What You Need to Know About Quitting Painkillers

The Safe Way to Quit Painkillers

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There are many reasons why you might want to stop taking painkillers, but before you decide to quit cold turkey, know this: doing so is dangerous. You should not stop taking painkillers without consulting your doctor first. If not, you may go into painkiller withdrawal.

Quitting your painkiller cold turkey can be disastrous and even dangerous, especially if you have a chronic pain condition. This is true whether you are taking NSAIDs or other analgesicsopioidsanticonvulsants or antidepressants to control your chronic pain symptoms, and it's especially true if you have been on your medication long enough to develop a physical dependence.

There is a big difference between dependence and addiction. Dependence is when the body becomes accustomed to the medication. This can happen even if the medication is being administered in a safe, controlled way. With addiction, it's generally implied that the medication is interfering with an individual's life in some way. There are several criteria for addiction, including tolerance and taking a substance in larger amounts or for longer than intended.

Opioid Withdrawal

When you abruptly stop taking opioids, or narcotics, your body can go into withdrawal. Some common opioid withdrawal symptoms include:

  • anxiety
  • increased heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure
  • profuse sweating
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • abdominal cramps
  • diarrhea
  • insomnia
  • dilated pupils
  • muscle aches and pains
  • restless legs or muscle twitches

While these symptoms may not seem so bad initially, consider this: opioid withdrawal can last anywhere from 5 to 10 days.

Additionally, it only takes your body a mere 2 weeks to become dependent upon opioids. Even if you've only been taken opioids for a few months, it's best not to quit suddenly.

Anticonvulsant & Antidepressant Withdrawal

The withdrawal symptoms of anticonvulsants are similar to those of opioids, except for one more risk: seizures.

You can have a seizure after suddenly quitting anticonvulsants even if you have never had one before. Believe it or not, anticonvulsant withdrawal typically lasts longer than opioid withdrawal.

Antidepressants have a milder withdrawal phase than opioids and anticonvulsants. The most common antidepressant withdrawal symptom is anxiety, which can cause increased heart rate, profuse sweating and rapid breathing. You may also find your mood to be lower than normal during antidepressant withdrawal, though this is more common if you had mood difficulties prior to your treatment for chronic pain.

NSAID Withdrawal

Though it's typically uncommon to develop a dependence on NSAIDs, even with prolonged use, there are still consequences of stopping abruptly. If you regularly take NSAIDs to control inflammation and swelling, you can expect it to return again. Increased swelling may increase your pain again, which can have secondary withdrawal consequences. You may experience anxiety simply because new pain tends to have this effect.

How to Quit Taking Painkillers Responsibly

If you want to quit taking your pain medication, make sure you do it the right way. First and foremost, contact your doctor. Tell them why you want to stop taking your pain medication and listen to what he or she has to say. There may be new alternatives that will work better for you, or your doctor may simply adjust your dosage. Whatever you do, do not stop taking your medication on your own.

If you are set on quitting, your doctor will create a schedule that will wean you off of your pain medication gradually and safely. Even with a slow weaning process, however, you may experience some withdrawal symptoms. Still, they will be much milder than if you quit cold turkey.

See Also


National Institute of Drug Abuse. NIDA InfoFacts: Prescription and Over-the-Counter Medications. Accessed 5/2/09.

National Pain Foundation. Abrupt Withdrawal from Medications — Information and Caution. Accessed 5/2/09.

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