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How Severe Are Marijuana Withdrawal Symptoms?

Marijuana, or cannabis, is the “most commonly used illicit drug in the United States,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). There are many misconceptions about whether people can become addicted to marijuana. The truth is that it is possible to become dependent on, or even addicted to, marijuana with regular use.

Most cannabis users have had to quit for a period at some time or another in life. Sometimes for a few days, sometimes weeks or even months. Maybe a job came along that conducts hair sample tests, maybe you’re vacationing in a non-cannabis friendly place, perhaps it’s probation or a detox of some sort.

While many people use marijuana without experiencing withdrawal effects, regular marijuana use can develop into marijuana use disorder. In severe cases, this can take the form of an addiction.

Experts define addiction as continued marijuana use despite negative consequences in a person’s life, such as issues relating to their family, job, or relationships.

Marijuana withdrawal symptoms peak within the first week of quitting and can last up to 2 weeks.

Symptoms

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A Duke University study of 496 adult marijuana smokers who tried to quit found that 95.5% of them experienced at least one withdrawal symptom while 43.1% experienced more than one symptom. The number of symptoms the participants experienced was significantly linked to how often and how much the subjects smoked prior to trying to quit.

Those who were daily smokers experienced the most symptoms, but even those who reported using cannabis less than weekly experienced some withdrawal symptoms of moderate intensity.

Cravings

One of the symptoms most reported by people trying to quit smoking marijuana is a craving for marijuana or an intense desire for more. In one study, 75.7% of participants trying to quit reported an intense craving for marijuana.1

Although many regular smokers of marijuana do not believe they are addicted to the drug, one hallmark of addiction is craving when you try to stop, whether it’s heroin, alcohol, gambling or sex addiction. Craving is the most common symptom reported by former marijuana users in the early days of abstinence.

Mood Swings

The second most common symptom reported by those who have tried to quit smoking marijuana is mood swings. Former users report emotional symptoms of depression, anxiety and irritability. Irritability and anger are common symptoms for anyone who is giving up a drug of choice, especially if they are forced by circumstances to quit.

More than half of those who try to quit marijuana report mood swings. Typically, these symptoms begin to diminish after two to three weeks but can linger in some up to three months.

Sleep Disruption

Insomnia is one of the most common symptoms of drug withdrawal, whether the drug is marijuana, alcohol or prescription painkillers. Just as someone who is alcohol-dependent or someone who has been addicted to opiates experiences difficulty trying to sleep after they quit, marijuana smokers also find falling to sleep difficult.

Insomnia symptoms after you stop smoking cannabis can last a few days or a couple of weeks. Some smokers find that they can experience occasional sleeplessness for a few months after quitting.

But insomnia is not the only sleep disruption problem associated with marijuana withdrawal. Some people who have stopped smoking pot report having nightmares and very vivid dreams that also disrupt their sleep. These frequent, vivid dreams typically begin about a week after quitting and can last for about a month before tapering off. An estimated 46.9% of former smokers report sleep disruption problems.

Others who have quit smoking report having “using dreams” in which they dream they smoke marijuana. Some former smokers have reported having these types of dreams years after they stopped using marijuana.

Headaches

One of the most common physical symptoms reported by those who stop smoking is a headache.2 Not everyone who stops smoking marijuana experiences headaches, but for those who do, the headaches can be very intense, especially during the first few days after quitting.

Headaches associated with cannabis withdrawal can last for a few weeks up to a couple of months. Headaches, like most other symptoms of withdrawing from marijuana use, will usually begin one to three days after quitting and will peak two to six days after stopping. Symptoms usually fade after two weeks, but some former smokers report continued symptoms for several weeks or even months later.

Other Symptoms

Other symptoms reported by researchers include:

  • Appetite change
  • Weight loss
  • Weight gain
  • Digestion problems
  • Cramps or nausea after eating1
  • Others have reported night sweats, loss of the sense of humor, decreased sex drive, or increased sex drive. Some former users have reported shaking and dizziness.

How severe?

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Symptoms of cannabis withdrawal “are much less severe than those associated with withdrawal from chronic opioid or depressant use,” researchers with the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) wrote in a 2015 study, “but aversive enough to encourage continued cannabis use and interfere with cessation attempts in some individuals.”

In that NIDA study, scientists noted that the effects induced by simply discontinuing exposure “are not severe and can be hard to detect, probably due to the slow elimination of lipophilic compounds like THC from the brain.”

The symptoms and mild severity of CWS resemble the experience of patients going through caffeine withdrawal.

Because the federal government—specifically, agencies like NIDA itself—has made it so difficult to conduct cannabis research, the NIDA scientists used studies of non-human animals to describe the typical symptoms. So we know what CWS in rats looks like: “symptoms include scratching, face rubbing, licking, wet-dog shakes, arched back and ptosis.” Ptosis is the medical term for droopy eyelids.

If you’re stopping cannabis use after regular intake, face licking and wet-dog shakes are not likely to figure among the symptoms you will experience. The severity of CWS among humans “is dependent on the amount of cannabis used pre-cessation, gender, and heritable and several environmental factors,” the German researchers noted. Women, they wrote, tended to report stronger symptoms of CWS, and their experience included more physical discomfort, nausea, and stomach pain.

These mood and behavioral symptoms are usually “of light to moderate intensity,” the researchers wrote.

Symptoms typically start within the first two days of cessation, and stop within four weeks of abstinence.

The symptoms and mild severity of CWS resemble the experience of patients going through caffeine withdrawal, a condition described in the DSM-5 as including headache, fatigue, drowsiness, dysphoric mood, irritability, depression, nausea, muscle aches and impairment of cognitive or behavioral performance.

Treating Marijuana Withdrawal

The type of treatment may depend on whether or not the person has any comorbid disorders, such as psychiatric problems or addiction to other substances.

Some current treatment options include:

  • Rehabilitation or detoxification centers. Though many people will not need to use an inpatient rehabilitation service, people with severe marijuana use disorder, poor social functioning, or comorbid psychiatric disorders can benefit from these services.
  • Outpatient therapy. Outpatient rehabilitation programs involve working with a psychotherapist or other mental health provider and attending sessions on a consistent basis.
  • Support groups. A person may be able to find local or online support groups to connect with others with marijuana use disorder.

Conclusion

Night sweats, day jitters, and the need for weed all pass in a matter of days to a week or so if you experience them at all. Cannabis isn’t the kind of drug that makes someone go out and rob and steal to get more, at least not culturally or anecdotally. So don’t go switching to something that might lead you down the wrong path as a substitute. Have a cup of your favorite tea and wait for any symptoms to go by the wayside.

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