Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is the use of medications, counseling, and other behavioral therapies in the treatment of addictions.
MAT can be used to treat a variety of substance use disorders, including heroin abuse.
Here are the different options in medications and medication-assisted treatment involved in the treatment of heroin addiction.
Learn more about the different types of heroin addiction treatment
Primary Medications Used In Heroin Addiction Treatment
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved three drugs for the treatment of opioid use disorders (OUD): buprenorphine, methadone, and naltrexone.
Buprenorphine and methadone are usually administered orally, as an injection may result in a euphoric feeling.
Naltrexone is most effective when administered intravenously, and does not cause euphoria. This treatment can last up to a month after one dose.
These drugs can be found in a variety of medications.
Getting Off Heroin With Suboxone (Buprenorphine)
Suboxone is one of many brand-name medications derived from buprenorphine. It’s a combination of buprenorphine and naloxone.
Buprenorphine is a partial opioid agonist, which means it works by binding to opioid receptors and activating them at a lower level than full agonists do.
The medication is effective in reducing cravings and withdrawal symptoms without producing a sense of euphoria like heroin would.
In order to responsibly treat an OUD, it’s essential to prescribe buprenorphine as a part of a comprehensive treatment plan that encompasses a whole-patient approach.
Other buprenorphine products include:
- Bunavail (buprenorphine and naloxone)
- Cassipa (buprenorphine and naloxone)
- Probuphine (buprenorphine)
- Sublocade (buprenorphine extended‐release)
- Subutex (buprenorphine)
- Zubsolv (buprenorphine and naloxone)
Read more about using Suboxone to overcome heroin addiction
Getting Off Heroin With Methadone
Methadone is a slow-acting synthetic opioid agonist, which means it relieves heroin cravings by acting on opioid receptors in the brain.
Methadone activates opioid receptors, but it does so more slowly. For someone who is opioid-dependent, Methadone treatment doses do not produce euphoria.
This medication has been used to treat heroin addictions since the 1960s and still proves to be an effective, evidence-based treatment method.
Patients usually receive daily doses of methadone for as long as their recovery plan requires.
Brand-name drugs derived from methadone include:
- Dolophine (methadone hydrochloride)
- Methadose (methadone hydrochloride)
Read more about using Methadone to overcome heroin addiction
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Getting Off Heroin With Vivitrol (Naltrexone)
Vivitrol, known by its generic name as naltrexone, is an opioid antagonist, meaning it works by blocking the activation of opioid receptors.
Naltrexone differs from methadone and buprenorphine treatments in that it doesn’t treat the cravings and withdrawal symptoms that come with heroin use.
Instead, naltrexone prevents opioid drugs from producing rewarding effects, such as euphoria.
This treatment method is not addictive, sedating, or conducive to physical dependence, making it an effective medication to use for those coming off of heroin.
However, the drawback is that patients have trouble committing to using Vivitrol, which can limit the effectiveness of the medication.
It’s administered via injection, unlike methadone and buprenorphine, which are oral medications. Patients only have to receive one dose monthly, because the effects of the drug last for weeks.
Read more about using Vivitrol to overcome heroin addiction
How Medication-Assisted Treatment Works
Medications are used to treat the symptoms of withdrawal as well as the psychological cravings that cause a chemical imbalance in the body.
Here’s how each FDA-approved drug works:
- buprenorphine: treats pain and reduces cravings
- methadone: treats pain and blocks the euphoric effects of opiate drugs
- naltrexone: reduces cravings and prevents the feeling of getting high if a person relapses
Heroin Recovery Goals With MAT
The goal is to use the minimum level of medications needed to provide pain relief. MAT improves physical and psychological conditions, reduces risks, and criminal behavior.
These medications not only help in the process of heroin withdrawal but also in sustaining recovery.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the use of buprenorphine in MAT led to a 37% decrease in overdose deaths in Baltimore.
Medication-Based Treatment For Heroin: Important Terms To Know
It’s helpful to know a few terms in relation to heroin use, medication-assisted treatment, and more.
Here are a few terms to keep in mind:
Agonist: A drug that activates certain receptors in the brain. Heroin is a full agonist.
MAT: ‘Medication-assisted treatment,’ the use of a combination of medication and behavioral therapies in treating addiction.
Opioid antagonist: This is something that blocks the activation of opioid receptors. Naltrexone is an antagonist.
Opioid-dependent: An opioid-dependent person is defined as someone who relies on the substance in order to avoid withdrawal. Using opioids over a long period of time leads to opioid dependence.
OUD: This refers to ‘opioid use disorder,’ chronic use of opioids that causes clinically significant distress or impairment. Heroin is an illegal opioid.
Whole-patient: A ‘whole-patient’ approach addresses the full range of physical, mental, social, and other factors that affect a person’s recovery.
How Long Does Medication-Assisted Treatment For Heroin Last?
According to the FDA, there is no set recommendation for the maximum duration of MAT. This will vary from patient to patient, and some may continue treatment indefinitely.
Many will remain in treatment for a few months, a year, multiple years, or a lifetime.
The length of the maintenance phase depends on different factors, such as a person’s opioids tolerance and their individual recovery needs.
Get Help With A Heroin Addiction Today
If you or a loved one are ready to explore medication-assisted treatment for heroin addiction, reach out to us today.
There is a range of medically safe treatments available across the nation offering naltrexone, methadone, and buprenorphine medications to assist in your recovery process.
Call our helpline to learn about heroin treatment centers that might work for your recovery needs.
Addiction Resource aims to provide only the most current, accurate information in regards to addiction and addiction treatment, which means we only reference the most credible sources available.
These include peer-reviewed journals, government entities and academic institutions, and leaders in addiction healthcare and advocacy. Learn more about how we safeguard our content by viewing our editorial policy.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — Heroin Overdose Data
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — Drug Overdose Deaths
- Indian Health Service — Pharmacological Treatment
- National Institute on Drug Abuse — Effective Treatments for Opioid Addiction
- Psychiatric Research Institute (PRI) — What Is Naltrexone?
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) — MAT Medications, Counseling, and Related Conditions
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) — Information about Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)