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Prescription Drug Withdrawal Can Be Disastrous

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Starting a new medicine is easy. Stopping can be hell.

Mention the word “withdrawal” and images of dope addicts or alcoholics come to mind: a junkie trying to kick a heroin habit or a wino going through the hallucinations and shakes of delirium tremens.

But a surprising number of upstanding citizens who have done nothing more insidious than take their prescription medicine “as directed” suffer severe symptoms of withdrawal when they stop their medication suddenly.

Get a new prescription and the chances are pretty good that the doctor will tell you how to take it and some common side effects. Often neglected, however, is information about how to discontinue the drug. That can lead to disaster.

Something as seemingly simple and benign as a heartburn medicine that suppresses acid formation can lead to excruciating withdrawal pain. Here is one reader’s story:

“I have tried to stop Prilosec or Prevacid THREE times! Each time I try, I get so bent over in pain that I go back on the drug.

“I started taking Prevacid in 2000 and was on it until 2007. Then I switched to Prilosec OTC with wonderful results. When I stopped the Prilosec, however, my stomach lining became so inflamed that it burned (like a bad sunburn) from the bottom of my tummy to my throat. It was horrid.

“I could not take the burning, especially when my stomach was empty. I had to go back on Prilosec and now am pain free. I don't know what to do, as I want to quit this acid-suppressing medicine but the pain is more horrible than anything else I’ve experienced.”

Readers have experienced similar difficulties trying to stop other proton pump inhibitors such as Nexium or Protonix. The hyperacidity that occurs as a rebound effect when such drugs are discontinued can last for weeks or even months. It drives many people back to the medication.

Stopping an antidepressant suddenly can also pose problems. One reader shared this story: “I thought I was literally going crazy from brain shivers. These started when I stopped Cymbalta. I've been so incredibly uncomfortable the last couple of days I have wanted to lock my head in a vice.

“I am attempting to stop taking Cymbalta because it makes me sick to my stomach. If I miss just one dose I get brain zaps. I can't even see straight or drive, they are so bad.”

People who suddenly stop drugs like Celexa, Cymbalta, Effexor, Lexapro, Paxil or Zoloft may experience dizziness, headaches, mood swings, anxiety, insomnia, irritability, sweats and electric shock sensations in the limbs or the head. These can be extremely distressing and may take a long time to wear off.

Other medications that can trigger symptoms upon sudden discontinuation include anti-anxiety drugs such as Ativan (lorazepam) or Xanax (alprazolam); oral corticosteroids such as prednisone; pain relievers taken for migraines; and even decongestant nasal sprays that have been used for more than three days.

To avoid being blind-sided by withdrawal symptoms, be sure to talk with your doctor about how to stop a medicine before you start taking it. That way you may be able to avoid an unpleasant surprise when it comes time to discontinue the drug.

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21 Comments

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I got hooked on nose spray when I was pregnant. It had gotten where I was using Afrin about 5 times a day for a couple months. I started having heart palpitations, so realized I needed to get off this medication. The day I stopped using Afrin, my nasal passages swelled to the point I could not breath at all through my nose and the swelling was visible on the outside of my face. I was not able to sleep the for an entire night and part of the following night. I learned my lesson about using nose-sprays no more than 3 days.

Spent many years working on psych and rehab. units. We learned that the best way to ween from a drug no longer useful was slowly and incrementally. You don't cut out a dose at a time on a drug that has withdrawal side effects. Plan to take at least a month or two months to accomplish this task. Make a calendar for the withdrawal. Start with the bed time dose first if their is one. Cut the tablet in fourths. If a capsule, slip it apart and remove approximately 1/4 of the drug and put it in an empty capsule, available at health food stores.

Take the remaining 3/4 capsule at bedtime. do this for 3 days or longer. If you don't notice any side effects, Begin doing the same thing with the other doses during the day. Keep up with the calendar you created, don't discontinue a dose until all of the doses are down to a 4th.

Then remove one, 1/4 dose each week. It may take two weeks or longer for these last doses. You have to allow your body and brain chemistry to adjust to the absence of the artificial chemical that it had made room for when you began taking the drug. The body has to change the doses of what "It" manufactures back to normal.

With stomach drugs, make sure you have changed eating habits; use blocks under the bed and no eating after 6.p.m. to aid esophagus healing. Don't be in a hurry or you end up starting over. Think about what you are doing.

Since I first wrote about trying to get off acid suppressors (see above; my story is quoted first among many other folks trying to do the same thing....) I have tried UNSUCCESSFULLY to taper off PRILOSEC (and its generics). After writing to the Peoples Pharmacy, I TRIED cutting back to 1 every other day; THAT did not work. Then I talked to a doctor that recommended 1/2 every day, then 1/2 every other day, then down to 1/2 every few days, then none.

