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Withdrawal From Opiates

used under the public domain from SAMHSA TIP 19

This informational page does not provide a diagnosis of drug abuse, drug dependence, or any other coexisting medical condition. The information provided here cannot substitute for a full evaluation by a certified substance abuse counselor, doctor, or drug rehab facility. It should only be used as a guide to understanding your alcohol use, drug use, and some treatment options that are available if you go to a addiction rehab facility. Information is provided here for harm reduction and educational purposes only.

Opiate Abstinence Syndromes

Signs and symptoms of withdrawal from heroin or morphine begin 8 to 12 hours following the patient’s last dose. They subside over a period of 5 to 7 days.

Signs and symptoms of withdrawal from methadone begin 12 hours after the patient’s last dose. The peak intensity occurs on the third day of abstinence or later. Symptoms gradually subside, but may continue for 3 weeks or longer. Methadone abstinence syndrome develops more slowly and is more prolonged but usually less intense than other opiate abstinence syndromes.

In July 1993, the FDA approved levo-alpha-acetylmethadol (LAAM) for use as a maintenance medication. It is a Schedule II controlled substance, which categorizes it as a medication with medical uses but also with a high potential for abuse. Few studies have addressed the medically supervised withdrawal of LAAM patients to a drug-free state. Withdrawal from LAAM produces similar symptoms to those produced by withdrawal from methadone.

Opiate addicts should undergo drug abuse treatment the soonest possible time to avoid suffering its effects.

Medication Treatment for Opiate Withdrawal


Clonidine (Catapres), a medication marketed for the treatment of hypertension, has been used for treatment of the symptoms of opiate withdrawal since 1978 (Gold et al., 1978). Although clonidine has not yet been approved by the FDA for treatment of opiate withdrawal, its use has become standard clinical practice (Alling, 1992).

Clonidine has some practical advantages over methadone for treating narcotic withdrawal, particularly in drug-free programs (Clark and Longmuir, 1986). These advantages include the following:

  • It is not a scheduled medication.
  • The use of opiates can be discontinued immediately in preparation for naltrexone induction or admission to a drug-free treatment program (e.g., a therapeutic community).
  • It does not produce opiate euphoria, and patients’ need for drugs is therefore reduced.

Although clonidine alleviates some symptoms of opiate withdrawal, it is not effective for muscle aches, insomnia, or drug craving. These symptoms require additional medication.

An appropriate protocol for clonidine is 0.1 mg administered orally as a test dose (0.2 mg for patients weighing more than 200 pounds). If the patient’s symptoms are acute, the sublingual route of administration may be used. Clinicians should check the patient’s blood pressure after 45 minutes. If diastolic blood pressure is normal for the patient and the patient has no signs of orthostatic hypotension (a drop in systolic blood pressure of 10 mm hg upon standing), the patient may continue clonidine, 0.1 to 0.2 mg orally every 4 to 6 hours. Clonidine is most effective when used for opiate detoxification in an inpatient setting, as side effects can be monitored more closely.

Clonidine transdermal patch. In 1986, a transdermal patch containing clonidine (Catapres-TTS) was approved for use in the United States for the treatment of hypertension. However, addiction specialists quickly grasped its potential for treatment of opiate withdrawal. Although the clonidine patch is commonly used for detoxification, several panelists and reviewers were concerned that the safety of the patch for treatment of opiate withdrawal has not been sufficiently studied in controlled clinical trials. If patients receive too much clonidine from the patch and become hypotensive, the effects are not rapidly reversed even when the patch is removed. Alling(1992) recommends the use of clonidine only if the patient’s blood pressure is monitored regularly.

The clonidine patch is a 0.2 mm square that is applied in the same manner as a self-adhesive bandage. It is available in three sizes: 3.5, 7.0, and 10.5 cm2. In a 24-hour period, these patches deliver an amount of clonidine equivalent to twice-daily dosing with 0.1, 0.2, or 0.3 mg of oral clonidine, respectively. Once the patch is placed on the epidermal surface, clonidine enters the circulatory system through the skin. A rate-limiting membrane within the patch governs the maximum amount absorbed. The patch supplies clonidine for up to 7 days. One application of the patch is sufficient.

