Heroin is considered a highly addictive drug and has nasty withdrawal symptoms. In fact, the withdrawal can be so nasty that it can easily cause people in rehab to relapse. Methadone has been used as a treatment for heroin addiction since the 1960s (1), and it is still considered the gold standard. However, methadone is actually a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and the effects of the treatment can often be worse than the disease.
What is Methadone?
Methadone is an opiate drug that is chemically similar to heroin. However, because it is much slower-acting than heroin, it doesn’t produce the same kind of high. Because methadone is so similar to heroin, people who take it can supposedly wean themselves off heroin without suffering the usual withdrawal.
Unfortunately, because methadone is so much like heroin, people who take it often become just as addicted to it as they were once to heroin.
Methadone Addiction in Heroin Patients
Although methadone does not produce the same high as heroin, it is not without narcotic effects. In fact, some addicts have reported getting high off methadone alone (2). Some people also combine it with other drugs with dangerous and deadly effects. (3)
Additionally, because methadone sits on the same receptors in the brain, it makes the body believe that it’s getting heroin; and when the methadone wears off it can have the same effects as if heroin had worn off.
Because the two drugs are so similar, the signs of methadone addiction (4) are similar to heroin addiction including:
- Building up a tolerance to the drug, so that they have to take higher or more frequent doses to have the same effect;
- Having heroin-like withdrawal symptoms when they can’t take have access to the drug, including muscle aches, diarrhea, cramping, nausea and vomiting, and fatigue;
- Losing the inability to control their methadone consumption; and,
- Developing an obsession with obtaining and taking methadone, to the exclusion of other interests.
- In recent years, the drugs Suboxone and Naltrexone, both opioid-based drugs, have also been introduced to treat heroin and other opiate addiction. However, Suboxone has many of the same issues as methadone, namely addiction and the potential to overdose. Naltrexone is one of the newer drugs and, as of yet, is not considered addictive, or sedating.
Fortunately, there are other treatment options for heroin addiction, which don’t rely on swapping the use and dependence on one opioid drug for another.
Non-Opioid Treatments for Heroin Addiction
Heroin addiction isn’t just about the physical dependence on the drug; there is also a mental and emotional component. While the withdrawal from heroin can be difficult and painful, it also only lasts a few days to a few weeks.
There are also quick detox options that can quickly clear the heroin from the patient’s system, while he remains sedated so as to avoid much of the discomfort. These quick detoxes do not cure the addiction, but they can help the patient get past the unpleasantness of withdrawal so that he can focus and commit fully to the next step of his recovery.
The cravings that come after the withdrawal has passed are usually psychological because the person has become mentally and emotionally dependent on the drug.
If the patient has mental health issues that are driving his addiction, often medicating and treating the underlying mental condition can help the patient stay sober, and avoid a relapse.
Behavioral therapies and psychiatric medications can help people cope with the psychological aspects of the addiction in ways that methadone and other opioid drugs alone can’t. In fact, the use of opioid drugs could actually hinder progress if patients opt to use them to manage cravings in lieu of therapy.
The road to recover is not easy (5), and there’s no magic switch that suddenly turns off addiction. However, when it comes to heroin addiction, the method of treating the addiction to one opioid by administering another could do more harm than good. Rather than lead patients down the path to recovery, it could lead them into another addiction.
Patients who are addicted to heroin and other opiates might benefit more from either slowly weaning off the drug, to reduce the withdrawal, while also getting therapy to address the psychological aspects of the addiction.
Other options could include quitting cold turkey, and riding out the withdrawal; or going through a quick detox, to get through the withdrawal quickly. Once they have gotten the drug out of their system, they can then focus on mental health interventions to continue their sobriety and prevent relapse.