I NEVER got past 1/2 every other day. The pain was outrageous. I am now back on 1/2 every morning. Also, I switched to the generic prilosec from Wal-mart and soon I was experiencing being awakened out of a deep sleep with acid in my throat and mouth; The genuine Prilosec 1/2 dose had been working but when I switched to the wal-mart generics I began having the pain and acid again!

I went out and bought a box of genuine Prilosec OTC and now take 1/2 daily. I just can NOT take the acid rebound; It felt like a bad sunburn on the inside of my stomach and throat, especially when my stomach was empty. I got tired of being bent over in pain!! This is terrible; I want off PPI meds but can not take the horrid rebound acid and pain. HELP!

I've had exactly the same problem with Protonix and Nexium. I've also tried to go off Protonix three times and suffer terrible burning in my stomach. My doctors just says, "Maybe you need it." Well...maybe. But I also know there are side effects, and I'd like to see if I could find another way to take care of my stomach problems. I have fibromyalgia and find sleep difficult. A burning stomach will keep me up the whole miserable night.

Research by Noto T, Nagasaki M, Yomota E, Endo T. in 1998 in "Arzneimittelforschung" found that acid secretion was higher in rats after omeprazole than in control rats. Prilosec is, hence, 'addictive' and should be labeled as such. I've quit recently and am suffering; ginger tea, homeopathic meds, etc., giving some relief. But the heartburn is awful.

I was taking Zantac for along time because of acid reflux. I was feeling fine and had no symptoms for a long time so I quit taking it. I was fine for awhile then I started having such severe chest pain and stomach pain that I had to start taking it again. The symptoms have resolved, but I found out that I need to take it whether I think I do or not.

Another problem I am having now is brain shocks from discontinuing Cymbalta. I weaned off as you described in your post. They started about a week ago and seem to be getting worse. I have found myself shaking my head and I have started having facial twitches. I am waiting to get an appointment with my doctor but I don't know what he can do for me. I really don't want to restart taking Cymbalta again.

I have been suffering from withdrawals for the past month from pristiq.
I wanted to get off this medicine and it made me have the shivers, high blood pressure, rapid heart rate, dizziness. I am now back on it directed by doctor due to the drop in the serotonin levels. I would like to know how I can get off of this and take a natural supplement to support my serotonin levels?

PEOPLE'S PHARMACY RESPONSE: GETTING OFF A DRUG LIKE PRISTIQ WILL REQUIRE PATIENCE AND PERSISTENCE AND A DOCTOR WHO IS WILLING TO BE HELPFUL. YOU MAY NEED TO BE SWITCHED TO A LONGER-ACTING ANTIDEPRESSANT WITH MANY DOSES THAT CAN BE REDUCED GRADUALLY.

Brains zaps are miserable, however, you can beat them by taking an older anti-depressant. I was on Effexor XR and when I stopped I was certain I would have to take the drug forever because I couldn't function properly with the brain zaps. I don't remember how I discovered this but by switching to Prozac for about two months I was able fix the brain zaps, and then come off the Prozac with no withdrawal symptoms. I will never take anti-depressants again.

I have been taking Protonix for about 4 years or so? I wanted off because when I would skip 1 or 2 doses my stomach would burn like I drank 5 pots of coffee and have a lot of pain, so about 8 months ago I got on the internet and researched for something more natural, and I found that red delicious apples neutralize the acids in the stomach and honey stops stomach pain, this stuff really works, I have told lots of other people about the 2 natural remedies, and they come back surprised with the results (it works).

I now eat one apple a day and have an apple with me always. Take an apple with you to bed, if you awake and your stomach is bothering you take a couple of bites of the apple it takes the burn away. It has to be red delicious apples, but I don't know why. I stopped taking Protonix now a little over a week I am having some withdrawals but the apple takes it away, it works and its natural the way God intended it to be, plus prayer. God bless and in Jesus name be healed.

If you want off anti-acid drugs, try apples for the acid. Gala apples work well for me but another variety may work for others. Give it a try. It won't hurt you!

My husband had taken prilosec for years and stopped taking it for 2 weeks and his hemoglobin went down to a 7 and he required 5 units of blood. Has anyone else became anemic because of prilosec ?

I have rheumatoid arthritis, and have been taking lots of drugs over the years. Most recently, I was on arava, sulfasalazine, prednisone, plaquinel, cyclobenzaprin and etodolac. Due to financial difficulties, I was unable to refill some of the prescriptions, and then a couple of weeks ago I lost my job and my insurance. I cannot afford COBRA, or to even pay for an office visit with my rheumatologist. I was also on plavix, which I can no longer afford, and even to get the drug company to help would require an office visit to the cardiologist, which is way beyond affordable. I have not taken any of these meds for about 6 weeks now.