In a recovery-oriented treatment program, the transdermal patch offers some advantages over oral clonidine. First, it minimizes drug cravings. Nurses in chemical dependency units often interpret patient requests for medications differently than do nurses in a medical or surgical hospital. In a chemical dependency unit, nurses often perceive these requests as drug-seeking behavior, and the result may be a confrontation with the patient about whether or not the medication is needed. For this reason, the use of “as needed” medications should be minimized.

A second advantage of the transdermal patch is that it eliminates disruptions caused by administration of medication. Oral clonidine must be administered several times each day, and chemical dependency counselors often report that groups or counseling sessions are disrupted when patients leave to obtain their medication.

The patch overcomes the problem of missed doses. Asymptomatic patients may forget to go to nurses’ stations at scheduled times or miss doses when they are attending outside activities.

The patch also prevents the buildup of withdrawal symptoms during the night. Patients who miss doses of oral clonidine during the night because the nurses are reluctant to wake them sometimes experience opiate withdrawal upon awakening. The patch continues to deliver clonidine throughout the night.

For reasons such as these, staff and patients often prefer the patch over oral clonidine. Patients treated with oral clonidine appear to have more withdrawal symptoms than those treated with transdermal patches. However, controlled studies have not yet confirmed these findings.


Methadone can be used for withdrawal from heroin, fentanyl, or any other opiate. For certain patient populations, including those with many treatment failures, methadone is the treatment of choice. Methadone generally is not used with adolescents because FDA regulations prohibit its use with this age group (except in rare exceptions). In this population, there are high risks of addiction and promotion of drug-seeking behavior.

There are numerous methadone success stories out there, click here to read some of them, from people who have successfully used the drug to take back their lives by ending the control that heroin, or other opiate addictions had over them. The purpose of enrolling in a methadone program is for these individuals to receive help transitioning into a drug-free lifestyle, and in many cases, this is not possible without this type of maintenance program. The majority of these maintenance programs also make use of counseling and therapy, which could be a contributing factor to the success rate of methadone treatment.

Opiate-dependent inpatients who are being treated for an acute medical illness can be administered methadone for prevention of opiate withdrawal if opiate withdrawal would complicate treatment of their medical conditions. The withdrawal protocols using methadone vary, depending on the setting.

Inpatient drug treatment program licensed for methadone detoxification. A starting dose of 30 to 40 mg per day of oral methadone is adequate to prevent severe withdrawal symptoms in most opiate-dependent patients. The methadone is administered four times daily, beginning with 10 mg doses, and the patient is observed for 2 hours following each dose. If the patient is sleepy, the next dose is decreased to 5 mg. If the patient shows objective signs of opiate withdrawal, the dose is increased to 15 mg. After 24 hours, the methadone is withdrawn by 5 mg per day; thus, most patients are withdrawn over 8 days.

Methadone can be administered for detoxification only in a hospital or in an outpatient program that is licensed for methadone detoxification. Opiate-dependent inpatients who are being treated for an acute medical illness can be administered methadone for prevention of opiate withdrawal if opiate withdrawal would complicate treatment of their medical conditions.

Outpatient methadone detoxification clinics. In an outpatient clinic, treatment staff usually administer medication no more than twice a day. Thus 20 mg of methadone, given orally twice daily, is a good starting point. To prevent an unacceptable level of withdrawal symptoms, some outpatients may need up to 60 mg of methadone per day administered in divided doses. After the second day, the methadone is tapered by 2.5 mg per day.

Federal regulations governing methadone detoxification. As of 1989, Federal regulations allow short-term methadone detoxification of 30 days and long-term detoxification of 180 days. As the State methadone licensing agencies develop regulations that parallel the Federal regulations, State-licensed methadone programs can implement long-term methadone detoxification.

