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Opioid Use Disorder: These Treatments Are Available, Now

Medically reviewed by Leigh Ann Anderson, PharmD. Last updated on Dec 6, 2021.

The Opioid Epidemic: A Public Health Crisis

The opioid addiction epidemic is rampant in the U.S. and it's hard to ignore the news. You may have a personal experience, too - either co-workers, friends, family, or even yourself.

The headlines are nonstop, the statistics are shocking, and the outcomes are tragic. Consider these numbers:

  • More than 760,000 people have died since 1999 from a drug overdose according to the latest Health and Human Services data.
  • It's not just street heroin or other illicit drugs that's the problem. In fact, Americans are dying from an opioid overdose that may included synthetic prescription pain killers like hydrocodone and oxycodone. One quarter of those who receive a prescription for an opioid pain medication will misuse it in some way. Many people who end up with opioids in their hands get them from friends or family, often taking them from the medicine cabinet.
  • Illegally manufactured or diverted drugs sold on the streets, such as fentanyl and carfentanil, are expecially lethal. Fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin. Carfentanil, used to tranquilize large animals, is 5,000 times stronger. These drugs are often cut into heroin bought on the streets.

Which Drugs Are Opiates?

Opiates, sometimes called narcotics, are either prescribed medications most often used to control pain, or bought from a dealer, such as heroin. These drugs can be abused, whether they are legally obtained with a prescription from the doctor, or illegally on the streets.

Learn More: Understanding Opioid (Narcotic) Pain Medications

Today, dealers on the street may try to sell pain medications claiming they are legitimate prescription drugs. Do not trust them. Many deaths have occurred due to drugs made in illicit labs using dangerous, highly potent opioids like fentanyl, carfentanil or toxic chemicals, to "cut" pharmaceuticals or heroin. Illicit drug use has never been more dangerous. But it's not just illegal drugs that have caused the problem.

Knowing which drugs might have addiction potential is important. Examples of prescription opioid analgesics include:

What is Opioid Use Disorder?

Opioid use disorder (OUD) is a biological disease characterized by a problematic pattern of continued opioid misuse.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), an opioid use disorder is defined as the repeated ocurrence of 2 or more of these 11 problems within a 12-month period. OUD can involve prescription opioids or heroin.

Exhibiting 6 or more of the below items indicates severe opiate dependence:

  1. Opioid withdrawal symptoms (sweating, shaking, headache, drug craving, nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, diarrhea, agitation).
  2. Failing job, school or home responsibilities due to recurrent opioid use.
  3. Unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control opioid use.
  4. Opioid use in longer or in larger amounts than anticipated.
  5. Excessive time spent getting or using the opioid, or recovering from its effects.
  6. Opioid tolerance.
  7. Use in physically dangerous situations.
  8. Craving or strong desire to use opioids.
  9. Social or interpersonal problems caused by opioid effects.
  10. Occupational, recreational, or social activities are given up due to opioid use.
  11. Continued opioid use despite knowledge of the addiction problem.

Dependence is NOT the same as addiction.

  • Addiction means that a person uses opioids to get high instead of to control pain.
  • Dependence occurs after you have used opioids regularly for a long period of time and your body gets used to how much medicine you take.

MAT: Treatments for Opioid Use Disorder

Patients with Opioid Use Disorder (OUD) can benefit from Medication Assisted Therapy (MAT) for long-term maintenance to prevent relapse after a medically supervised withdrawal (detoxification).

  • Medication Assisted Therapy (MAT) is a multi-pronged approach that combines approved medications with counseling and support to treat patients with OUD.
  • MAT can help you remain free of drug dependence on opiates (often called narcotics) by blocking the euphoria (high) that is experienced.
  • Methadone, buprenorphine, buprenorphine-naloxone, and naltrexone are all approved for this use.

The first step in treatment is knowing you have a problem and seeking help with detoxification. But it's a known fact: relapse -- the continued use of opioids after opioid withdrawal -- is a common, and dangerous, event. Relapse can occur in up to 90% of patients within the first 1 to 2 months unless treated with medications for maintenance, like those in MAT.

