OxyContin is the brand name for a long-acting, potent narcotic painkiller composed of oxycodone and specific chemicals that allow for the medication to release slowly into the bloodstream. It is designed to release over a period of 12 hours. Other opioid medications, like Percocet (oxycodone and acetaminophen) are designed to last 4-5 hours at most, so they are used as needed for moderate or severe pain. OxyContin is a semisynthetic opioid medication is prescribed to patients who have chronic pain that needs constant management, such as long-lasting injuries, arthritis, cancer, and other pain-causing conditions. When patients need daylong pain relief, continually monitoring when to take pain medication detracts focus from other aspects of their lives, so OxyContin can help them manage pain in a regular manner.
However, because OxyContin has a large dose of oxycodone, it has become popular as a drug of abuse among people who struggle with addiction to opioids. Like other opiates, such as heroin or morphine, OxyContin can produce a euphoric high. People who struggle with addiction to narcotic painkillers or other opiates have found methods to break down the medication, which bypasses OxyContin’s time-release properties and allows the person ingesting the substance to take all of the oxycodone at once. This can be very dangerous, even leading to overdose and death.
OxyContin Addiction and Withdrawal
Even people who take OxyContin as directed can develop a tolerance for, or dependence on, it. Doctors typically do not prescribe OxyContin to people who are expected to stop taking the medication in the future; this particular type of medication is designed to help people with chronic pain – people who will likely need to take this medication for years. Tolerance is likely to develop over time, both because the body gets used to the amount of OxyContin and does not achieve the same painkilling effects, and because a chronic pain condition can change over time. Just because a person needs more OxyContin to relieve pain does not mean they have become addicted to the substance.
Dependence occurs when the person needs the medication for their brain chemistry to sustain normalcy; without it, they begin to experience withdrawal symptoms. Dependence on a substance is also not the same as addiction,
although it is often used as a measurement of potential addiction.
- Taking OxyContin without the need for pain management
- Inability to stop taking OxyContin, even though the dose is no longer needed or the person wants to stop
- Risk-taking behaviors to find sources of the drug
- Lying about taking the substance
- Becoming irritated, angry, or aggressive, or experiencing mood swings, when questioned about drug use
- Obsessing about the next dose
- Intense cravings for the substance
Withdrawal symptoms can occur when a person is addicted to, or dependent on, a substance. These symptoms are the result of the body trying to reach homeostasis without the help of the substance. A person who has taken a prescription painkiller for a short period of time, as prescribed, may experience mild withdrawal symptoms after their prescription is done, but this does not mean that they have become addicted. However, people who abuse medications like OxyContin for a long period of time, or without a prescription, are more likely to experience withdrawal symptoms. They are also more likely to experience psychological withdrawal symptoms, such as cravings and anxiety.
OxyContin Withdrawal Symptoms
When a person does not need to take OxyContin, it is important for the individual to stop taking this medication. Whether they began to take the drug because of an addiction to prescription narcotic painkillers, or because they had a prescription and no longer need the treatment, ending a dependence on or addiction to OxyContin will prevent long-term negative side effects from this powerful opioid.
Withdrawing from opiates like OxyContin is not life-threatening, although the physical symptoms can be very uncomfortable. The discomfort and cravings associated with detoxing from strong opioids like OxyContin can lead to relapse, and that can lead to overdose, which is life-threatening. As with all opioids, medical detox is recommended for OxyContin withdrawal.
- Difficulty concentrating
- Memory problems
- Cravings for the substance
- Abdominal cramps
- Cold or flu-like symptoms, including runny nose, watery eyes, fever, and sweating
- Muscle aches or cramps
- Nausea or vomiting
- Excessive yawning
The Timeline of OxyContin Detox
Withdrawal symptoms related to OxyContin can vary, depending on several factors. For people who took the medication as directed and developed a physical dependence on it, the first withdrawal symptoms can take longer to appear because of the medication’s time-release formula. For people who bypassed the time-release chemicals and ingested large doses of oxycodone all at once, withdrawal symptoms will begin sooner, and they can potentially be more intense. People who have developed a tolerance to the medication and taken larger doses may experience withdrawal symptoms for a longer period of time, because there is more medication built up in their system. Typically, withdrawal begins once the substance has been eliminated from the body, and the body attempts to reach normalcy without the drug.