Federal regulations allow physicians to administer (but not prescribe) narcotics for the purpose of relieving acute withdrawal symptoms while arrangements are being made for referral for treatment. Not more than 1 day’s medication may be administered to the person or for the person’s use at one time. Such emergency treatment may be carried out for not more than 3 days and may not be renewed or extended (21 C.F.R. Part 1306.07). Thus, under Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) guidelines, in States that allow the prescription of narcotics, a physician may administer methadone for 3 days without a special license if the patient is experiencing acute withdrawal symptoms and cannot be immediately referred for treatment. This is considered an emergency situation.

Short-term detoxification. In a short-term detoxification regimen, patients are not allowed to take their methadone home. The initial treatment plan and periodic treatment plan evaluation required for maintenance patients are not necessary; however, the program must assign a primary counselor to monitor a patient’s progress toward the goal of short-term detoxification and to provide a drug treatment referral.

A patient is required to wait at least 7 days between concluding a short-term detoxification treatment episode and beginning another. Before a short-term detoxification attempt is repeated, the program physician must document in the patient’s record that the patient continues to be or is again physiologically dependent on narcotics. These requirements apply to both inpatient and outpatient short-term detoxification treatment.

Long-term detoxification. Federal methadone treatment guidelines define long-term detoxification treatment as longer than 30 days but not in excess of 180 days. For long-term detoxification, the opioid must be administered by the program physician or by an authorized agent who is supervised by and under the orders of the physician. The drug must be administered on a regimen designed to help the patient reach a drug-free state and to make progress in rehabilitation in 180 days or fewer. The following conditions apply:

  • During detoxification, the patient must be under observation while ingesting the methadone for at least 6 days a week.
  • Before long-term detoxification can begin, the program physician must document in the patient’s record that short-term detoxification is not a sufficiently long enough treatment course to provide the patient with the additional program services that will be necessary for the patient’s rehabilitation.
  • An initial drug screen is required for each patient. At least one additional random urine test or analysis must be performed monthly.
  • An initial treatment plan and monthly treatment plan evaluation are required.
  • A patient is required to wait at least 7 days after concluding a long-term treatment episode before beginning another. Before a long-term detoxification attempt is repeated, the program physician must document in the patient’s record that the patient continues to be or is again physiologically dependent on narcotic drugs.

These requirements apply to both inpatient and ambulatory long-term detoxification treatment.

In a critical study published in 1977, Senay and colleagues (Senay et al., 1977) suggested that “a slow rate of withdrawal, extending 6 or more months, may result in a greater percentage of patients reaching abstinence and maintaining a drug-free status.” However, the 180-day detoxification protocol has not received adequate study. More research is needed to compare its effectiveness with that of shorter regimens. Also, the issue of appropriate dosage is still under investigation. A randomized, double-blind clinical trial comparing the effect of 80 mg to 40 mg doses of methadone in patients enrolled in a 180-day program did not show statistically significant differences in retention between the two dosage levels (Banys et al., 1994).


As mentioned previously, in July, 1993 the FDA approved LAAM for use as a maintenance medication. The trade name of LAAM is ORLAAM.

Until August, 1993, LAAM was a Schedule I controlled substance, which is defined as a drug with a high abuse potential but with no recognized medical use. In August, 1993 the DEA reclassified it as a Schedule II controlled substance, defined as a medication with medical uses as well as a high potential for abuse (21 C.F.R. Part 1308).

FDA methadone regulations have been revised (58 Fed. Reg. 38706 Part July 20, 1993) to allow use of LAAM (21 C.F.R. Part 291). The regulations for LAAM are similar to those for methadone, with two exceptions: Take-home doses of LAAM are not allowed, and LAAM cannot be administered to pregnant women. Patients who need take-home doses must be switched to methadone. Like methadone, LAAM may be dispensed only by licensed AOD abuse treatment clinics (21 C.F.R. ‘291.505).

LAAM is a prodrug with little opiate activity. This means that its opiate effects are produced by its long-acting metabolites, nor-LAAM and dinor-LAAM. Since LAAM itself is not a potent opiate, oral ingestion or intravenous injection of LAAM does not produce rapid onset of opiate effects as does the ingestion of methadone, heroin, morphine, and most other opiates.

