A variety of effective treatments are available for heroin addiction. Treatment tends to be more effective when heroin abuse is identified early. The treatments that follow vary depending on the individual, but methadone, a synthetic opiate that blocks the effects of heroin and eliminates withdrawal symptoms, has a proven record of success for people addicted to heroin. Other pharmaceutical approaches, such as buprenorphine, and many behavioral therapies also are used for treating heroin addiction. Buprenorphine is a recent addition to the array of medications now available for treating addiction to heroin and other opiates. This medication is different from methadone in that it offers less risk of addiction and can be prescribed in the privacy of a doctor's office. Buprenorphine/naloxone (Suboxone) is a combination drug product formulated to minimize abuse.
Detoxification programs aim to achieve safe and humane withdrawal from opiates by minimizing the severity of withdrawal symptoms and other medical complications. The primary objective of detoxification is to relieve withdrawal symptoms while patients adjust to a drug-free state. Not in itself a treatment for addiction, detoxification is a useful step only when it leads into long-term treatment that is either drug-free (residential or outpatient) or uses medications as part of the treatment. The best documented drug-free treatments are the therapeutic community residential programs lasting 3 to 6 months.
Opiate withdrawal is rarely fatal. It is characterized by acute withdrawal symptoms which peak 48 to 72 hours after the last opiate dose and disappear within 7 to 10 days, to be followed by a longer term abstinence syndrome of general malaise and opioid craving.
Buprenorphine: A New Medication for Treating Opiate Addiction
- First medication developed to treat opiate addiction in the privacy of a physician's office.
- Binds to same receptors as morphine, but does not produce the same effects.
- Offers a valuable tool for physicians in treating the nearly 900,000 chronic heroin users in the U.S.
- As of March 2004, 3,951 U.S. physicians were eligible to prescribe buprenorphine to patients.
The Story of Discovery
- First synthesized as an analgesic in England, 1969.
- Recognized as a potential addiction treatment by NIDA researchers in the 1970s.
- NIDA created Medications Development Division to focus on developing drug treatments for addiction, 1990.
- NIDA formed an agreement with the original developer to bring buprenorphine to market in the U.S., 1994.
- Buprenorphine tablets approved by the FDA, 2002.
Methadone treatment has been used for more than 30 years to effectively and safely treat opioid addiction. Properly prescribed methadone is not intoxicating or sedating, and its effects do not interfere with ordinary activities such as driving a car. The medication is taken orally and it suppresses narcotic withdrawal for 24 to 36 hours. Patients are able to perceive pain and have emotional reactions. Most important, methadone relieves the craving associated with heroin addiction; craving is a major reason for relapse. Among methadone patients, it has been found that normal street doses of heroin are ineffective at producing euphoria, thus making the use of heroin more easily extinguishable.
Methadone's effects last four to six times as long as those of heroin, so people in treatment need to take it only once a day. Also, methadone is medically safe even when used continuously for 10 years or more. Combined with behavioral therapies or counseling and other supportive services, methadone enables patients to stop using heroin (and other opiates) and return to more stable and productive lives. Methadone dosages must be carefully monitored in patients who are receiving antiviral therapy for HIV infection, to avoid potential medication interactions.
Buprenorphine and other medications
Buprenorphine is a particularly attractive treatment for heroin addiction because, compared with other medications, such as methadone, it causes weaker opiate effects and is less likely to cause overdose problems. Buprenorphine also produces a lower level of physical dependence, so patients who discontinue the medication generally have fewer withdrawal symptoms than do those who stop taking methadone. Because of these advantages, buprenorphine may be appropriate for use in a wider variety of treatment settings than the currently available medications. Several other medications with potential for treating heroin overdose or addiction are currently under investigation by NIDA.
In addition to methadone and buprenorphine, other drugs aimed at reducing the severity of the withdrawal symptoms can be prescribed. Clonidine is of some benefit but its use is limited due to side effects of sedation and hypotension. Lofexidine, a centrally acting alpha-2 adrenergic agonist, was launched in 1992 specifically for symptomatic relief in patients undergoing opiate withdrawal. Naloxone and naltrexone are medications that also block the effects of morphine, heroin, and other opiates. As antagonists, they are especially useful as antidotes. Naltrexone has long-lasting effects, ranging from 1 to 3 days, depending on the dose. Naltrexone blocks the pleasurable effects of heroin and is useful in treating some highly motivated individuals. Naltrexone has also been found to be successful in preventing relapse by former opiate addicts released from prison on probation.
Although behavioral and pharmacologic treatments can be extremely useful when employed alone, science has taught us that integrating both types of treatments will ultimately be the most effective approach. There are many effective behavioral treatments available for heroin addiction. These can include residential and outpatient approaches. An important task is to match the best treatment approach to meet the particular needs of the patient. Moreover, several new behavioral therapies, such as contingency management therapy and cognitive-behavioral interventions, show particular promise as treatments for heroin addiction, especially when applied in concert with pharmacotherapies. Contingency management therapy uses a voucher-based system, where patients earn "points" based on negative drug tests, which they can exchange for items that encourage healthy living. Cognitive-behavioral interventions are designed to help modify the patient's expectations and behaviors related to drug use, and to increase skills in coping with various life stressors. Both behavioral and pharmacological treatments help to restore a degree of normalcy to brain function and behavior, with increased employment rates and lower risk of HIV and other diseases and criminal behavior.
This series of reports simplifies the science of research findings for the educated lay public, legislators, educational groups, and practitioners. The series reports on research findings of national interest.
Please note: After September 2013 all NIDA Research Reports will be offered online exclusively. Orders for printed hard copies must be received by August 15, 2013.
As a result of scientific research, we know that addiction is a disease that affects both brain and behavior.