There is an added safety factor with MAT, too: those who lose their tolerance to opioids (for example, after having gone through a withdrawal program or just quitting on their own) are at risk of fatal overdoses if they return to opioid use, so medical supervision can save lives.

Benefits of Medication Assisted Therapy (MAT)

  • Easier Transition Away from Opioid Use: Patients adhering to MAT have reduced opioid withdrawal symptoms and the desire to use opioids. This lessens the cycle of highs and lows associated with opioid misuse or abuse.
  • It's Safer: Statistics note that patients receiving MAT for their opioid use disorder cut their risk of death from all causes in half. These patients have a greater chance of remaining in treatment, as well.
  • It's Evidence-Based: Using MAT to help maintain abstinence from heroin or prescription opioids, quite often over at least one year or longer, is a proven method to treat addiction. Some patients may need a lifetime of treatment.
  • Social and Group Support: MAT can be more effective when combined with prescribed counseling. After detox, behavioral treatments can help you learn how to avoid opioids, manage cravings, and mend relationships. For added support, consider joining the Opioid Support Group, the Narcotic Support Group, and the Withdrawal Support Group

Medications Used for Opioid Use Disorder

Medications used for opioid use disorder (OUD) come in many different dose forms: oral solutions and tablets, dissolvable oral films, subdermal (under-the-skin) implants, and long-acting injections.

Generic and brand names include:

First-line maintenance after opioid withdrawal is often started with buprenorphine or methadone.

In the U.S., methadone is a schedule II, highly regulated drug, and treatment usually involves going to a registered clinic for your daily dose. Licensed outpatient setting must also provide counseling. Methadone is also available from licensed inpatient hospitals, and any licensed provider can prescribe methadone for up to 72 hours in a supervised setting when deemed necessary and by following federal guidelines.

Buprenorphine, a schedule III medication, can be given in a doctor's office by certified and trained physicians, which may be more convenient in general.

Naltrexone is not a scheduled drug as it is an antagonist and blocks euphoric actions only (meaning it can't lead to a "high"). Naltrexone might be an option for you if you are a highly motivated patient with milder symptoms of OUD and you can be reliably followed for medication compliance. However, clinical studies have shown greater effectiveness with methadone or buprenorphine treatment for OUD. Discuss this with your doctor.

Methadone: The Test of Time

Methadone has been used for over 40 years for opioid use disorder. How does methadone work to ease opioid cravings?

  • Methadone is a synthetic mu opioid agonist, which means it acts on the same brain receptors as other opioids, like heroin, morphine or codeine. However, methadone acts more slowly, and has a longer half-life of 8 to 59 hours (a half-life is the amount of time for half of a dose to be eliminated from the body).
  • Some people criticize that using an opioid agonist for treatment is just replacing one opioid with another. However, in someone who is opioid tolerant, methadone does not cause the euphoria (the "high") seen with shorter acting drugs, when used appropriately. This is one reason why it is so effective in opioid use disorder.
  • Because of the long action (half-life), methadone can accumulate in your body. Your doctor should avoid frequent or rapid dose changes. Rapid dose changes may put you at risk for slowed breathing (respiratory depression), which can be fatal.
  • Methadone can prevent withdrawal symptoms for 24 hours, reduce cravings, and lower euphoria if other opioids are used.

Methadone is also approved for the treatment of pain, but should only be prescribed by a healthcare provider familiar with the use of potent opioids for the management of chronic pain.

Methadone: The Right Dose

Methadone dosing for opioid use disorder (OUD) is not the same as dosing for pain and can be complicated. Dosing is always individualized based on your level of opioid tolerance and the withdrawal symptoms you might be experiencing. Dosing in clinics is usually given as a liquid taken by mouth, diluted with juice or colored water, often with direct observation by personnel.

