Due to the symptoms of withdrawal and heroin’s highly addictive nature, individuals typically have the best chance at a successful heroin addiction recovery when they seek help from a treatment center. But what does that recovery look like and what can you expect during detox, withdrawal, and rehab?
To give you a better idea of what treatment and recovery looks like, let’s dive into the various stages of treating heroin addiction. Although the process looks different for everyone, this quick overview will help you anticipate your own treatment and recovery process if you decide to get help.
Signs of heroin addiction
For some people, prescription opioid use paves the way to heroin addiction. Once they’re unable to get more pills, they may transition to heroin because it’s cheaper and easier to get. Others may begin using heroin occasionally as a way to have fun, get high, and be social.
Heroin is a powerful opiate that produces profound effects on the brain’s reward system, making it intensely addictive. People who use heroin regularly often develop a tolerance, which means they need larger and/or more frequent doses of heroin to get the effects they want. With continued use, a person can quickly become addicted to heroin and, as a result, they might feel like they can’t function normally without it.
Some signs that a person has developed a heroin addiction include:
- Trying to stop using heroin but being unable to
- Building a tolerance
- Having persistent cravings for heroin
- Experiencing withdrawal or feeling sick once the effects of heroin wear off
- Continuing to use heroin despite the problems it causes (health issues, difficulty at work, relationship problems, etc.)
Although the occasional use of heroin may seem harmless, it’s not. Individuals quickly build a tolerance to heroin and need larger doses or more frequent doses to feel the effects. As a result, someone can quickly become addicted without even realizing it.
Heroin withdrawal symptoms
Once a person is addicted, heroin withdrawal symptoms can make it difficult for them to quit on their own. Typical heroin withdrawal symptoms include:1
- Severe muscle and bone pain
- Problems sleeping
- Cold flashes with goosebumps
- Uncontrollable leg movements
- Powerful heroin cravings
These withdrawal symptoms can set in as quickly as a few hours after someone takes heroin. Heroin withdrawal may only last a week or so, but the symptoms can be severe. Some people may also experience post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS). In these cases, some heroin withdrawal symptoms can persist for weeks, months, or even years after getting sober. PAWS is typically more common among people who quit heroin “cold turkey” without professional assistance, as opposed to gradually weaning themselves off of it under the supervision of a doctor.
What happens during heroin detox?
Quitting heroin abruptly can be dangerous and may result in serious health risks. Working with a doctor or professionals at a detox center and rehab center can help ensure a safe recovery from heroin addiction.
Before starting a detox program, treatment specialists will ask the patient lots of questions about their drug use, such as:
- How much heroin they take
- How often they take it
- Whether they use any other drugs or alcohol
- Their overall physical and mental health status
- What their current living conditions are like
- Whether they’ve gone to detox or rehab before
Treatment professionals never intend to invade anyone’s privacy with these questions. On the contrary, it’s necessary for addiction treatment professionals to gather this information so they can design an individualized detox program for the person.
During heroin detox, a physician-led team of nurses and other health professionals will treat heroin withdrawal symptoms to alleviate the patient’s discomfort. They may also administer medication to help with psychological withdrawal symptoms, like sleep disturbances, anxiety, and depression. In addition to monitoring the patient’s vitals round-the-clock, the person’s treatment team will also meet with them regularly throughout the detox program to ensure that they are comfortable and progressing well. Detox patients can also meet with clinical counselors to address their current emotions and feelings regarding detox, heroin addiction, and prepare mentally for ongoing treatment.
Heroin detox helps people gradually withdraw from heroin and ease withdrawal symptoms so they are more comfortable and less likely to relapse. If a person is also addicted to alcohol or other drugs, detox offers medical and clinical treatment and support for those addictions too.
What are the options for heroin rehab?
According to a study from the Journal of Addictive Diseases, in addition to early intervention to curtail heroin addiction, increasing self-efficacy and addressing psychological problems are likely to enhance the odds of maintaining long-term stable heroin addiction recovery.2 Essentially, people who are addicted to heroin are more likely to stay sober longer if they pursue ongoing treatment in rehab and aftercare.
After completing heroin detox, many recovering heroin addicts continue their treatment in rehab. Continuing heroin addiction treatment after detox is very important because detox lowers individuals’ tolerance to heroin. Meaning, they are more likely to overdose if they relapse.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), heroin addiction treatment is most effective when treatment professionals tailor it to the needs of each person.3 However, heroin rehab typically consists of:
- Individual and group therapy
- Support groups
- Lifestyle changes/life skills development
- Treatment for co-occurring disorders like anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, etc.
People can get this type of evidence-based heroin addiction treatment in residential and outpatient settings. The main difference between the two types is that clients live on-site at the rehab center for residential treatment, while people in outpatient rehab live at home or a sober living home while they’re completing rehab.
Medications used to treat heroin addiction
According to a research report from December of 2021 published by the NIDA, methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone are all effective medications for heroin addiction treatment.4 Although not all treatment programs utilize these medications, they may be helpful for certain individuals.
- Methadone is a synthetic opioid agonist that eliminates withdrawal symptoms and alleviates cravings by acting on opioid receptors in the brain.
- Buprenorphine is a partial opioid agonist, which means it binds to opioid receptors in the body but does so less strongly than full opioid agonists. It reduces cravings and withdrawal symptoms without producing euphoric side effects.
- Naltrexone is an opioid antagonist, which means it blocks the activation of opioid receptors in the body. It keeps opioid drugs from producing rewarding effects like euphoria, thereby decreasing a person’s motivation to use opioids.
Since each of these medications work differently, it’s best to work with a treatment provider to determine the optimal approach considering the person’s unique history and circumstances.
Heroin relapse prevention
After residential rehab and outpatient rehab, individuals may also choose to enroll in a sober living program. This is particularly advantageous for people who struggle with chronic relapse, don’t have a stable or supportive home environment, or who have been through several heroin rehab programs before with very little or short-term success.
Sober living programs provide stable, supportive, and sober housing for people recovering from heroin addiction. They also offer access to individual therapy, recovery support services, and certified peer support programs. Many sober homes also have individualized recovery programs that help residents gradually adjust to sobriety and assimilate back into society with employment and education assistance, volunteer placement, family support, and regular drug testing.
Of course, continued therapy and peer support, such as through the 12-Step Program, will also help individuals maintain their sobriety and stay accountable to heroin addiction recovery.
Is there a cure for heroin addiction?
Although there is no “cure” for heroin addiction, treatment and aftercare can help address the underlying causes of your addiction and stay sober. Like any other chronic disease, maintaining heroin addiction recovery means you:
- Recognize that you may always be tempted to use heroin.
- Must maintain significant lifestyle changes to stay sober.
- Know your heroin addiction left a lasting impact on you, but that you can continue to stay sober with the help of others.