Heroin Treatment Options

Few people can overcome a heroin addiction without treatment. The intense physical pain of the withdrawal period and the long lasting and pervasive cravings to keep using often overwhelm even the best of intentions, and most people just can’t remain heroin-free for long without help.

If you're serious about breaking free from heroin, you need some help, and you can choose between two basic treatment methods:

  1. Get medically detoxed and continue with long-term residential or outpatient therapies.
  2. Use medication to alleviate withdrawal symptoms and drug cravings and (ideally) continue with long-term outpatient therapies.

Although some may promise them,  there are no overnight cures for heroin addiction. You need to commit to a long involvement in the recovery process and have the patience to do it right. An opiate addiction alters the structure and chemistry of the brain, and although the brain can and will heal, this takes time.

Trying to rush the process almost guarantees failure, but taking things one step at a time and committing to the "long haul" will greatly increase the chances of success.

Option #1 - Medical Detox Followed by Residential or Outpatient Addiction Treatment

Heroin changes the structure of the brain. It creates a strong physical addiction and will cause intense withdrawal symptoms upon the sudden cessation of use.

Heroin withdrawal won’t kill you, but the initial detox period can last for five or more days and can be accompanied by intense cravings and painful withdrawal symptoms.

Medical Detox

Undergoing detox and withdrawal while in the detox clinic of a hospital or treatment facility is a much safer and more comfortable process than is attempting to quit "cold turkey" without medical supervision.

Doctors who specialize in addiction recovery can administer a combination of medications, such as benzodiazepines, non narcotic pain killers, and clonidine that can help to alleviate withdrawal symptoms. Although opiate detox is rarely poses serious dangers, undergoing the process while under medical observation increases your safety.

Drugs such as Subutex or methadone are also sometimes used transitionally in an opiate detox.

Addiction Treatment after Detox

Never end your treatment after detox, as doing so almost guarantees failure. Heroin addicts must confront not only their physical dependency (which is addressed during detox) but also their addiction, which is the compulsive drug-seeking behavior that resulted in their inability to control their drug use.

After medical detox, a heroin addict in recovery should participate in long-term residential or outpatient addiction treatment. Treatment should be evidence-based, and should include components such as behavioral modification treatment, group therapy, and vocational guidance, educational opportunities, and legal assistance.

Why is treatment needed?

  • Heroin addiction causes lasting (but curable) changes in brain structure. These changes leave a person vulnerable to relapse during the healing process, and without learning new ways to stay clean, the odds of relapse are high.
  • People need time and assistance to rebuild social support networks that were damaged by the behaviors that are associated with addiction
  • People need time and assistance to clear legal difficulties, or to get back on track with school or work.
  • People need to figure out how and why they used heroin in the first place, and make the necessary lifestyle changes to ensure that they don’t fall back into the same negative patterns.

An addiction is a psycho-biological-environmental phenomenon, which is a fancy way of saying that it gets intertwined with every aspect of life – and it takes both determination and time to untangle this addiction knot.

The fact is, the longer you stay in treatment, the better your odds of success. Studies have shown that those who stay in treatment for a year or more have substantially better success rates than do those whose heroin addiction treatment experience lasts less than one year. Treatment can occur on an inpatient or outpatient basis, depending on the needs and circumstances of the individual.

Option # 2 - Medication Management (Methadone or Suboxone)

Many people choose to manage their recovery from opiates with medications that eliminate drug cravings and withdrawal symptoms.

Methadone and buprenorphine (Suboxone) are the two most commonly used medications for opiate addiction. Both medications are opiates that will keep you from feeling withdrawal symptoms and drug cravings, but that won't get you high and will keep you from feeling high if you try to take other opiates.

How Long Does This Treatment Take?

The duration of treatment will depend on the individual, but in general, longer participation in opiate substitution treatment is associated with better outcomes. Some people may remain on methadone or suboxone for years, and it is safe to do so.

How Well Do These Medications Work?

Both methadone and buprenorphine (Suboxone) have proven to be very effective for the management of symptoms, in patient retention during treatment, and in keeping recovering addicts from using other opiates.

Methadone has a potential for abuse, and must be taken under supervision on a daily basis. Suboxone is less easily abused, and can be prescribed in monthly doses. Suboxone cannot relieve the withdrawal symptoms of people with heavy opiate habits, but methadone can. Both medications are quite affordable.

Outpatient addiction recovery support systems, such as group therapy, behavioral therapies, and participation in 12-Step recovery groups, greatly increase the long-term effectiveness of medication treatment for opiate addiction.

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