Take-home doses of LAAM are not allowed, and LAAM cannot be administered to pregnant women. Patients who need take-home doses must be switched to methadone. Like methadone, LAAM may be dispensed only by licensed treatment clinics.

Discontinuation from LAAM maintenance. The metabolites of LAAM are long-acting, and gradual discontinuation of LAAM will result in a slow decline in the plasma levels of nor-LAAM and dinor-LAAM and in the emergence of opiate withdrawal symptoms. Maintenance treatment with LAAM produces significant levels of dependence of the opiate type; therefore, discontinuation of LAAM requires management of opiate withdrawal. Few studies have addressed the medically supervised withdrawal of LAAM patients to a drug-free state. However, no evidence exists to suggest that withdrawal from LAAM is different than withdrawal from methadone or any other opioid. Because LAAM is longer acting than methadone, withdrawal will have a delayed onset and protracted course, although it may be less intense than withdrawal from methadone. Patients, however, tend to perceive a longer period as being “worse,” whether the actual intensity of symptoms is greater or not. Special counseling may be needed to address this aspect of withdrawal from LAAM.

The LAAM dose can be reduced gradually at a rate determined by the patient’s response. As an alternative, patients who want to withdraw from LAAM treatment can be converted to methadone (at 80 percent of their LAAM dose) with minimal difficulty (Ling et al., 1980). The key consideration may be the patient’s support system; take-home methadone entails fewer clinic visits. Although patients can visit the clinic on nondose days for support services only, they are less likely to do so without the incentive of receiving medication. Another option is the use of clonidine in the dosage regimen described previously for treatment of heroin withdrawal, to assist in discontinuing use of LAAM. When involuntary withdrawal from medication is unavoidable, patients should switch to methadone before withdrawal begins.

Heroin detoxification with LAAM. Although there is substantial medical literature reporting clinical trials with LAAM in treatment of heroin withdrawal, the FDA has not approved LAAM for use in heroin detoxification. It should, therefore, be used for heroin detoxification only under an Investigational New Drug (IND) exemption. Because LAAM takes from 8 to 12 hours to produce significant opiate effects, it is not a good choice for treatment of acute heroin withdrawal symptoms. Addicts may become impatient while waiting for LAAM to relieve their opiate withdrawal symptoms and may self-medicate their withdrawal symptoms with heroin. As the opiate effects of LAAM develop, the combined effects of heroin and LAAM may result in a life-threatening overdose. Treatment providers may prefer to begin heroin detoxification by stabilizing the patient on methadone, then switch to LAAM for gradual discontinuation over 21 to 180 days. LAAM’s long duration of effect makes it a logical option for this process. Additional research to determine how to optimally use LAAM for detoxification is necessary.

Although there is substantial medical literature reporting clinical trials with LAAM in the treatment of heroin withdrawal, the FDA has not approved LAAM for use in heroin detoxification.
The FDA has approved buprenorphine for the treatment of pain, and it is being investigated as a treatment for opiate dependence and detoxification. Buprenorphine is a potent analgesic that is available by prescription as a sublingual tablet in many parts of the world. In the United States, it is available by prescription as an analgesic in an injectable form (Buprenex). The doses of buprenorphine under investigation for maintenance treatment are considerably higher than those commonly prescribed for treatment of pain.

Buprenorphine has an unusual pharmacological profile that makes it attractive for the treatment of opiate dependence, and its potential was recognized as early as 1978 (Jasinski et al., 1978). The level of physical dependence produced by buprenorphine is not as great as that produced by methadone or heroin; therefore, most patients find buprenorphine easier to discontinue than methadone. Some patients can eventually be switched from buprenorphine maintenance to treatment with an opiate antagonist such as naltrexone.

Buprenorphine is safer than methadone or LAAM if an overdose is ingested. Its opiate effects appear to plateau at 16 mg (Walsh et al., 1994). Although it is used intravenously by heroin addicts in countries where the sublingual tablet is legally available as an analgesic (San et al., 1992), its abuse potential appears to be substantially less than that of methadone or heroin. And though it is currently an experimental drug with regard to its use in detoxification, buprenorphine may soon be approved by the FDA.

