How Medication Can Help a Heroin Addict

medication for heroin treatmentTiny granules of heroin can be snorted or injected, and when those molecules hit the brain, they trigger a cascading series of chemical reactions that can bring a person a sense of euphoria, along with a feeling of calm and relaxation. The feelings might be fleeting, but the damage can be remarkably persistent as those chemical reactions cause long-lasting changes in the chemical makeup and adaptability of the brain. In time, a person with a heroin addiction may be unable to feel calm and happy without access to drugs. Medication therapies can help. These treatments are designed to fool the brain into believing that it has access to the heroin it’s become accustomed to.

Medication Choices

There are two drugs that are typically used in the fight against a heroin addiction: methadone and buprenorphine. Both of these medications attach to the same receptor sites used by heroin, and both of these medications can soothe the symptoms commonly attributed to heroin withdrawal, including:

  • Nausea
  • Sweating
  • Anxiety
  • Gastrointestinal upset
  • Muscle pain


When taken appropriately, the replacement medications don’t cause euphoria, either. The person who takes these drugs might just feel normal, rather than feeling either ill or high.

Methadone is typically given in a clinic setting, as it can be abused. Buprenorphine, on the other hand, can be given in prescription form and people are sometimes allowed to take this drug on their own at home. Unfortunately, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that this drug isn’t considered optimal for people with advanced cases of heroin addiction, as they may need stronger relief than buprenorphine can provide. For people like this, methadone may be a better choice.

Therapy Types

Some people take medication during the early days of their recovery. In detoxification programs, these treatments can help to ease the entry into sobriety, and people in detox may take their medications on a tapering dose, taking a little less each day until they’re taking none at all. There are some people, however, who need medications for a longer period of time in order to really recover from an addiction to heroin. Their brains have endured so much damage that they can’t handle adjustments in a standard tapering program. When they have smaller amounts of replacement drugs available, the pain and the cravings return and they become more likely to return to full-blown drug addiction.

In a study of the effectiveness of methadone, researchers found that people who received the medication for at least three months had dramatic improvements regarding drug use, and they were also less likely to commit predatory crime. These improvements persisted for three to five years following treatment. Studies like this seem to suggest that longer terms of treatment right really be helpful for some people with heroin addictions.

Making Choices

At the beginning of a heroin addiction recovery program, experts pull together a treatment program based on the person’s heroin abuse history and daily dosage of heroin. At The Oaks at La Paloma, we also use psychological testing in order to make an assessment, so we can ensure that we’re providing the right kind of care at the right time. When this planning is complete, we ask our clients for their input on their treatment plan. Sometimes, we use medications to help our clients based on all of these factors. In other cases, medications don’t seem like the right choice. It’s personal, and that’s the kind of addiction care that seems to work best. If you’d like to find out more about our medication program, please call us.