Codeine Withdrawal

Being your average wife and mother, I never thought I’d go through drug withdrawal. When I think of going cold turkey I imagine Ewan McGregor literally climbing the walls in the film Trainspotting. If I’m honest it’s a lot like that. But I wasn’t addicted to heroin, I was addicted to something my GP gave me. Codeine.

In 2013 I had two spinal surgeries and went through rehab. For around 8 months of my life I was in the worst pain imaginable, worse even than childbirth, a little bit of the innards of one of my disks was pressing, nudging and quietly torturing my nerve root. Excruciating isn’t the word, to “manage” my pain I was prescribed a heady mix of tablets including 8 codeine tablets a day, as well as a selection of other painkillers, muscle relaxants and things to make me float above the pain.

They were heady days, I spent most of them lying in bed or on the sofa sleeping or just enjoying the floaty feeling. It was a half life. I wasn’t part of my family, I watched them live their lives while I kept taking my tablets and crying. My life wasn’t worth living.

After my second operation I quickly found my feet again and was tucked under the wing of a brilliant Physiotherapist. I didn’t really need a series of special exercises, I needed someone to tell me to walk, to swim, to tell me that living my life wouldn’t damage me further. Over six weeks I went from hobbling up the road to walking a few miles down the river. It was brilliant.

Towards the end of of series of sessions he broached the subject of my painkillers. I didn’t consider that I was addicted to them. I took them as and when I needed them. Maybe some codeine to get me out of bed a few days a week, normal paracetamol as a top up throughout the day, a diazepam if I’d overdone it and needed to properly relax and sleep.

I wasn’t medicating for the sake of it, just when I needed to. Which was fine, but he suggested that I try and drop the codeine. So I did. After all I was only taking four or five a week, not the 50+ I had been on, that should be easy shouldn’t it?

I decided to go cold turkey. Like most things, I make my mind up and then my stubbornness just carries me through. After a couple of days of being codeine free my body was aching badly like I had flu, I shivered and suffered. I couldn’t get comfortable. For days I was like this. I had an awful headache that wouldn’t go, it was oppressive, then the toothache started and it got so bad I nearly phoned the dentist. At some point over the week of withdrawal I had a 48 hour session of diarrhea and vomiting, I couldn’t keep anything down. I felt like hell.

It took me a few days to figure out what was wrong with me. I was going through classic codeine withdrawal. I genuinely felt like I was in Trainspotting and I was about to die. Apparently your body wants the codeine that much, it makes your brain think there’s pain somewhere so you’ll give in and take the pills. It starts off with the aching and the headache and then the awful toothache. Thankfully I’m bloody stubborn so I didn’t give in.

I remember rolling around on the bathroom floor, shivering and sweating and wondering what the hell was wrong with me. I was in such pain and I didn’t know why. I did it cold turkey, I didn’t mention it to my GP, I had no support, I had no idea codeine withdrawal was even a thing, but it is. It’s a horrible thing.

So when a GP suggests I take some codeine for my pain I actually physically recoil. For me codeine is a last resort. It’s a great drug if you can tolerate it and if you can put up with the side effects, but it’s addictive. I wasn’t mentally addicted to it. It was easy for me to mentally to step away from it, but my body had other ideas, it had an addiction and forgot to tell me.

It’s easy to think when a GP gives you a prescription that they’re not dangerous drugs, they’re not addictive or harmful, they’re just pills that’ll make you happy or take away some pain or whatever. You don’t think about what it’s like to come off them. My GP worried a lot about me becoming addicted to diazepam (never happened, it’s a lovely, lovely drug but I was always careful with it) and they worried about me taking things like diclophenic (which can harm your stomach), but not one of the many GPs, Doctors or Consultants I saw during my 8 months from hell even hinted that codeine was addictive, I doubt any of them had really considered that it might be an issue.

