Scientific research has established that medical treatment of “opioid use disorder” increases retention in treatment programs and decreases drug use, infectious disease transmission, and criminal activity.
When people addicted to opioids, like heroin, first quit, they undergo withdrawal symptoms (see above), which may be severe. Medications can be helpful in this heroin detoxification stage to ease cravings and other physical symptoms that can often prompt a person to relapse. Medications developed to treat opioid use disorders work through the same opioid receptors as the addictive drug, but are safer and less likely to produce the harmful behaviors that characterize a substance use disorder.
Three types of medications used for heroin detox include: (1) agonists, which activate opioid receptors; (2) partial agonists, which also activate opioid receptors but produce a smaller response; and (3) antagonists, which block the receptor and interfere with the rewarding effects of opioids. A particular medication is used based on a patient’s specific medical needs and other factors.
Effective heroin detox medications include:
Methadone (Dolophine or Methadose), which is a slow-acting opioid agonist. Methadone is taken orally so that it reaches the brain slowly, dampening the “high” that occurs with other routes of administration while preventing withdrawal symptoms. Methadone has been used since the 1960s to treat heroin use disorder and is still an excellent treatment option, particularly for patients who do not respond well to other medications. Methadone is only available through approved outpatient treatment programs, where it is dispensed to patients on a daily basis.
Buprenorphine (Subutex) is a partial opioid agonist. Buprenorphine relieves drug cravings without producing the “high” or dangerous side effects of other opioids. Suboxone is a novel formulation of buprenorphine that is taken orally or sublingually (under the tongue) and contains naloxone (an opioid antagonist) to prevent attempts to get high by injecting the medication. If a person with a heroin use disorder were to inject Suboxone, the naloxone would induce withdrawal symptoms, which are averted when taken orally as prescribed.
The FDA approved buprenorphine in 2002, making it the first medication eligible to be prescribed by certified physicians through the Drug Addiction Treatment Act. This approval eliminates the need to visit specialized treatment clinics, thereby expanding access to treatment for many who need it. Additionally, the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA), which was signed into law in July 2016, temporarily expands prescribing eligibility to qualifying nurse practitioners and physician assistants to prescribe buprenorphine-based drugs for medication-assisted treatment through October 1, 2021.