In the case of addiction, there are a number of different kinds of treatments available for people who need help, although most people who use heroin stop without any formal treatment.

Stopping heroin use can be challenging because people must endure the immediate process of physical withdrawal, which can involve symptoms such as anxiety, sweating, nausea, and diarrhea, among others. During this period, it can be difficult for many to avoid relapse, the inclination to go back to using heroin, in order to alleviate these symptoms.

Heroin relapse can be lethal since one’s tolerance for the drug can go down unexpectedly during periods of abstinence. There is also an increased likelihood of having severe breathing difficulties after a period of abstinence.

Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT)

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved three medications for use in treating opioid dependence: methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone. Each of these medications differ in how they work in the body. Methadone and buprenorphine are also known as Opioid Substitution Treatment (OST) or Opioid Agonist Treatment (OAT) because they have effects similar to heroin and other opioids in the brain.

Methadone and buprenorphine have been proven to save lives, reduce the risk of lethal relapse, improve quality of life and decrease crime, more so than any other treatment option. Despite extensive research on the efficacy of OST, their availability varies across the country and so many people in parts of the nation do not have access to these life-saving medications.

Learn more about methadone and buprenorphine.

Learn more about naltrexone.

Psychosocial Treatment for Heroin Dependence

The most widely available treatment options for heroin dependence are psychosocial treatments provided at specialty substance use treatment facilities. These treatments are delivered by a state-licensed or credential treatment provider such as a mental health therapist, social worker, psychologist or substance abuse counselor. They can be provided through individual, group, couples or family counseling sessions. Sessions can vary in frequency so people may attend them daily, a few times a week or weekly, based on clinical need.

The quality of these treatments vary widely depending on their underlying principles, the skill of the practitioner offering them, and whether or not they are evidence-based. They are generally abstinence-based, although there are a growing number of facilities across the country that are focused on reducing the harms associated with drug use and misuse.

While psychosocial treatments can be a promising approach for treating heroin dependence, relapse can still be a common occurrence and many find that combining treatment with MAT is most effective.

Other Substances

The following substances are not federally approved as treatment, but have shown promising results.

Marijuana. There is extensive research proving the effectiveness of marijuana for dealing with chronic pain. Studies have shown that many patients substitute marijuana for opioids and it is being used by some rehabilitation centers to wean patients off opioids such as heroin.

Kratom is a medicinal plant indigenous to Southeast Asia that acts on opioid receptors in the brain, helping many people overcome addiction, chronic pain, and other difficult-to-treat conditions. Many people have found that kratom is helpful for cutting back or quitting opioids.

Ibogaine is a psychoactive drug naturally occurring in a West African shrub known as iboga. People have found that larger doses of ibogaine can significantly reduce withdrawal symptoms from opioids and can temporarily eliminate cravings.

See the fact sheet for more information and sources.