It’s not that I wouldn’t have taken them, I wouldn’t change a thing because they really helped me when I needed help. But it might’ve been nice to have a bit of a heads up that stopping them would lead to codeine withdrawal. It’s pretty grim and had I known about it before, I’d have been mentally prepared for it. It’s worth doing because I do feel so much better, more alert and the horrible side effects of taking codeine have vanished.

If you’re on codeine and about to come off it, don’t be afraid of the withdrawal, think of it as a week long planned flu with a bit of a stomach bug thrown in. Keep hydrated, keep moving if you can, be kind to yourself, take other painkillers as and when you need to and whatever you do, don’t give in to it. It’s just your codeine hungry mind playing painful tricks on you. I’ve been “clean” and codeine free for over a year now. It’s a good feeling.

codeine withdrawal

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17 responses to “Codeine Withdrawal

  1. Thanks for writing this, is does need to be highlighted. I actually really fell out with my life-long frined who was my Doctor for putting me on codeine from around age 15, being prescribed 100 tabs a week when you are that young and then trying to get off them is for lack of a thousand better words, Hell on Earth. I had taken them for many years for my migraine of which I have suffered throughout my life, and for my sciatica. I always prided myself on being a strong capable woman, been through a lot of stuff that could have broken me, and yet here I was, broken a thousand times over by two small little pills that were meant to help me.
    I fell out with my Doctor simply because he had never warned me that if I ever wanted to stop them after years of taking them, that I would have to go through months of torture. Not only (by the way you put it brilliantly) does your body forget to tell you that it now requires them constantly, but also no-one tells you that they replace your feel good hormones, so that when you do stop taking them, nothing makes you happy, not Christmas, not your kids beautiful drawing, not your kids in their school play, the tablets take over that part of your mind, so your body stops producing the feel-good part that keeps you going. The depressive slope that you fall down is so horrible, you tell yourself just two more tablets then everything will be ok, but its not, because as soon as those pills have gone, you panic, and its horrible. I felt like I was a criminal when I realised I was addicted, I felt stupid, low, depressed, scared, and hated what these tablets had made me. thats when I broke down and told my husband, and he saved me. He took almost half a year off of work to help support me, as the longr you have been on these things, the longer it can take you to kick them completely. The actual flu like symptoms go first and can leave in just a few weeks, however, its the happiness part, the bit where your brain no longer knows how to be happy unless the codeine is there, that was the killer. Funnily enough by reading I could make myself forget the tablets for a while, but as you said, the aching flu like symptoms are so bad, mainly because you know they would go if you just take one little tablet, but then of course, you are back to square one.
    Also its important to note that it won’t take the same amount of time for everyone, some people can get over it quickly, others the flu like symptoms can last for several weeks, and then there is the restless legs!!!!! Oh that is horrible, but I found that by doing lots of walking and taking Piriton tablets (makes you a little sleepy, and my new Doctor says this is ok) this helps a lot, as the restless legs is another symptom of the tablets leaving your body.
    I had to wean myself off them slow,y so as not to re-lapse, It was also crappy because I still had to deal with my migraines, despite the fact that a lot of my heads might have been to do with the damned tablets! Slowly I began to pick myself up, would not take anything for my migraines, even when I was climbing the walls in pain and wanted to put my head through a window. I know this was hell for my husband to watch while he dealt with our four children, but he was absolutely amazing, not sure I could have done it without his support. Slowly I began to notice traces of my old self coming back, One massively great way to get those endorphins pumping was exercise, it saved me. Going for long walks where my hubby and kids would tell me how amazing I was all the way there and back gave me the fight I needed. I won’t ever be cured, the wonderful blanket of codeine is always in my mind, how nice it feels, to feel good, to let those pills take away all the stress and worries, however, they also take away massive chunks of your life and leave you a quivering wreck, and if I could go back in time and tell my younger self to never touch them, to leave them be and stick with triptans for the head pain then I would in a flash. More needs to be done to help Dr.s keep a watchful eye over those who take these strong tablets for long periods of time, because they work, and when they do thats great, but ANYONE at ANY stage can become addicted, falling into that is easy, its just not as easy climbing back out. xxxxxxx I was on strong codeine for over 18 years, but been clean now for just under a year, and you’re right, its the best feeling, it can be done, but it does take a bloody big fight. Thank-you for the post hun, wish more people would be as open.

