Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome – Causes and Treatment
Anyone who has been unfortunate enough to find themselves in the throes of addiction, whether it be drugs, alcohol, or even nicotine, knows exactly what it feels like to go through withdrawal. Your body doesn’t like it when it’s not getting its buzz and it throws a fit.
This is especially true with alcohol, everybody’s favorite poison, and the most common cause of withdrawal. Anyone who’s been drinking regularly for an extended period of time, whether it’s weeks, months, or years, will experience withdrawal when they stop. You know the routine: the shakes, nausea, sweats, diarrhea, dry heaves, insomnia, horrible nightmares, feeling like you’re having a heart attack, seeing funny things out of the corner of your eye, etc., etc. It’s a horrible feeling, one that definitely makes you want to give up your drinking habit for good. As you may know, these symptoms can last for days, and the longer you’ve been drinking, the longer they last.
What you may not realize is that alcohol withdrawal is among the most dangerous types of substance abuse withdrawal, and potentially life-threatening. Luckily, it can be effectively and safely treated and the symptoms alleviated with medical supervision.
Causes of Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome
Like most substances that are abused, alcohol affects the chemicals in the brain that transmit information from one part of the brain to another, called neurotransmitters. The pleasant feelings that you get from drinking are caused by the enhancement of a particular neurotransmitter that induces relaxation and a slight euphoria. That’s ok for moderate drinking, but continued use of alcohol eventually has the opposite effect, and more alcohol is needed to produce the same results, what’s commonly known as building up a tolerance.
Chronic alcohol abuse also suppresses another neurotransmitter called glutamate, which causes feelings of excitement. To counteract the alcohol, the glutamates go into overdrive, and are produced at much higher levels.
When you suddenly stop drinking, or even cut way down, all these neurotransmitters that were being suppressed suddenly rebound like wild animals being released from a cage, and cause the brain to enter into an overactive state called hyper excitability. This is what causes those terrible withdrawal symptoms.
Severe cases of alcohol withdrawal syndrome can lead to delirium tremens, or DT’s characterized by all the above noted symptoms with the addition of fever, intense confusion and hallucinations, and potentially fatal seizures. Anyone experiencing the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal should seek immediate medical treatment, even for lesser symptoms, especially if they have a history of seizures, liver problems, or other serious medical conditions.
Treatment of Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome
Most people who seek medical attention for alcohol withdrawal will be treated on an outpatient basis after a period of observation to make sure symptoms don’t get worse. Treatment will include prescription medication, rest, and proper nutrition and fluid intake. Those who are experiencing the more severe forms of withdrawal and are at risk of seizure or self-injury because of confusion and hallucinations will be admitted to a hospital under a doctor’s supervision.
The most important part of the treatment process, after addressing the immediate symptoms, is to assess the nature and seriousness of the problem and begin to take steps toward eliminating the abuse and addiction. If you’ve had withdrawal symptoms, there’s a pretty good chance you have a problem that you’ll need some help to beat. The Delray Recovery Center has a lot of experience helping people to deal with alcohol-related issues. If you feel you have a problem with alcohol abuse, contact them today for professional guidance and advice. It’s a free call, and completely confidential.
- David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Alcohol Withdrawal, National Institutes of Health, U.S. National Library of Medicine – MedlinePlus, 1/1/2013, http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000764.htm
- Max Bayard M.D., Jonah McIntyre M.D., Keith R. Hill M.D., Jack Woodside Jr. M.D., Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome, American Family Physician, 3/15/2004, http://www.aafp.org/afp/2004/0315/p1443.html