Prednisone is a corticosteroid that’s commonly prescribed for a variety of reasons and, in general, thought to be harmless. There are some side effects associated with taking it, but these are usually tolerable in comparison to the benefits of using the drug. But if that’s true, what is “prednisone withdrawal”? Why does a seemingly safe medication have a condition tied to it that’s usually reserved for harder, more addictive substances?
In this piece, we’ll discuss what prednisone is and how it works to produce the effects it’s commonly prescribed for. We’ll explore the potential for prednisone abuse and withdrawal. We’ll also discuss ways to stop taking prednisone to decrease the potential for adverse side effects.
How Common Is Prednisone Withdrawal?
If you’re currently taking prednisone or have in the past, you may be familiar with the feeling of prednisone withdrawal. This can occur when you stop taking your medication all at once after using it for an extended period of time.
You may start experiencing symptoms such as weakness, mood swings, fatigue and lightheadedness, among others. You may start to feel like you don’t have the energy to get through the day or unusually high-strung and anxious. It may seem as though your body has fallen out of balance. There’s a good reason for this — one that we’ll explore further on.
No matter how the symptoms manifest themselves, however, prednisone withdrawal can be extremely uncomfortable. This can be concerning, especially when you’re experiencing withdrawal symptoms after stopping prednisone, a drug advertised as “low risk.” Prednisone withdrawal is rare, but it happens, so what causes it? To answer this question, we have to look at how the drug works to produce its desired effects.
What Is Prednisone?
Prednisone is a corticosteroid (commonly called a “steroid”) that closely resembles the natural steroid hormone cortisol. It suppresses the body’s natural immune response to reduce inflammation, arthritis pain and the effects of a range of conditions. It’s prescribed to treat or lessen the discomfort associated with allergies, autoimmune disorders, cancer and more.
By increasing cortisol levels in the body, prednisone effectively dampens the immune response that causes many of the conditions it’s prescribed to address. However, while a person is taking prednisone, their body gets accustomed to higher cortisol levels. This is where dependence can begin.
Is There Such a Thing as Prednisone Addiction?
Unlike many substances, “addiction” to prednisone isn’t a concern. However, when your body becomes dependent on a certain level of cortisol, it can feel as though you need the drug to function. If you’re using it for the right reasons, it also provides a benefit that can make it difficult to stop using.
Even if drugs like cortisol are less acutely dangerous than more addictive substances, there’s still the potential for dependence issues. Experts call addiction/dependence to corticosteroids “an unusual, but potentially serious complication of corticosteroid use.”
How Does Prednisone Dependence Work?
Under normal circumstances, cortisol regulates itself without the influence of medication. It assists in the body’s natural processes, like controlling stress and keeping the heart rate steady.
With the influence of prednisone, the increase in cortisol works to suppress the body’s immune response. When the drug works as intended, this lowers inflammation and other side effects of the body being attacked by its own immune system.
What Are Symptoms Prednisone Withdrawal?
The problem is that taking prednisone for longer periods is fairly common due to the chronic nature of the conditions it’s prescribed for. When prednisone is taken for an extended period of time, the body starts to become accustomed to the increased levels of cortisol. This means that when the user stops taking prednisone, the body experiences a sudden drop in cortisol and is unprepared to regulate various processes at this lower level.
This can prompt a range of potential prednisone withdrawal symptoms, including:
- Mood instability
- Severe fatigue
- Body aches and joint pain
- Appetite fluctuations
- Nausea and vomiting
In most cases, these symptoms last one to two days after stopping prednisone, but they can be alarming if you’re not expecting them. This is the case for most people using the drug, because the warnings of dependence on the drug are minimal. When your body is out of rhythm, it can have a larger effect on your physical and mental health than you may realize.
If you or a loved one is experiencing these symptoms after stopping prednisone, the best thing to do is rest. Your hormone levels will soon equalize. If symptoms persist, you should seek medical attention.
How Do You Prevent Prednisone Withdrawal?