Right now I am having some pretty severe symptoms, like a bad RA flare only worse. For a few days I could not walk or use my hands. It is slowly getting better, but I just feel awful and my legs spasm all the time so it is difficult to sleep. Am I going through withdrawal? And if so, when will it start to get better? I know that stress has a lot to do with it. Is there anything I can do to alleviate some of this until is subsides? I can't even put my hair in a ponytail or hold my baby granddaughter. Please don't tell me to go to the doctor, because I can't afford it and I am already being sued for past co-pays that my insurance did not cover.

Thanks!!

I need some advice. My Mother-in-law is on an absurd amount of medications for M.S. as well as depression and other issues. She has been having problems with her doctors and was forced to quit Pristiq and Methadone and possibly others completely without weening and it is a horrible experience. We don't fully trust the doctors where we live, they just keep piling on pills instead of trying to get to the core of the issue. Do you have a recommendation on someone we could talk to and discuss all of the meds she is taking as well as her issues and hopefully get some real help and advice? Thank you!

I have been on tramadol for about 8 months and fentanyl patches for about 6 months, tramodol got up 100mg and the fentanyl went from 50mg to 100mg. I have had my op for a slipped disc now and have tried to stop the tramodol and the fentanyl is down o 75mg. I am not doing to well, aches and pains, sweating one min the freezing cold the next, I cant sleep much and have just about stopped eating. I feel really depressed and cry a lot. Is this withdrawal ? if so how long will it last?

PEOPLE'S PHARMACY RESPONSE: IT SOUNDS LIKE WITHDRAWAL. CHECK IN WITH YOUR PHYSICIAN FOR ASSISTANCE.

I have been on Nexium for the last 8 yrs. I made the decision to go off of the drug because of prolonged use. I have had no problems, it has been 2 weeks. I have been using ginger root 550 mg every morning with great results. Also when I met my husband 20 yrs ago he was having severe nerve and anxiety problems. A friend suggested St. Johns Wort. After taking only 1 bottle he has been problem free for years.

I have just been back in the UK for a yr. after living in the USA for 21 yrs. I have Chronic Back Pain, top to bottom, had neck surgery and need more, I have had this for 13 yrs. now. The pain is excruciating, I developed Fibromyalgia about 8 yrs. ago along came depression/anxiety. I had been with a Pain Clinic to manage my pain and have been on some very hard drugs to ease the pain going on now for approx. 10yrs.

Since I came back to the UK they have no idea what is what, I gave them my medical records and still they are lost with my case. They do not listen to me
So they decide to reduce my Fentayl Patches from 75mcg to 50mcg. I am in an awful state. I have been on these Meds. for yrs. under a controlled environment, yet they feel they know me better than I do. The pain has creeped back, even though with my Meds. I still have a certain amount of pain from my back and of course the Fibromyalgia.

People have the right to be Pain Free and not live in a world filled with it. I am so lost, I do not know what to do or how to tell them how this is affecting me. Any pain,stress etc. causes flare ups of my Fibromyalgia which makes everything much, much worse. They do not know me like I do, I know what works and what doesn't but they do not hear me.

In the USA paying for medical treatment is really hard but when you do they are thorough but the NHS is good because no one should have to watch someone suffer or die for lack of medical treatment but NHS has really gone down the tubes, it's sad because I always was so proud of that about our country.

I have been on lamictial and serequel for about 9 months. I decided to stop taking it now I have been sick for about 2 weeks my head hurts I get dizzy when I get up when I try to eat I feel like I need to vomit and my whole body itches now I feel like I'm going to die can someone please tell me what to do. My shrink says if I want to stop taking my bipolar meds I'm just going to have to suffer it out.

I was on omniprezalone for a few years now Zantac, and trying to get off completely. I went off cold turkey thinking I could and was so sick and in pain...My withdrawal symptom is nausea, constant, non stop. As soon as I take a zantac, the waves of nausea disappear. I eat healthy and take chai tea to keep my digestive fire going I will try the 4ths dosage lowering suggestion, but if you have any other suggestions, I am all ears, this is so terrible to be hooked on this, I feel like I have been deceived and I know a holistic approach can work ...

Hi,
I thank you so much for your comment. I've tried quitting many times. For me its a death wish at 525mg a day of Effexor xr. Congratulations no more pain and suffering.

OMG I'm an R/A sufferer as well. I too am not heard. I feel in my body and soul my time is ending soon and I have the medical profession to make this happen a lot sooner than later. Thank you for your comment.

I've been on seroquel and other medications off and on for about 9 years and have decided to stop on my own because of the weight gain. I am starting to have terrible abdominal pains, sweating, and insomnia. I don't know what to do bc I'm sure my doctor will tell me to stay on my meds. This is absolute hell. I imagine it's what it feels like to come off heroin. I don't recommend it.

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