarily used in MAT for OUD: methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone, each functioning differently:

  • Methadone and Buprenorphine: Reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms by acting on the same opioid receptors as the abused drugs
  • Naltrexone: Blocks euphoric and sedative effects of opioids

This tailored approach allows healthcare providers to work with patients to select the most appropriate treatment based on individual needs.

Therapeutic Approaches in Opioid Withdrawal Management

Therapy and counseling play a pivotal role in the management of opioid withdrawal, offering critical psychological support and coping strategies:

  • Psychotherapy, often referred to as talk therapy, is a treatment aimed at alleviating emotional distress and mental health problems associated with withdrawal. Counseling, on the other hand, is typically more short-term and focused on addressing specific concerns that arise during the withdrawal process. Verywell Health distinguishes between the two, noting that psychotherapy is a longer-term process that delves into recurring themes and issues, while counseling may concentrate on immediate challenges.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a commonly used therapeutic approach during opioid withdrawal, as it assists individuals in identifying and modifying negative thought patterns and behaviors. According to Thriveworks, CBT therapists help patients comprehend and challenge cognitive distortions and self-defeating beliefs to promote healthier thinking and behavior patterns. 
  • Virtual therapy, or teletherapy, has emerged as a convenient option, providing access to therapeutic services via video calls, phone calls, or text/chat platforms, as highlighted by Ethos Wellness.

Therapy and counseling are essential components of a comprehensive treatment plan for opioid withdrawal, addressing the psychological aspects of addiction and aiding in the recovery journey. The choice between psychotherapy and counseling may depend on the individual’s specific needs, the severity of the withdrawal symptoms, and long-term recovery goals.

Drug and Alcohol Addiction Treatment at The Recovery Village Indianapolis Drug and Alcohol Rehab

For those seeking drug or alcohol addiction treatment, The Recovery Village Indianapolis Drug and Alcohol Rehab stands as a beacon of hope. Located within the heart of Indy, we offer a comprehensive array of treatment options, including medical detox, inpatient care, partial hospitalization, and intensive outpatient services. 

When you or a loved one are ready to embark on the path to recovery, our Recovery Advocates are here, ready to assist. Reach out to learn more about our tailored treatment programs, designed to cater to your specific needs and situation.


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