The onset of withdrawal is based on the half-life of the opiate. OxyContin is designed to last for 12 hours, so the half-life is about 4.5 hours. The half-life of oxycodone alone is 3.2 hours. For such a long-acting, potent opioid, withdrawal symptoms can take 16 hours to begin. Opioids typically take up to two weeks to be completely eliminated from the body. There are a few phases the body will go through during OxyContin withdrawal.
- Acute phase: This is the first 2-3 days of withdrawal. Typically, this is when the physical withdrawal symptoms are the most intense. Muscle aches, runny nose, fever and chills, general malaise, abdominal cramps, and physical discomfort hit their peak within three days after the final dose of OxyContin.
- Protracted phase: This is a condition that is rare with opioid withdrawal, but for higher-dose opiates like OxyContin, it is more likely to occur. This phase is essentially the extension of physical withdrawal symptoms, such as the cold and flu-like symptoms that are unique to opioid withdrawal, as well as muscle aches or physical discomfort. Psychological symptoms may feel intense at this point as well, such as anxiety, panic attacks, and depression. This occurs 7-10 days after the final dose.
- Extinction phase: This is the final week to two weeks after the last dose of OxyContin. The individual will begin to feel better; physical symptoms will clear up, and most psychological symptoms will go away. People who have struggled with OxyContin addiction for a long period of time, or who developed a dependence on the medication over a long time, may continue to experience some psychological symptoms, like cravings or depression, after this phase. This is the brain continuing to seek homeostasis, and these symptoms will eventually go away.
Physical Complications Related to OxyContin Withdrawal
Generally, detoxing from opiates like OxyContin is not physically dangerous. It is more dangerous to the individual to continue abusing the substance because of the risks of organ damage and overdose.
However, in some cases, a person detoxing from OxyContin can experience post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS). This is the result of changes to brain chemistry and structure while the individual was using OxyContin.
Part of PAWS is the brain’s “fight-or-flight” response kicking in, leading to anxiety and panic attacks because the body is not getting its regular dose of opioids. This leads to stress, which can enhance physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms, causing them to last longer. The long-lasting physical and emotional discomfort can cause some individuals to relapse, which can lead to overdose.
In some rare cases, the person may experience intense depression, which can lead to suicidal thoughts. Other rare cases involve seizures. These are dangerous, which is why it is important to get help to detox from OxyContin. Medical attention and social support will help the person stabilize physically and psychologically.
When a person decides to overcome their addiction to a substance like OxyContin, the first step is to detox from the drug, which means eliminating the substance from the body. Although this can be done “cold turkey,” more people are successful at maintaining sobriety when they receive help. A doctor can oversee the detox process, and even prescribe medications to ease withdrawal symptoms. This is called medical detox.
For opioids, there are several options to help a person successfully withdraw from the substance. Buprenorphine, a partial opioid agonist, is used in many cases to replace the opioid and ease the individual off the substance of addiction. Buprenorphine binds to opioid receptors in the brain, so it can mitigate withdrawal symptoms, although it does not create the same euphoric effects as opioid substances.
A doctor may also prescribe mood-stabilizing medications, such as antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications. These can relieve panic attacks and depression, but should be used in small doses with medical oversight to watch for potential abuse symptoms.
Get Help for OxyContin Addiction
Although medical detox with replacement medications does take longer than just quitting cold turkey, it can greatly reduce the likelihood of relapse. For some people, tapering or replacement therapy adds a few days or weeks to the withdrawal process, while for others, it can take months to fully withdraw from opioids. The use of medications should be determined on a case-by-case basis by treatment professionals.
Detox is also not the same thing as overcoming an addiction. It is an important first step, but it is not a solution. People who want to overcome their addiction to OxyContin should enroll in a complete rehabilitation program that offers therapy to address the underlying causes of addiction.