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The alcohol shakes are a condition that arises when one is engaged in a period of heavy drinking and then suddenly stops. During the period of intoxication, the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is inhibited and the body begins to rely on alcohol to maintain homeostasis. Then, when the drinks stop flowing, the body is sent into a state of alarm. The alcoholic can then lose control over certain muscle groups, primarily in the hands, while the body reintroduces the suppressed neurotransmitter. While this symptom often only lasts up to 5 days, those who have spent multiple years in extreme intoxication can expect their tremors and shakes to last as long as several weeks.
What is Withdrawal?
Withdrawal is a phenomenon that people experience when a substance or activity is removed from their lives. It can take many different forms, from a sense of mild longing to a deep, unstoppable craving. People who experience withdrawal frequently wish to be reunited with whatever it was they'd become habituated to, and they will often go to great lengths to be reunited with that thing. Such substances or activities can include sex, shopping, gambling, drugs, alcohol, sugar, and overeating, among many other things.
In this context, the term is usually used to describe what addicts experience when they cease using their drug of choice. For many addicts and alcoholics, withdrawal has both physiological and psychological manifestations. Many report a feeling that they cannot live without their drug. In fact, the process of withdrawing from certain drugs, even alcohol, can be fatal. In the case of alcoholic withdrawal, addicts experience extremely high blood pressure, hallucinations, and often violent shakes.
What are the Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal?
Alcohol withdrawal can be a very severe experience and for long-term alcoholics, should be undertaken with medical supervision. Alcoholics experience a range of symptoms including a deep craving for a drink, or sugar. As the withdrawal continues, they will begin to feel high anxiety, shaking hands, insomnia, profuse sweating, fever, high blood pressure, and even delirium tremens (DT).
Though rare, DT is always a possibility, especially for drinkers who would drink from morning till bedtime. When such a drinker ceases use of alcohol, he needs monitoring because the DTs are not likely to begin until 48 to 72 hours after he caps the bottle. The DTs include severe symptoms such as seizures, hallucinations, delusions, extremely high blood pressure, and sometimes death. However, with the presence of medical personnel, this can be avoided.
Alcoholism can be a difficult disease to diagnose. As many in Alcoholics Anonymous say, "It's the disease that tells you that you don't have it." That is, it’s a problem often buried deep in psychological denial. However, if you feel that you might have a problem with drinking, you can start to diagnose the problem with a two questions:
If you answer Yes to both, then you should continue the diagnostic process by seeking out an alcoholic assessment. These can be found online or your family doctor or a local mental health professional could also provide an alcoholic assessment.
Duration of Symptoms
Alcoholic withdrawal in its most dangerous and acute form lasts up to seven days. However, most addiction specialists will tell you that it's vital to seek treatment for the following 30-90 days, if not longer. However, the initial experience of the shakes normally lasts no longer than three days, often less. More severe drinkers are not safe after that period, however. They may yet experience the Delirium Tremens, which can include violent seizures.
Worst Case Scenario
For a small percentage of the alcoholic population, Delirium Tremens are a part of their withdrawal and detoxification process. For that 5% of alcoholics, DTs are a severe collection of symptoms that can prove fatal to many. This is why detoxification should take place in the company of medical professionals.
When withdrawal starts, alcoholics often experience headaches, anxiety, and shakes that often manifest in their hands. There could also be bouts of sweating and the shakes can extend throughout the limbs. This can go on for as long as three days before the DTs manifest.
The DTs include delusions in which the alcoholic becomes confused or paranoid. The symptoms may intensify and build into full seizures. Along the way, many patients experience high blood pressure and face the threat of respiratory and cardiovascular collapse. The importance of medical attention cannot be exaggerated when it comes to alcoholic withdrawal.
Treatment for alcoholism begins with withdrawal and detoxification. In fact, many only see the reality of their drinking problem when they try to quit and feel the phenomenon of craving overtake them. That craving may be particularly exacerbated by the shakes, which is a clear physical manifestation of withdrawal.
Once the alcoholic is successfully detoxed from alcohol, the long-term work of recovery and sobriety can begin. In fact, most detoxification centers are affiliated with an array of treatment centers to which their patients can be transferred for intensive psychological therapy. Certain withdrawal symptoms may persist, including high anxiety and cardiovascular issues. In such cases, most treatment centers will have qualified staff available to administer medications.
Since alcoholism is often paired with, if not triggered by, other physical and psychological issues, medical or psychiatric attention may persist for years, if not a lifetime.
Preventing alcoholic withdrawal symptoms necessarily involves preventing alcoholism itself. However, there are ways to avoid the more severe withdrawal symptoms. That is, if the alcoholic is drinking to excess on a daily basis, they might try to taper off. This may prove impossible but, if it can be managed, they may be able to avoid delirium tremens when they eventually stop drinking all together.
To manage a successful tapering, the alcoholic may need to rely on friends or family to help monitor the situation. They may limit themselves to a certain number of drinks per hour and will need a dedicated monitor to keep tabs. During this process, it's vital to monitor the alcoholic's blood pressure.
Once the alcoholic has reached a level in this gradual withdrawal where they can go most of the day without a drink, then it is time to visit a treatment center. The center can make a final medical assessment and ensure their safety for the remainder of their time there.
Important Questions to Ask
Alcoholism is a progressive, chronic condition. As the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous says, "Over any considerable period we get worse, never better."