Heroin Addiction Treatment: The Pharmacological Approach

Heroin addiction is a serious problem in the United States. Various agencies have adopted several approaches to address the problem. The most effective appears to be an integrated method combining two tactics: behavioral and pharmacological. For heroin addiction treatment, either can work alone, but research does indicate that integrating the two approaches may provide a better chance of escaping relapse.

The Pharmacological Approach

Medication is not the only way to treat heroin addiction, but it does comprise a key component for many. In the process of trying to “come clean” heroin addicts may receive specific drugs to address certain issues. Initially, during the withdrawal process, they may require drugs to manage the symptoms. Reactions to quitting include:

  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Craving
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Pain
  • Vomiting

During this stage of recovery, heroin addiction treatment can include administration of a long-acting opioid agonist. Possible medications of this type are methadone, buprenorphine, clonidine and, in certain cases, benzodiazepines.

Besides addressing withdrawal symptoms, pharmacological solutions treat opioid addiction on both a short and long-term basis. The types of drugs employed to help reduce the mental and physical attachment fall into one of three categories:

1. Agonists: Slow acting methadone has been employed in treating heroin addiction since the 1960s
2. Partial agonists: Buprenorphine falls into this category is excellent for specific withdrawal symptoms.
3. Antagonists: Naltrexone blocks opioid receptors in the brain. If the addict takes heroin while on this drug, it will inhibit its effects

Medical management of opioid addiction also involves novel formulations of the above drugs. One example is Suboxone®. This drug combines the partial agonist buprenorphine with the opioid antagonist naloxone.

Medication and Heroin Addiction Treatment

Managing an addiction is a complex process. It involves understanding the nature of the problem as well as physical and psychological attributes. Medical management is an important component of a heroin addiction treatment plan. By employing the right medications, it is possible to help an addict on the road to recovery.

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