  • If you have not taken opioids for several days you may no longer be opioid-tolerant. Your doctor should use a lower first dose if your tolerance is expected to be low at treatment entry. However, your doctor will dose you adequately over the longer-term to suppress your cravings and block the euphoria of other opioids.
  • Dose changes will be frequent over the first few days as your doctor adjusts your dose of methadone. When adjusting methadone doses, it's important to keep in mind that methadone levels will accumulate over the first several days of dosing; deaths have occurred in early treatment due to the cumulative effects. Therefore, dose increases should proceed slowly based upon on your level of cravings, withdrawal symptoms, and side effects.
  • Drug interactions with the cytochrome P450 enzymes (responsible for metabolism and excretion of drugs in your body) are possible with methadone and may affect your required dose; tell your doctor and pharmacist about all of your medications, and this includes over-the-counter drugs, herbal supplements and vitamins.
  • After detoxification and a slow upwards titration, clinical stability is typically achieved for maintenance treatment. Doses are usually given once per day, but may be split if needed.
  • It is important that you do not quickly stop methadone. Dose reductions should be slow and directed by your doctor.

Learn More: Dosing specifics on methadone detoxification and maintenance.

Methadone: Side Effects and Precautions

Methadone is a strong, schedule II opioid medication and important precautions and side effect warnings should be emphasized:

  • Serious and fatal respiratory depression (slowed breathing) can occur; this effect can occur later than the peak effects of methadone due to accumulation of methadone in your body.
  • Other side effects include: drowsiness, sweating, nausea, vomiting, headache, erectile dysfunction, constipation, peripheral edema (swelling in legs, arms, feet), and seizures.
  • QTc interval prolongation and torsades de pointes (serious heart rhythm disorders) are a possibility. Patients with risk factors for cardiac arrhythmias (heart rhythm changes) should be closely monitored; an electrocardiography (ECG or EKG), a recording of your heart electrical activity, may be needed. Drug interactions can also contribute to prolonging the QT interval.
  • Use during pregnancy can cause a withdrawal syndrome in newborn babies (neonatal abstinence syndrome) which can be life-threatening if left untreated.
  • Do not drink alcohol while on methadone treatment as it can contribute to the sedative effects of methadone, slowed breathing, and possible death.
  • Review methadone drug interactions of all newly prescribed or discontinued medications with a pharmacist or other healthcare provider. Be sure to include over-the-counter, vitamin, and herbal medications, too.
  • Use of methadone products for detoxification and maintenance of opioid withdrawal should be administered in accordance with the federal and state treatment standards.

Buprenorphine: An Option to Methadone

Buprenorphine was first FDA-approved in 2002. It is a partial mu-opioid agonist, which means it activates opioid receptors, but with a smaller effect. It is classified as a schedule III controlled substance.

  • For OUD, it is available as a sublingual (under the tongue) tablet, as a buccal (between the check and gum) film, and as a long-acting implant.
  • It is most commonly taken sublingually, in combination with naloxone, for opioid use disorder (OUD) maintenance.

Naloxone is a full opioid antagonist that blocks opioid receptors in the brain but has no euphoric ("high") effects. It is not a controlled substance.

  • Naloxone is used in certain buprenorphine products to deter misuse by crushing, dissolving, or injecting the oral formulations. It has little to no activity when given sublingually. Intravenous naloxone injections would precipitate an opiate withdrawal.

A Cochrane Review from Mattick and colleagues found that methadone is superior to buprenorphine in retaining people in treatment, but methadone and buprenorphine are equally effective in suppressing illicit opioid use.

Available Products

  • Suboxone (buprenorphine and naloxone) is a sublingual film given as a single daily dose. It is from manufacturer Indivior.
  • Sublocade is an extended-release injection given monthly (after induction and dose adjustment with transmucosal buprenorphine), from Indivior.
  • Zubsolv (buprenorphine and naloxone) is a sublingual tablet brand used once daily, from Orexo.
  • Generic buprenorphine and naloxone sublingual tablets or buccal films are also FDA approved.

Other forms, like the buccal film Belbuca approved in 2017, or the Butrans patch, are approved for pain treatment only.

