Alcohol withdrawal symptoms are some of the strongest and most dangerous withdrawal symptoms of any drug. Alcohol withdrawal comes on quickly (within hours of your last drink), has an intense peak of symptoms (peaking at about 72 hours from the last drink in many cases), and the symptoms can continue on for weeks, months or years – due to a high rate of Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS).
Because PAWS symptoms from alcohol can start off so intense, and take so long to lessen or go away, many recovering alcoholics find themselves asking, “When will I feel normal again after quitting alcohol?”
Alcohol Withdrawal Headaches
After quitting alcohol, the symptoms of withdrawal will show up quickly, and the first symptoms to show are usually anxiety and headache. These symptoms will usually increase within the first 72 hours of quitting, hitting a peak at the peak of acute withdrawal, and usually will begin to subside in intensity over the course of the first few weeks of sobriety. However, for those that experience protracted withdrawal, prolonged withdrawal, and PAWS, the anxiety and headaches could take months or even a year to fully subside.
Prolonged Alcohol Withdrawal
Prolonged Alcohol Withdrawal is an alcohol withdrawal timeline that is longer than the average alcohol withdrawal of about 72 hours to a week.
Prolonged alcohol withdrawal is fairly rare but more common in those that have been drinking steadily for long periods of time. For example, if a patient has been consuming an average of 12 drinks per day for 10+ years, the baseline for blood alcohol levels has remained fairly steady for a very long time. In cases like this, it is less surprising to see prolonged withdrawal; and in cases of prolonged alcohol withdrawal, it is also common to see the symptoms take longer to go away – including anxiety and headache.
Prolonged alcohol withdrawal is prolonged acute withdrawal, so it is important to note that the “danger zone” of the first 48-72 hours will be extended, and in cases of prolonged alcohol withdrawal, it is imperative to stay under medical detox care.
Alcohol Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS)
Some recovering alcoholics will also experience PAWS after the acute withdrawal phase. The symptoms of PAWS can be almost as intense as the acute withdrawal symptoms, but are not considered life-threatening. Because PAWS symptoms can feel almost the same as acute withdrawal, many recovering alcoholics get worried that the symptoms will never go away. We can assure you that in most cases they will indeed lessen in severity and will eventually go away, but it does take time.
How Long do Alcohol Withdrawal Headaches Last?
To answer this, first, you must establish what point of withdrawal you are in. Are you in the acute withdrawal phase, or are you experiencing headaches as a result of Post-Acute Withdrawal? If you are out of the acute withdrawal phase and still having headaches, it could be recurrent symptoms of PAWS causing the headaches.
PAWS symptoms tend to wax and wane in intensity. For example, an individual who has been sober from alcohol for a month may see the intensity of the PAWS symptoms peak every 3 days or so.
If a headache is a main symptom of PAWS, the headaches would get worse for 3 days, get better for 3 days, and so on – with the space between the changes going for every 4 days, to every 5 days, etc. These timelines are not set in stone, but you get the idea of how the ebb and flow “gets better” the more time you stay sober. The same can be said for other PAWS symptoms, like anxiety.
Headache Cycles During Alcohol Recovery
Another quirk with PAWS that keeps you on your toes, is how the symptoms can come back in recurrent cycles. Everything about recovering from alcohol abuse comes down to cycles – because that is how your body works, in cycles. Therefore, it is not uncommon to see headaches, anxiety and other symptoms come back in weekly or monthly cycles of intensity.
These cycles make many in recovery concerned, especially when they have just seen the headaches get better finally, only to return with a new cycle of symptoms. The worst thing you can do is worry and increase your anxiety by thinking that there is something severely wrong with you. Cycles of headaches and symptoms is normal for anywhere up to a year or more – depending on how long you were previously abusing alcohol.
Are Continued Alcohol Headaches a Sign of Another Underlying Medical Condition?
Part of a clinical treatment for alcohol detox and initial alcoholism recovery is checking your health for any underlying conditions. In the best detox facilities, professionals will check to make sure they know all conditions that are affecting you, in addition to the alcohol abuse, and they will treat or recommend treatment for any medical conditions they find, or suspect.
If your alcohol detox program did not find any underlying conditions that could be a source of headaches during your initial alcohol detox treatment, it is unlikely that you developed a new health concern, and it is more likely you are experiencing PAWS headaches.
If you didn’t seek medical alcohol detox during the acute withdrawal period, you should consult a physician to check for any underlying conditions.
Ok, So When will my Alcohol-Related Headaches Go Away?
If you don’t have any underlying medical conditions causing the headaches, and they can be blamed solely on post-acute withdrawal syndrome, the headaches should be gone within 6 months, possibly a year or more – in the cases of severe alcoholism. There really is no set answer, it depends on many factors including how well your body is recovering, and if you have been able to completely abstain from alcohol.
One more thing to consider is that the headaches could be natural, or be caused by stress, lack of sleep, or any other stressors to the body. The first year of recovery can be challenging, and changes to diet and activity in your sober life may be causing some “growing pains” for you.
In the end, it is important to check with your doctor to see what is causing the headaches and get his or her opinion on the symptoms. However, if the doctor finds no specific cause for the headaches, and says it is likely tied to your quitting alcohol recently, don’t freak out and think that they will never go away. PAWS symptoms of headaches, anxiety, nausea and even the mental symptoms of depression, shame, or worry do lessen over time.