Post-acute-withdrawal syndrome (PAWS), or the terms post-withdrawal syndrome, protracted withdrawal syndrome, prolonged withdrawal syndromes describe a set of persistent impairments that occur after withdrawal from alcohol, opiates, benzodiazepines, antidepressants and other substances. Infants born to mothers who used substances of dependence during pregnancy may also experience a post acute withdrawal syndrome. Post acute withdrawal syndrome affects many aspects of recovery and everyday life, including the ability to keep a job and interact with family and friends. Symptoms occur in over 90% of people withdrawing from a long-term opioid (such as heroin habit), 75% of persons recovering from long-term use of alcohol, methamphetamine, or benzodiazepines and to a lesser degree other psychotropic drugs. Post-acute withdrawal syndrome as a result of GABA-agonist (benzodiazepine, barbiturate, ethanol) dependence and opioid dependence can last from a year to several decades, or indefinitely, with the symptoms entering into periods of relative remission between periods of instability. Symptoms include mood swings resembling an affective disorder, anhedonia (the inability to feel pleasure from anything beyond use of the drug), insomnia, extreme drug craving and obsession, anxiety and panic attacks, depression, suicidal ideation and suicide and general cognitive impairment.
While post-acute withdrawal syndrome has been reported by those in the recovery community, there have been few scientific studies supporting its existence. Because of this, the disorder is not recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or major medical associations.
Drug abuse, including alcohol and prescription drugs, can induce symptomatology which resembles mental illness. This can occur both in the intoxicated state and during the withdrawal state. In some cases these substance-induced psychiatric disorders can persist long after detoxification, such as prolonged psychosis or depression after amphetamine or cocaine abuse. A protracted withdrawal syndrome can also occur with symptoms persisting for months after cessation of use. Benzodiazepines are the most notable drug for inducing prolonged withdrawal effects with symptoms sometimes persisting for years after cessation of use. Severe anxiety and depression are commonly induced by sustained alcohol abuse which in most cases abates with prolonged abstinence. Even moderate alcohol sustained use may increase anxiety and depression levels in some individuals. In most cases these drug-induced psychiatric disorders fade away with prolonged abstinence.
Signs and symptoms
Symptoms can sometimes come and go with wave-like reoccurrences or fluctuations in severity of symptoms. Common symptoms include impaired cognition, irritability, depressed mood, and anxiety; all of which may reach severe levels which can lead to relapse.
The protracted withdrawal syndrome from benzodiazepines can produce symptoms identical to generalised anxiety disorder as well as panic disorder. Due to the sometimes prolonged nature and severity of benzodiazepine withdrawal, abrupt withdrawal is not advised.
- Psychosocial dysfunction
- Impaired interpersonal skills
- Obsessive-compulsive behaviour
- Feelings of guilt
- Autonomic disturbances
- Pessimistic thoughts
- Impaired concentration
- Lack of initiative
- Inability to think clearly
- Memory problems
- Emotional overreactions or numbness
- Sleep disturbances
- Physical coordination problems
- Stress sensitivity
- Increased sensitivity to pain
- Panic disorder
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Sleep disturbance (dreams of using, behaviors associated with the life style)
Symptoms occur intermittently, but are not always present. They are made worse by stress or other triggers and may arise at unexpected times and for no apparent reason. They may last for a short while or longer. Any of the following may trigger a temporary return or worsening of the symptoms of post acute withdrawal syndrome:
- Stressful and/or frustrating situations
- Feelings of anxiety, fearfulness or anger
- Social Conflicts
- Unrealistic expectations of oneself
Post-acute benzodiazepine withdrawal
Disturbances in mental function can persist for several months or years after withdrawal from benzodiazepines. Psychotic depression persisting for more than a year following benzodiazepine withdrawal has been documented in the medical literature. The patient had no prior psychiatric history. The symptoms reported in the patient included, major depressive disorder with psychotic features, including persistent depressed mood, poor concentration, decreased appetite, insomnia, anhedonia, anergia and psychomotor retardation. The patient also experienced paranoid ideation (believing she was being poisoned and persecuted by co-employees), accompanied by sensory hallucinations. Symptoms developed after abrupt withdrawal of chlordiazepoxide and persisted for 14 months. Various psychiatric medications were trialed which were unsuccessful in alleviating the symptomatology. Symptoms were completely relieved by recommending chlordiazepoxide for irritable bowel syndrome 14 months later. Another case report, reported similar phenomenon in a female patient who abruptly reduced her diazepam dosage from 30 mg to 5 mg per day. She developed electric shock sensations, depersonalisation, anxiety, dizziness, left temporal lobe EEG spiking activity, hallucinations, visual perceptual and sensory distortions which persisted for years.
A clinical trial of patients taking the benzodiazepine alprazolam (Xanax) for as little as 8 weeks triggered protracted symptoms of memory deficits which were still present after up to 8 weeks post cessation of alprazolam.
The syndrome may be in part due to persisting physiological adaptations in the central nervous system manifested in the form of continuing but slowly reversible tolerance, disturbances in neurotransmitters and resultant hyperexcitability of neuronal pathways in regards to alcohol. However, data supports neuronal and overwhelming cognitive normalization in regards to chronic amphetamine use and PAWS. Stressful situations arise in early recovery, and the symptoms of post acute withdrawal syndrome produce further distress. It is important to avoid or to deal with the triggers that make post acute withdrawal syndrome worse. The types of symptomatology and impairments in severity, frequency, and duration associated with the condition vary depending on the drug of use.
Flumazenil was found to be more effective than placebo in reducing feelings of hostility and aggression in patients who had been free of benzodiazepines for 4–266 weeks. This may suggest a role for flumazenil in treating protracted benzodiazepine withdrawal symptoms.
Acamprosate has been found to be effective in alleviating some of the post acute withdrawal symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Carbamazepine or trazodone may also be effective in the treatment of post acute withdrawal syndrome in regards to alcohol use. Cognitive behavioral therapy can also help the post acute withdrawal syndrome especially when cravings are a prominent feature.
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