• Addiction & recovery

Heroin Addiction and Methadone Maintenance Treatment

Nzinga Harrison

June 11, 2021


Methadone is a long-acting prescription opioid medication that has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to aid in the treatment of moderate to severe pain. It’s also used to treat addictions to opioids, such as heroin. Methadone maintenance treatment (MMT), opioid substitute therapy (OST), medication-assisted treatment (MAT), and medication for opioid use disorder (MOUD) are all terminologies used to describe the use of methadone in opioid addiction treatment. 

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), methadone is a full opiate medication that prevents people from getting high on opiates, such as heroin. Methadone helps relieve cravings and withdrawal symptoms during the recovery process. When used under professional medical supervision and in conjunction with therapy, counseling, and aftercare support, it’s recognized as an effective treatment for opioid use disorders (OUDs). 

Methadone maintenance therapy for heroin addiction helps people stay in recovery and reduces the risk of relapses, the transmission of infectious diseases, and criminal behavior.   


Heroin Use Disorder

Heroin is a highly addictive, illegal drug made from morphine, a naturally occurring chemical found in the seed pods of certain poppy plants. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), heroin attaches to opioid receptors throughout the brain swiftly, particularly with those involved in controlling pain, pleasure, as well as heart rate, sleeping, and breathing. 

Heroin can cause tolerance, dependence, and addiction within a short period. According to the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), over 948,000 Americans used heroin in the previous year. And the number of people with heroin use disorder has risen considerably, from 214,000 in 2002 to 626,000 in 2016.

With heroin usage on the rise, it’s no wonder that more people are suffering from the negative health repercussions that come with long-term use. The impact of heroin is felt throughout the United States, with heroin being classified as one of the major drug misuse problems affecting many local communities from coast to coast. 

The short-term effects of heroin include: 

  • Heavy feeling in the arms and legs 
  • Nausea and vomiting 
  • Dry mouth 
  • Warm flushing of the skin 
  • Severe itching 
  • Clouded mental functioning 

Long-term effects of heroin include: 

  • Insomnia 
  • Collapsed veins on injection sites
  • Abscesses  
  • Severe constipation and stomach cramping 
  • Damaged tissue inside the nose in users who sniff or snort it 
  • Infection of the heart lining and valves 
  • Mental illnesses like depression and antisocial personality disorder 
  • Liver and kidney disease 
  • Lung complications, including pneumonia 
  • Sexual dysfunction in men 
  • Irregular menstrual cycles in women 

Heroin Withdrawal

Heroin withdrawal symptoms are caused by abrupt cessation or reduction of drug use. Heroin withdrawal symptoms are quite similar to the common flu. Common symptoms of heroin withdrawal can include: 

  • Nausea 
  • Diarrhea
  • Runny nose
  • Muscle aches
  • Tremors
  • Fatigue
  • Chills and sweats

Severe withdrawal symptoms can include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Difficulty breathing 

The duration and severity of the initial withdrawal symptoms of heroin can vary from person to person. Withdrawal symptoms normally start six to 12 hours after the last dose, peak within the first three days, and gradually fade over the next five to seven days. Some users, on the other hand, have withdrawal symptoms for weeks or months.


Methadone vs. Heroin

Methadone is a long-acting opioid that attaches to the same opioid receptors in the brain as heroin.  Methadone works by interacting with opioid receptors in the brain to lessen the symptoms of heroin withdrawal when administered as part of opioid maintenance treatment. The interaction also prevents relapses during recovery by blocking the euphoric high caused by opioids such as heroin. Methadone treatment helps individuals in recovery focus on other aspects of their treatment program, laying a solid foundation for recovery rather than constantly fighting cravings and the urge to relapse.  

Opioid misuse leads to various physical and mental impairments. Therefore, the primary goal of methadone maintenance treatment is to maintain abstinence. Methadone has been used to treat heroin addiction since the 1960s and is still an effective treatment choice, especially for individuals who do not respond to other medications. Methadone is dispensed through certified clinics, where it’s prescribed daily to individuals in recovery. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), methadone treatment accounted for 21-25 percent of all individuals receiving treatment for opioid use disorder.


Benefits of Methadone Maintenance Treatment 

Although other medications are available for managing heroin withdrawal symptoms, methadone is often regarded as the most promising alternative for people who are severely addicted to heroin. Methadone maintenance therapy can provide stabilization during the early stages of rehabilitation, lowering the risk of relapses and increasing an individual’s commitment to treatment. 

Other advantages of methadone treatment include: 

  • Reduction in infectious diseases 
  • Reduction in criminal activity 
  • Overall improvement in life quality 
  • Better chance to achieve long-term recovery success 
  • Improved social functioning 
  • A higher retention rate for addiction treatment
  • Effects of methadone don’t interfere with day to day life
  • Increased employment rate

Heroin Addiction and Methadone Maintenance Treatment - Eleanor Health

Alternatives Medications to Methadone 

A variety of alternative medications are available for heroin use disorder. Some of such FDA approved medications that are utilized in MAT programs are:

  • BuprenorphineBuprenorphine has many advantages for individuals with heroin use disorder and those looking for an alternative to methadone treatment. Buprenorphine has a ceiling effect, which reduces respiratory depression and its risk of an accidental overdose. In terms of medication retention and decreased opioid use, buprenorphine treatment is just as effective as methadone.
  • Naltrexone – Intramuscular extended-release naltrexone is a medication utilized in MAT to treat opioid use disorder and alcohol use disorder. Naltrexone isn’t an opioid, nor is it addictive, and nor does it cause any withdrawal effects during cessation. Naltrexone blocks the euphoric and sedative effects of opioids such as heroin, morphine, and codeine. And as a result, reduces or prevents opioid cravings with a minimum risk of misuse.
  • Vivitrol – Vivitrol is a non-addictive opioid antagonist that suppresses the brain’s response to opioids by reducing cravings. It is given as an injection once per month. Vivitrol treatment is only utilized after a person has not used opioids for at least seven days.
  • Suboxone – Suboxone is the newest methadone substitute that incorporates buprenorphine (a partial opioid agonist) with naloxone (an opioid antagonist). Suboxone, like methadone, reduces addiction and cravings. And since buprenorphine reaches a ceiling effect at higher doses, it’s less likely to cause any fatal overdose.


The correct medication can help you keep a positive attitude and get you through the tough times of recovery with more ease. And Eleanor Health’s program is created to accommodate the highest clinical safety and standard of care.

If you are seeking help with your loved one’s addiction, contact us today or complete our quick contact form below, to speak with an addiction treatment specialist.

If you need help with your substance use disorder, we are here to help you build your confidence and momentum towards the future you want. We provide treatment services for adults with alcohol, opioid, and other substance use disorders. We are currently located in LouisianaMassachusettsNew JerseyNorth CarolinaOhio, Texas, and Washington.

Eleanor Health

Recovery for life.

Our mission at Eleanor Health is to help people affected by heroin addiction live amazing lives. We deliver whole-person, comprehensive care and are passionate about transforming the quality, delivery, and accessibility of opioid addiction & mental health treatment. Our actions are rooted in respect for each member's values, culture, and life experiences, and our commitment to their wellbeing is unwavering and without judgement.

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