Heroin Addiction Treatment

Heroin addiction is a disease that alters normal brain chemistry and makes a person believe that heroin is the most important part of their life. Achieving sobriety after living with this disease for a long time is a difficult undertaking that takes time and professional intervention. There is no perfect system that is right for everyone but there are several steps that will lead to finding the right treatment method. These steps include first seeking treatment, detoxification, utilizing therapy and staying on track.

Seeking Treatment: The first step of treating a heroin addiction is to admit that there is a problem and that sobriety can be achieved. Finding support in friends, family or a counselor can help people get the appropriate care and stay on track. There can be a lot of anxiety that comes with the start of rehabilitation and altering the behaviors that lead to drug use. Having a support system can make this transition easier. A person seeking treatment should not make any decisions about a course of action until they speak to a doctor or counselor. Advice from a medical professional is crucial when deciding on individualized medications or therapies.

  • If a person addicted to heroin will not willingly admit themselves into rehab, staging an intervention can be a supportive method of encouragement. To learn how to stage an intervention, visit the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence website for tips and guidelines.

Detoxification: After determining the course of treatment with the help of a medical professional, the next step to beating a heroin addiction is to put the body through detoxification (detox, for short). When the body has a physical dependence to a drug and then stops getting the substance, it goes into withdrawal.

Withdrawal symptoms for heroin addiction usually include:

  • Cold sweat
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Loss of appetite
  • Unstable moods
  • Muscle cramping
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Seizures

Drugs leave chemicals behind in the body after the effects wear off and detox is the body’s way of disposing of those toxins. Detoxing is uncomfortable but is not usually life-threatening. Entering into an inpatient or outpatient facility before going through detox allows the person to be monitored by professionals and provided with medications that can make the experience manageable. Pain relievers and prescription medications can reduce the symptoms of withdrawal. Trying to manage withdrawal and detox symptoms alone often leads to relapse, or the return to drugs.

Utilizing Therapy: There are two main options when it comes to therapy to overcome a heroin addiction: Behavioral and pharmacological therapies. The most successful recoveries use a combination of both therapies to create the best option for the patient. In order to keep a patient on the path to recovery, therapy has to address every aspect of addiction. These include:

  • Physical dependence
  • Psychological dependence
  • Influences
  • Risk Factors

Staying on Track: Once a treatment option has been chosen, staying on track is crucial. Relying on prescribed treatments and a good support system (group, family members, or health professionals) will help subside the cravings. People recovering from drug addiction often find solace in continuing to attend support groups and meetings. Many groups offer milestone incentives that encourage sobriety and allow manageable goals to be set.

Treatment Options for Heroin Addiction

Pharmacological approaches

Medications have been developed to treat opioid addiction that target the same brain receptors as the drug does, but does not come with the same symptoms or harmful effects. There are three main types of opioid medication including: Agonists, partial agonists and antagonists.

  • Agonists and partial agonists bind to and activate the same biological receptors in the brain that are triggered when heroin is ingested. This allows the cravings to be reduced without the harmful and addictive symptoms of the drug.
  • Antagonists block any sort of response from triggering in the brain. No neurotransmitter or other drug can elicit any response when an antagonist is used.

Methadone: A slow-acting opioid agonist that blocks the body from achieving a satisfying high and prevents withdrawal symptoms. Methadone can only be prescribed through an approved outpatient treatment or program.

Buprenorphine: A partial opioid agonist that relieves cravings without producing the “high” or side effects. If a person addicted to heroin were to inject themselves while taking a variety of this medication they would feel withdrawal symptoms and discomfort instead of the pleasurable feelings associated with the drug.

Naltrexone: An opioid antagonist, Naltrexone blocks the action of opioids completely and will not result in addiction or physical dependence.

Pain relievers: Using pain relievers alongside other medications can reduce the severity of withdrawal symptoms. Reducing withdrawal symptoms makes it easier to resist the drug therefore complete detoxification.

Behavioral Interventions

Behavioral interventions are forms of therapy that do not involve any medication but instead try to address the mental and emotional sides of addiction and correct them.

Psychotherapy

Using a trained mental health counselor, psychotherapy addresses the external and internal reasons why people turn to heroin. Whether it is outside influences or feelings of helplessness, psychotherapy uses “talk therapy” to explore the behaviors and feelings of someone addicted to heroin. Psychotherapy sessions usually occur one-on-one between a therapist and the patient. It is a popular and effective treatment but it is most effective when used in congruence to medication and group therapy/ contingency management. There are many different types of Psychotherapy that can aid those recovering from addiction including cognitive-behavioral therapy, exposure therapy and psychodynamic psychotherapy.

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy: In this type of psychotherapy, therapists seek to explore the relationship between a person’s thoughts and behaviors. Therapists and patients have open discussions that will identify the unhealthy patterns of thought that lead to addiction and how these self-destructive behaviors can be reconstructed. During therapy, constructive ways to create healthier behaviors and beliefs are developed and hopefully implemented. The point is to replace thoughts that lead to low self-worth with realistic and positive expectations.

Contingency Management

When therapy participants are given tangible rewards to reinforce their progress or positive behaviors such as sobriety. Voucher-based reinforcement is a method in which people get vouchers if they provide drug free urine samples consistently. Vouchers can be redeemed for things like movie passes, food items or other appropriate items. The value of the vouchers increase as more drug-free samples are provided.

12-Step Therapy

Used widely by rehabilitation centers and support groups, 12-step therapy is an approach to substance abuse that motivates users to acknowledge their problems and join a therapy program. The most well-known user of a 12-step program is Narcotics Anonymous (NA) but it has been incorporated into many different types of in and outpatient treatments.

To find a support system in your area, call SAMHSA’s National helpline at 1-800-622-HELP or use the Services Locator on their website.  For more information and guidance, read more on General Addiction Information.

View Sources Last Edited: May 10, 2018

Sources and Citations

  1. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db190.pdf
  2. http://www.dea.gov/druginfo/ds.shtml
  3. http://www.addictions.com/heroin/5-warning-signs-of-heroin-use/
  4. http://www.legalmatch.com/law-library/article/heroin-state-and-federal-penalties.html
  5. http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/heroin/what-are-long-term-effects-heroin-use
  6. http://www.vumc.com/branch/Children-White-Matter-Disorders/419542/
  7. http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/44322/1/9789241599405_eng.pdf