    • Oh my goodness Carrie, I thought my withdrawal was bad, but I was on my pills for just under a year, 18 years must mean a hellish time. I’m so sorry you went through all that. Since writing this I’ve heard some really terrible stories about codeine addiction and withdrawal, I think it’s a lot more widespread than I first thought.

      I hope my story and now your story brings some hope and comfort to people stopping their codeine use. Good luck and stay strong x

  2. Fabulously honest post Jane. You’re ace x

  3. this is such a great post. i am so wary of taking anything – you never know what it can do to you. That said, sometimes you do NEED stuff, but being mindful of the fact that you can be addicted is so important.

    • Thanks Sarah. I’m really careful, I was even before this, but like you said, I needed them, I wouldn’t have been able to get through my surgeries or anything without them.

  4. Cherished By Me

    Well done for doing it, so scary what you have to go through to withdraw from using them.

  5. Great piece – people really don’t understand how addictive codeine is to the body. Stumbled for you – North East Family Fun

    • Thank you for stumbling. You’re right, I’ll be more wary in future and check for myself if pills are addictive before taking them, I’d still take them but I’d have that knowledge.

  6. What a great, honest post. I’ve had spinal disc surgery (twice) and also have a close relative with a continuous chronic pain condition. Because of watching her come off codeine and the side-effects I witnessed I was extremely circumspect about dosage and codeine became my ‘only in emergencies’ drug (luckily the levels of pain I experienced meant most of the time I could realistically take it less often). You’re so right that a bit of warning could make a huge difference – you might still have to / choose to / want to take the drug, but you can be a bit more prepared for the process of coming off it. Thank you so much for sharing.

    • Hi Alex, thank you for commenting, that’s the exact same reason I was on codeine, two spinal disc surgeries in 5 months, it was a rough time. Like you I’m still in pain but I mostly manage it with over the counter painkillers now if I can.

  7. Hi, this is my third day of withdrawal from 240mg a day for 10 months. It’s the insomnia I can’t cope with. I have just been scrabbling round the medicine cupboard trying to find something…. Anything to help. Piriton??? Well I’m trying it. It’s 4.15am I need sleep, my youngest alarm clock will be up in just over an hour. How long does the insomnia last for?

    • Hi Emma, I think it varies depending on how long you were on the medication for, insomnia is hell, I’m sorry but I promise you that you will get through this. Your body just wants you to take the pills. Have you spoken to your GP about withdrawing? Good luck, hope you come out the other side soon.

  8. Hi I realise that most of these post are from last year but here I go!!
    I got addicted to codeiene this time lady year when I started to feel depressed. My husband has a bad back and I stupidly took some of his tablets when I had no paracetamol for a headache. Well I got hooked on the feel good feeling they gave me and before I knew t I was addicted. I am on day two of going cold turkey and the head dizziness is just dreadful, put that with the insomnia and a full time teaching job and I’m wondering if there is any point in living at the moment. I need help but don’t know where to turn.

    • Thank you for commenting, it can be shocking how addictive these little pills are. I hope you’re feeling better now, I would say please contact your GP if you need some help. Good luck with it Joan.

  9. It actually took me 10 weeks to come off Tramadol after my operation. I needed it for the first 6 weeks and then tried to come off it sensibly. As soon as I was overdue a dose I’d start vomiting, I had to reduce by fractions of a capsule at a time and really was quite ill. I wish I’d known you understood because my partner would come home and say ‘how was today’, and I’d say ‘Rentonesque’.