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Heroin Addiction Treatment Options

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

Medically reviewed by

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

There are many options available for treating heroin addiction. The two most common are medication treatment and behavioral therapy. The best treatment program will depend on the individual person.

Heroin is an illegal and highly addictive drug that is abused by countless people every day. Overcoming heroin addiction can be incredibly hard due to its addictive nature. However, there are a variety of treatment options available for those committed to overcoming their addiction.

Derived from morphine, heroin is part of the opioid class of drugs. It is typically available as a white or brown powder that has been “cut” with other substances. Most people use heroin by snorting, smoking, or injecting it intravenously.

Heroin works by binding to the opioid receptors in the brain and blocking feelings of pain. It can also elicit a “rush” that produces feelings of euphoria. Once this initial rush wears off, heroin often leaves people feeling “heavy” and drowsy.

Opioids are incredibly addictive substances that can quickly lead to physical and mental dependence. They can alter activity in the limbic center of the brain, reinforcing drug-using behaviors.

People who are physically dependent on heroin will feel the need to take the drug in order to feel “normal.” Abstaining from heroin will also likely produce withdrawal symptoms. Many people continue to use heroin in attempt to prevent these uncomfortable symptoms of withdrawal.

Overcoming an addiction to heroin can be incredibly difficult. This is especially true when someone tries to stop using heroin on his or her own. Luckily, there are several different treatment options available for heroin addiction that have proven successful for countless people.

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Addiction Treatment Options For Heroin Abuse

There are a variety of approaches when it comes to treating heroin addiction. Both pharmacological and behavioral treatment has proven to be effective when used on their own. However, using them together has shown to be most beneficial for heroin addiction.

Many people addicted to heroin will require a comprehensive treatment plan. This often includes a detox program, medication and behavioral treatment, and aftercare. The specific needs of treatment will vary depending on a person’s condition and level of addiction.

Detox Programs For Heroin Addiction

While not considered a “treatment option” for heroin addiction, a detox program is often required to help a person successful rid his or her body of the drug. Withdrawal symptoms can be uncomfortable or even painful and many people cannot go through this phase without help.

During a detox program, patients may be given medication to help alleviate the symptoms of withdrawal. Symptoms may include pain, upset stomach, diarrhea, and vomiting. A common medication used in this case is lofexidine, which reduces opioid withdrawal symptoms.

Detox programs typically only last a few days, but the length of stay will depend on the patient’s condition and level of physical dependence. Detoxing the body of heroin is an important first step in getting help for heroin addiction.

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) For Heroin Addiction

Medications used in the treatment of heroin addiction work similarly to heroin on the opioid receptors in the brain. However, they are much safer and less likely to produce addiction.

There are three different types of medications used: agonists, partial agonists, and antagonists. An agonist activates opioid receptors. A partial agonist also works on the opioid receptors but elicits a smaller response. An antagonist blocks the opioid receptors and prevents pleasure from being felt from opioids.

Common medications used for heroin addiction include:

  • Methadone — This drug is a slow-acting agonist that is taken orally. It can help reduce withdrawal symptoms and dependence on heroin. Methadone is typically administered on a daily basis through outpatient treatment facilities.
  • Buprenorphine — This drug is a partial agonist that helps to combat cravings for heroin without producing the high that other opioids do. Suboxone, a newer form of buprenorphine, is taken either orally or sublingually. Suboxone also contains naloxone, an opioid antagonist, to prevent people from abusing the drug.
  • Naltrexone — Naltrexone, brand name Vivitrol, is an opioid antagonist that prevents the effects of other opioids from being felt. This drug is used to prevent someone from using heroin.

There is no one set of medication used in heroin addiction. Which medication will be used will depend on the individual and his or her needs. Medication treatment is often used simultaneously with other treatment methods like behavioral therapy.

Behavioral Therapy

Behavioral therapies for heroin addiction can be used in both inpatient and outpatient treatment. Behavioral approaches help people change their behaviors and thinking when it comes to drug abuse. They also work to increase coping skills to deal with stressors and environmental factors that may trigger a person to use drugs.

The most effective behavioral therapies in the treatment of heroin addiction include:

  • Contingency Management — This form of therapy focuses on providing tangible rewards for remaining sober. For example, a voucher system may be used to reward patients for abstinence proven through a drug test. For each negative drug test, the patient will receive a voucher they can exchange for healthy-living based items.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy — This type of therapy focuses on changing a person’s thinking and behavior as they relate to drug use. Cognitive behavioral therapy emphasizes understanding the consequences of continued drug use and learning how to recognize cravings and early signs of relapse. It also helps people develop ways to cope with stressors and cravings.

Behavioral therapy is commonly used in conjunction with medication treatment for heroin addiction. Many inpatient and outpatient rehab facilities will use both as a part of a comprehensive approach to recovery.

Getting Help For Heroin Addiction

Overcoming heroin addiction begins with a person’s willingness to seek help. Many people who are addicted to heroin will need a formal treatment program that incorporates both medication treatment and behavioral therapy.

Inpatient treatment programs are often recommended for treating heroin addiction and have shown great success. Inpatient programs tend to be more successful than outpatient treatment when it comes to long-term sobriety. The specific treatment needed will depend on the person and his or her level of addiction.

To learn more about heroin addiction treatment options, contact our treatment specialists today.

National Institute on Drug Abuse - Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition)

National Institute on Drug Abuse - What are the treatments for heroin use disorder?

VeryWell Mind - Treatment Options for Heroin Addiction

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