Buprenorphine: Side Effects and Precautions

Because buprenorphine is a partial mu-opioid agonist, it can lead to withdrawal in patients who have not stopped using other opioids for long enough.

You may need to be in an early state of withdrawal before starting buprenorphine for OUD, but once you begin, the buprenorphine will quickly block the withdrawal symptoms by binding to the opioid receptors. For long-term maintenance, you may be placed on buprenorphine-naloxone after initial induction. Follow your healthcare provider's dosing instructions exactly.

Learn More

Overdose with buprenorphine is a risk with intravenous abuse or combined used of benzodiazepines (e.g., Valium, Ativan, Xanax), alcohol, or other CNS depressants. Overdose can lead to respiratory depression (slowed breathing) and possible death. Check for buprenorphine drug interactions here. As with methadone, buprenorphone should be discontinued slowly under medical supervision.

The Probuphine brand (long-acting buprenorphine implant), has been discontinued from the US market.

Side effects with buprenorphine can include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Stomach upset, nausea
  • Constipation
  • Respiratory depression (slowed breathing)

Sublocade: A Long-Acting Injection

Sublocade (buprenorphine), from Indivior, is a once-monthly injection for the treatment of opioid use disorder (OUD). It is a long-acting, partial opioid agonist formulation. It was FDA-approved in November 2017.

  • Sublocade is injected ONLY by a health care professional under the skin (subcutaneously in the abdomen area). The delivery system forms a solid deposit (or depot) containing buprenorphine.
  • After initial formation of the depot, buprenorphine is released by the breakdown (biodegradation) of the depot. There should be a minimum of 26 days between doses.
  • Sublocade is used in patients already on a stable dose of transmucosal buprenorphine for a minimum of 7 days.
  • Sublocade may reduce the burden of taking daily medication for patients in recovery, as well as hinder diversion or abuse of oral buprenorphine.
  • Your doctor may also prescribe naloxone to help lower the risk for opioid overdose.

In research studies, Sublocade-treated patients had more weeks without positive urine tests or self-reports of opioid use compared to the placebo group. Sublocade provided sustained therapeutic plasma levels of buprenorphine over the one-month dosing interval.

Oral Naltrexone and A Long-Acting Option With Vivitrol

Naltrexone is a full opioid antagonist approved for opioid use disorder (OUD) to help prevent relapse. It blocks the effects of opioids (narcotics) and narcotic pain relief medications, including the pain relief and feelings of euphoria ("high"), that can lead to opioid abuse. The 50-mg oral tablets have an effect that lasts 24 to 36 hours.

The Revia brand of naltrexone, an oral tablet formulation, has been discontinued and is no longer marketed; however, the generic form is still available. Poor adherence has limited the use of oral naltrexone for OUD.

Naltrexone extended-release injection is also available in the US under the brand name Vivitrol and was FDA-approved in 2006. It is used only after opioid detoxification. You should be free from opioids for at least 7 to 10 days before you start treatment to avoid withdrawal. Your doctor may also prescribe naloxone for the emergency treatment of opioid overdose.

  • Vivitrol is used to prevent relapse and may be beneficial for patients who have trouble sticking to the oral treatment regimen. It is only administered by a healthcare provider.
  • Vivitrol is given as an intramuscular (IM) injection into the buttocks (gluteal injection) once per month.
  • Vivitrol is also approved to treat alcohol dependence.

Learn More: Naltrexone Dosing Specifics

Naltrexone: Side Effects and Warnings

Naltrexone can precipitate withdrawal symptoms if you still use narcotics and should not be used prior to completion of a medically-supervised opioid withdrawal, usually at least 7 to 10 days.

Naltrexone may be considered a third-line agent to use in OUD; your doctor may consider it a good option if you are highly motivated and can be monitored closely. It may be appropriate for patients who cannot use opioids for maintenance treatment.