There are some ways to prevent prednisone withdrawal from occurring in the first place:
1. Follow your doctor’s instructions any time you’re starting or stopping a medication.
Most people won’t start taking a new medication without a doctor’s advice diagnosis, or treatment guidance, but fewer people know this works the same way when stopping medications. Drugs change the way our bodies and brains function, so it’s important to remove these influences under medical supervision. Your doctor can help you taper off prednisone gradually, reducing the potential for withdrawal symptoms.
2. Stay on the medication only as long as you need to.
Dependence on drugs with lower abuse rates takes time to develop. Most experts recommend stopping prednisone long before this has a chance to occur. According to one site focused on prednisone for inflammatory bowel disease, “Steroids should ideally only be used for a short period of time to get over a flare-up or while long-term treatments become established.”
Drugs like prednisone aren’t intended for long-term use and may become dangerous when used for longer than recommended by medical professionals.
How to Manage Prednisone Withdrawal
What if you’re already going through prednisone withdrawal? When this happens, there are a few ways to manage your symptoms. A few excellent examples of withdrawal management steps include exercise, physical therapy, meditation, counseling and proper nutrition.
Prednisone withdrawal can cause aches and pains. Gentle exercises can help reduce these symptoms. Consider taking a leisurely walk around the block a few times when you’re aching. Gentle yoga can help stretch out tight muscles that could contribute to muscle pain. Warm-water pool exercises are always an excellent option to get moving while taking some pressure off your joints and muscles. Although exercise can help manage prednisone withdrawal, you should be careful not to overdo it — especially if you’ve been sedentary for a while.
Speak to your doctor about your withdrawal symptoms and ask if they can write a referral to physical therapy. Physical therapy aims to help treat the pain while teaching you safe ways to move your body so you don’t hurt yourself further. Physical therapy may also help with the initial reason you began taking prednisone in some instances.
Meditation may help calm any anxiety you’re experiencing as part of your withdrawal. The deep breathing exercises taught in meditation are especially useful, as they can help regulate your heart rate and “trick” your body out of feeling anxious. Another benefit of meditation is mindfulness and centering your mind.
Professional counseling provides someone to talk to who can reassure you that you’re not alone in your struggles. A counselor can also provide you with tips and strategies to help you overcome the mental aspect of prednisone withdrawal. But if you can’t afford professional counseling (or don’t have the time for it), talking to a trusted friend or family member is also beneficial.
A healthy body and mind can better manage symptoms and potentially speed up the withdrawal process. Remember to stay hydrated and eat a healthy, well-balanced diet. Avoid sugars, simple carbohydrates and excess oils or fats. If you do indulge in these, do so in moderation.
How Long Might Prednisone Withdrawal Symptoms Last?
The duration of withdrawal symptoms depends on many things, like how long you were taking the steroid and the strength of the dose. However, experiencing mild to moderate physical symptoms for 1 to 2 weeks as you taper off the medication is average. During this period, it’s important to refrain from any other medications (including over-the-counter pain meds) unless you’ve received a doctor’s approval first.
On the other hand, psychological symptoms can persist for up to 2 months. If the psychological withdrawal symptoms are severe, your doctor may decide to taper you off prednisone more slowly. You may also receive blood tests to test your cortisol levels during this process. Regardless of the type of symptom, you should keep your doctor informed on how you feel so they know how to help you best.
Can Tapering Medication Cause a Flare?
If you taper corticosteroids as your doctor prescribes, you shouldn’t have a flare or experience severe prednisone withdrawal symptoms. What may be happening instead is that your inflammation is returning. Speak with your doctor about what to do. They’ll most likely recommend a brief period of higher steroids to get the inflammation under control before having you taper back off the medication.
Does Your Body Go Back to Normal After Prednisone?
It may take some time for you to feel “normal” after tapering off prednisone — especially if you’ve been taking it for a long time. It’s normal to wonder, “Does your body go back to normal after prednisone?” But, thankfully, the answer is a resounding, “Yes.” The most important thing is to give your body and mind time to adjust after tapering off of prednisone.
Getting the Help You Need
While addiction or dependence on prednisone is rare, it happens, and like all addictions, it doesn’t discriminate. Anyone can be affected by it.
If you or a loved one find yourself in a cycle of addiction or dependence on prednisone or another corticosteroid, FHE Health offers support and safe place to get clean. Call us today for additional information at (833) 596-3502 and learn how we can help.