Current Pharmacological Treatment Available for Opiate Addiction

In 2012, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) published the revised Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment - A Research-Based Guide*. Excerpts from this important document are included to provide a brief overview of the available pharmacological treatment for opiate addiction.

Medications are an important element of treatment for many patients, especially when combined with counseling and other behavioral therapies. Methadone and levo-alpha-acetylmethadol (LAAM) are very effective in helping individuals addicted to heroin or other opiates stabilize their lives and reduce their illicit drug use. Naltrexone is also an effective medication for some opiate addicts and some patients with co-occurring alcohol dependence.

* Cite article: National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2012, December). Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition). (NIH Publication No. 12-4180). Rockville, MD: National Institutes of Health.

Methadone and LAAM

As used in maintenance treatment, methadone and LAAM are not heroin substitutes. Methadone and LAAM have far more gradual onsets of actions than heroin, and as a result, patients stabilized on these medications do not experience any rush. In addition, both medications wear off much more slowly than heroin, so there is no sudden crash, and the brain and body are not exposed to the marked fluctuations seen with heroin use. Maintenance treatment with methadone or LAAM markedly reduces the desire for heroin. If an individual maintained on adequate, regular doses of methadone (once a day) or LAAM (several times per week) tries to take heroin, the euphoric effects of heroin will be significantly blocked. According to research, patients undergoing maintenance treatment do not suffer the medical abnormalities and behavioral destabilization that rapid fluctuations in drug levels cause in heroin addicts.Methadone treatment programs for opiate addicts usually are conducted in outpatient settings.

These programs use a long-acting synthetic opiate medication, usually methadone or LAAM, administered orally for a sustained period at a dosage sufficient to prevent opiate withdrawal, block the effects of illicit opiate use, and decrease opiate craving. Patients stabilized on adequate, sustained dosages of methadone or LAAM can function normally. They can hold jobs, avoid the crime and violence of the street culture, and reduce their exposure to HIV by stopping or decreasing injection drug use and drug-related high-risk sexual behavior.

Patients stabilized on Methadone or LAAM can engage more readily in counseling and other behavioral interventions essential to recovery and rehabilitation. The best, most effective Methadone or LAAM treatment programs include individual and/ or group counseling, as well as provision of, or referral to, other needed medical, psychological, and social services.


Naltrexone is also an effective medication for some opiate addicts and some patients with co-occurring alcohol dependence. Narcotic treatment using naltrexone for opiate addicts usually is conducted in outpatient settings although initiation of the medication often begins after medical detoxification in a residential setting. Naltrexone is a long-acting synthetic opiate antagonist with few side effects that is often taken orally either daily or three times a week for a sustained period of time. Individuals must be medically detoxified and opiate-free for several days before naltrexone can be taken to prevent precipitating an opiate abstinence syndrome. When used this way, all the effects of self-administered opiates, including euphoria, are completely blocked. The theory behind this treatment is that the repeated lack of the desired opiate effects, as well as the perceived futility of using the opiate, will gradually over time result in breaking the habit of opiate addiction. Naltrexone itself has no subjective effects or potential for abuse and is not addicting. Patient noncompliance is a common problem. Therefore, a favorable treatment outcome requires that there also be a positive therapeutic relationship, effective counseling or therapy, and careful monitoring of medication compliance.

For patients with mental disorders, both behavioral treatments and medications can be critically important. Addicted or drug-abusing individuals with coexisting mental disorders should have both disorders treated in an integrated way. Because addictive disorders and mental disorders often occur in the same individual, patients presenting for either condition should be assessed and treated for the co-occurrence of the other type of disorder. Medications, such as antidepressants, mood stabilizers, or neuroleptics, may be critical for treatment success when patients have co-occurring mental disorders, such as depression, anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, or psychosis.