Heroin is an extremely addictive drug that can quickly lead to chemical dependency after a period of misuse. One of the most significant barriers to addiction treatment is the uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms that occur when you try to stop using heroin. This is called withdrawal.
Heroin is notorious for causing particularly unpleasant symptoms during withdrawal, but there are some treatment options. Hydration, medical monitoring, and medications to help ease symptoms can make your withdrawal period a little easier. But what about other medications that are sometimes used to treat withdrawal, like Xanax?
Learn more about Xanax and its potential use in treating heroin withdrawal.
Is Opioid Withdrawal Dangerous?
Opioid withdrawal is a significant barrier to treatment for many people seeking help with a substance use disorder. As an opioid, heroin can cause unpleasant withdrawal, causing uncomfortable flu-like symptoms. People in the grip of active addiction may see withdrawal as something to be avoided at all costs. Withdrawal is caused by your brain’s adaptation to an opioid.
Since your brain chemistry and chemical messaging pathways adjust around the consistent presence of an opioid, quitting will send your brain chemistry system out of balance. While your brain and body adjust back to normal, you’ll experience uncomfortable symptoms.
Opioid withdrawal symptoms are similar to flu symptoms. You may experience:
- Muscle aches
- Runny nose
- Excessive tearing and yawning
The withdrawal period often starts with anxiety, restlessness, and yawning. As your symptoms worsen, you may experience:
- High blood pressure
- Rapid heartbeat
You may also experience chills and a high body temperature, which further contributes to the opioid withdrawal’s comparison to the flu.
Opioid Withdrawal Isn’t Usually Life-Threatening
When compared to the withdrawal from other substances like alcohol, opioids aren’t as dangerous. However, opioid withdrawal can be potentially dangerous in certain circumstances. People with heart issues and hypertension may be vulnerable to anything that can significantly raise their blood pressure. Since some people who experience opioid withdrawal experience an increase in blood pressure, it may be necessary for a person with high blood pressure to consult a doctor before going through withdrawal.
Heroin withdrawal symptoms like sweating, vomiting, and diarrhea cause you to lose water quickly. This can lead to dehydration quickly. When you’re going through heroin withdrawal, you should drink plenty of fluids, just like when you have the flu. But if you don’t have access to clean water or if you can’t keep fluids down, you may need immediate medical attention.
While heroin withdrawal isn’t usually life-threatening, it can be difficult to get through it on your own without relapse. For that reason, many people go through withdrawal with the help of a doctor or rehab program.
What Is Xanax?
Xanax is a brand name for a drug called alprazolam. It’s typically used to treat muscle spasms, anxiety disorders, and seizures. Xanax is in a class of drugs called benzodiazepines, which are a class of drugs first introduced in the United States in the 1960s.
By the 1970s, they were the most popular prescription drugs in the world, and they were being used to treat everything from anxiety to sleep disorders. The first benzodiazepine on the market was chlordiazepoxide, which was sold under the brand name Librium. Next, diazepam was introduced under the brand name Valium. Xanax was first patented in 1971, but it wasn’t sold in the U.S. until 1981.
Benzodiazepines are part of a larger category of drugs called central nervous system depressants. Depressants also include drugs like alcohol, barbiturates, and certain sleep aids. Depressants usually work with a chemical in your brain called gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA).
GABA is tied to relaxation, anxiety release, and sleep. Depressants increase the effectiveness of GABA so that it has more potent effects. This is why benzodiazepines are useful in treating issues that are caused by an overactive nervous system like anxiety and muscle spasms.
Xanax is unique because it’s one of a few benzodiazepines that are long-acting. That means they have a long half-life and last for a long time in your system. This makes them more useful in treating issues that require all-day relief, such as epilepsy and anxiety disorders. It also contributes to its usefulness in treating substance use problems like alcohol addiction. Xanax works with GABA, just like alcohol. It’s also a long-acting drug, so a dose of Xanax may relieve alcohol withdrawal symptoms for hours.
Does Xanax for Opioid Withdrawal Work?
Xanax is used to treat alcohol withdrawal and withdrawal from other depressants. The fact that’s is so long-acting makes it useful as a therapeutic drug. But can it also be used to treat withdrawal from opioids? Both opioids and alcohol can have similar sedating effects on the body’s central nervous system. However, opioids are in a separate category of drugs than benzodiazepines. Benzodiazepines work with GABA while opioids mimic your brian’s natural opioids called endorphins. While Xanax alleviates alcohol withdrawal by working in the brain in a way that’s similar to alcohol, it won’t have the same effect on opioid withdrawal. Still, it may have some efficacy in treating opioid withdrawal symptoms.
A 1998 study looked at the effects of Xanax on opioid withdrawal in rats. The study found that Xanax that was administered to rats before they went into morphine withdrawal had effects that weren’t present in rats that were not dependent on morphine. The study concluded by saying that the data may suggest that Xanax decreased the withdrawal syndrome in rats.
A study in 2006 also examined the use of non-opioid drugs among opioid-dependent people. People addicted to opioids often turn to certain benzodiazepines when opioids aren’t available. The study hypothesized that benzodiazepines could work to ease opioid withdrawal symptoms. They found that among all the non-opioids they investigated, only benzodiazepines and certain antidepressants worked to alleviate opioid withdrawal symptoms. However, even those were only moderately effective.
While there is some evidence to suggest that Xanax may be able to help with heroin withdrawal, there are other medications that may be more effective. Buprenorphine is often used in medication-assisted treatment and in opioid tapering. Buprenorphine is a partial opioid agonist, which means that it binds to the same opioid receptors that heroin works with.
What Are the Risks of Using Xanax for Opioid Withdrawal?
Xanax is a potent drug that can be useful for various issues. However, it can also come with some side effects. Some of these side effects can be more dangerous in people with a history of opioid use problems.
Xanax and Opioids Shouldn’t Be Mixed
Xanax and opioids can be dangerous when the drugs are mixed together. Since they both cause some sedating effects on the central nervous system, they can work together to depress some of its vital functions. When drugs with similar effects are used at the same time that can potentiate each other. That means they may combine to cause more intense effects than they would separately.
This can quickly lead to overdose symptoms in relatively moderate doses of each individual drug. Together, Xanax and opioids can slow down your heart rate and lower your blood pressure. However, the most dangerous symptom may be respiratory depression, which is when your breathing slows down to a dangerous degree. Many fatal cases of opioid and benzodiazepine overdose involve oxygen deprivation and death.
Treating opioid withdrawal with Xanax would ideally mean you’re not using both at the same time. However, a relapse of opioid use while you’re still on Xanax could be deadly. However, this is also a concern when treating opioid addiction with other opioids and when treating alcohol withdrawal with Xanax.
Xanax Can Be Addictive
Xanax, like other benzodiazepines, can cause chemical dependence and addiction when the drugs are overused or used for too long. Xanax can easily lead to addiction when the drug is abused for recreational purposes, but it can also lead to addiction when it’s used as directed. Xanax is generally recommended for short-term therapeutic use. Like other benzodiazepines, when it’s used for too long, it can cause chemical dependence and substance use problems.
Dependence is caused by your brain’s adaptation to the drug. When you stop using it cold turkey, it can cause uncomfortable symptoms. Xanax and other benzodiazepines may be more dangerous than opioids during withdrawal. Like alcohol withdrawal, Xanax withdrawal has the potential to cause seizures and other severe symptoms.
However, Xanax dependence can be avoided by limiting the amount of time the drug is taken. According to the FDA, the risk of Xanax dependence is greater in patients that take more than 4 mg/day and for long periods.