Side effects are infrequent with naltrexone. More common side effects reported with Vivitrol during opioid use disroder treatment include:

  • Liver enzyme changes
  • Common cold
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Toothache
  • Injection site reaction like pain or tenderness

Do not to take large amounts of opioid medicines to overcome the Vivitrol block. This can lead to serious injury, coma, or death. Tell your doctor if you take any opioid-containing medicines for pain, cough, or diarrhea.

Naloxone: An Emergency Treatment

Naloxone, also commonly known as Narcan, rapidly reverses the effects of an opioid (narcotic) overdose and is the standard treatment. It is not addictive, controlled or considered an opioid itself. A naloxone injection may be administered in a medical emergency.

Naloxone has been available in injection form to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose for more than 40 years. Prior naloxone treatments required administration via a syringe and needle and were most commonly used by trained medical personnel.

Today, naloxone also comes as a nasal spray called Narcan Nasal to make this life-saving drug more user-friendly.

In fact, all states have now passed legislation designed to improve lay-person naloxone access. In all U.S. states, naloxone can be accessed at the pharmacy either through a standing prescription order, pharmacist prescribing or can be dispensed without a prescription, according to the National Alliance of State Pharmacy Associations (NASPA).

A new high-dose formulation called Zimhi (naloxone hydrochloride 5 mg/0.5 mL) was approved in Nov. 2021.

  • Zimhi is supplied as a single-dose, prefilled syringe and given via intramuscular or subcutaneous injection into the thigh, through clothing if necessary.
  • An additional dose may be given if there is no response after 2-3 minutes. Zimhi is to be given right away by a caregiver and does not take the place of emergency medical care.
  • Common side effects include nausea, dizziness, lightheadedness, and elevated bilirubin levels.
  • Zimhi is expected to launch in the first quarter of 2022.

If you use opioids, are being treated for opioid use disorder, or live in the same household as someone who does, there should be immediate access to naloxone for overdose emergencies. Speak to your pharmacist, doctor, or other healthcare provider about how you can have quick access to naloxone. Learn how naloxone works and how to use it in the event of an overdose emergency.

Learn More: Know Your Naloxone: Save a Life

Lucemyra: First Non-Opioid for Opioid Withdrawal Symptoms

In May 2018 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Lucemyra (lofexidine hydrochloride) to reduce the severity of opiate withdrawal symptoms and allow a more abrupt discontinuation in adults.

It is NOT a treatment for opioid use disorder (OUD) but is approved to help manage OUD. Withdrawal symptoms typically peak the first 5 to 7 days following the last use of an opioid.

  • Lucemyra is an oral, central alpha 2-adrenergic receptor agonist that helps to block the release of norepinephrine, a chemical neurotransmitter in the brain thought to contribute to opiate withdrawal symptoms.
  • While Lucemyra may lessen symptoms of withdrawal (such as yawning, pounding heartbeats, anxiety, nausea, stomach cramps, watery eyes, feeling cold, stomach pain, and sleep problems), it may not completely reverse them and can only be used for 14 days. It should be slowly discontinued with a gradual dose reduction over 2 to 4 days.
  • Opioid withdrawal can occur both in patients who use prescribed opioids appropriately and in OUD.

See: Lucemyra dosing, warnings and side effect information

What Can You Do About the Opioid Epidemic?

If you think you are addicted or dependent on opioids, or know someone who is, speak to a healthcare provider and know that there are steps that can be taken to reverse your drug use. Help is available. The first step is taking charge of the situation to get help. It's not easy, but if you follow these recommendations you will be on your way:

  1. Commit to quitting the use of opioids: if you are ready to take the steps to control your behavior, the path will be easier.
  2. Get help from a trusted healthcare professional first. Your doctor may be able to prescribe medicine that will help to lessen the cravings for the opioid drug, and lead you through a more safe and successful treatment plan.
  3. Get support through addiction counseling and talk with others. Organizations in the US are committed to helping people who have problematic opioid use. They have experience in helping people get their lives and relationships back on track and putting opioid use in their past. Ask your family, friends and partners for support, too.

Additional Resources:

Finished: Opioid Use Disorder: These Treatments Are Available, Now

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Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.