Drugs and alcohol affect mood by altering brain chemistry, specifically the production of neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are chemicals in the central nervous system that enable nerve impulses to travel through the central nervous system and regulate thought processes, behavior, and emotion. Drugs that temporarily elevate neurotransmitter levels are called stimulants. Drugs that decrease neurotransmitter levels and depress the central nervous system are called depressants; they include opiates and sedative-hypnotic drugs such as alcohol and barbiturates. (There are exceptions: Benzodiazepine elevates the level of an inhibitory neurotransmitter, GABA, therefore it serves as a tranquilizer.)
When drug or alcohol consumption becomes chronic, the body adjusts to the constant presence of the substance by changing its normal production of neurotransmitters. If drug and alcohol use suddenly stops, the body and central nervous system react to the absence of the substance with an array of symptoms known collectively as withdrawal syndrome.
Acute withdrawal syndrome begins within hours of abstinence, and includes a full range of physical and psychological symptoms. More long-term, or subacute, withdrawal symptoms, such as intense drug craving, may occur weeks or months after detoxification has taken place.
Pharmacologic and medical management is often recommended for withdrawal syndrome. The physical condition of the patient is closely monitored throughout the detoxification procedure.
Two basic treatment approaches are used for managing opiate withdrawal. The first involves treating the symptoms of the withdrawal with appropriate medication. Clondine, an antihypertensive drug, is commonly prescribed to reduce muscle pain and cramping. Other symptom-specific drugs are administered on an as-needed basis.
The second treatment option is to replace the patient's drug of choice with methadone, a long-acting, cross-tolerant opiate that does not normally produce a "high." Doses of methadone are administered every four to six hours. The patient's reaction is closely observed, and dosages are slowly decreased until withdrawal symptoms have disappeared, then dosages are discontinued. Methadone withdrawal can be completed within three weeks. It is important to note that methadone withdrawal treatment differs from a methadone maintenance program, in which patients who are unwilling to give up opiates are prescribed methadone as a legal, long-term substitute for their drug of choice.
Rapid opiate detoxification (ROD) is an emerging treatment option for opiate withdrawal. The ROD method is reported to be faster and to cause less physical discomfort than traditional forms of opiate detoxification. The treatment is typically performed in a hospital or private clinic setting. Naltrexone, an opiate antagonist that blocks opiate receptors and reverses the effects of opiates, is administered to trigger the withdrawal response. Clonidine is given simultaneously to ease the symptoms of withdrawal. The patient is anesthetized throughout the three to four hour procedure, and withdrawal occurs while the patient sleeps. Vital signs are monitored closely and a ventilator may be employed.