Discontinuation from buprenorphine maintenance. Buprenorphine produces physical dependence of the opiate type. The dosages of patients who have been maintained on buprenorphine for treatment of opiate dependence or chronic pain must be tapered. The onset of withdrawal symptoms is generally delayed for at least 24 hours, and peak intensity of withdrawal symptoms may not occur for 5 days or more. The intensity of withdrawal symptoms is generally less than that following methadone discontinuation. Buprenorphine can be discontinued by tapering the dosage to zero over 7 to 21 days. Symptoms also may be ameliorated with clonidine, particularly toward the end of the taper (Pickworth et al., 1993).

Buprenorphine for heroin detoxification. Buprenorphine has been used successfully to detoxify heroin addicts in a number of clinical trials (Bickel et al., 1988) and to assist with methadone discontinuation (Banys et al., 1994).

In 1985, buprenorphine was classified as a Schedule V narcotic (21 C.F.R. § 1308.15(b). A narcotic is defined by the Controlled Substance Act of 1984 as a class of drugs containing opiates and cocaine, 21 U.S.C. § 802(17). The narcotic classification is important because Federal law permits prescription of a narcotic to narcotic addicts only in specially licensed treatment programs (21 C.F.R. § 291.505). The sole exception is that when a patient is admitted to a hospital for treatment of an acute medical condition (not solely addiction to drugs) he or she may be administered narcotics to prevent opiate withdrawal.

Because buprenorphine has already been approved by the FDA for treatment of pain, physicians could use it in clinical practice, even for unapproved indications, if it were not classified as a narcotic. Until buprenorphine receives FDA approval for treatment of opiate dependence, it should be prescribed for opiate dependence only under an FDA-approved IND exemption. Physicians may be prosecuted for prescribing, dispensing, or administering buprenorphine for treatment of opiate dependence or withdrawal. State medical licensing boards also may discipline physicians for prescribing buprenorphine for treatment of opiate dependence, absent an IND.

Under investigation. Sublingual tablets containing naloxone and buprenorphine are under investigation for use as treatments for opiate dependency. Since the opiate antagonist naloxone would block the immediate effect of buprenorphine, the combination would be less subject to abuse than buprenorphine alone. If patients dissolve the sublingual tablets, mix them with naloxone, and inject them, they would get no immediate opiate effects. Some buprenorphine opiate effects would eventually occur, however, because naloxone is more rapidly metabolized than buprenorphine. If a dosage form can be developed that minimizes the potential for diversion, buprenorphine could become the first opiate maintenance medication that could be prescribed as part of general medical practice.

Because buprenorphine has already been approved by the FDA for treatment of pain, physicians could use it in clinical practice, even for unapproved indications, if it were not classified as a narcotic.


In the 1970s, dextropropoxyphene (Darvon) was among the medications used for opiate withdrawal. Because of abuse of dextropropoxyphene by addicts, the DEA reclassified it as a Schedule IV narcotic, narcotic, 21 C.F.R. Part 1308 (1980). The narcotic classification prohibits its use for treatment of opiate dependency in routine clinical practice.

Terminating Opiate Maintenance Treatment

Patients on opiate maintenance are sometimes discontinued from medication for disciplinary reasons. This situation is often awkward for both the program and the patient, particularly if the patient is abusive, threatening, and/or potentially violent.

Involuntary Termination of Opiate Maintenance

The program manager should develop and post prominently on the program premises at least one copy of a written policy covering criteria for involuntary termination from treatment. This policy should describe patients’ rights and responsibilities as well as those of program staff. At the time a patient enters treatment, a staff member designated by the program director should inform the patient about the policy and where it is posted. The staff person should inform patients of the conditions under which they might be involuntarily terminated from treatment and of their rights under the termination procedure.

The medication discontinuation should not occur so rapidly that the patient experiences severe opiate withdrawal symptoms. Treatment staff should taper the methadone dosage until the patient is receiving 30 to 40 mg a day. At this point, treatment with clonidine and other medications may begin.

Voluntary Termination of Opiate Maintenance

Patients in methadone treatment, like others who are receiving daily medication on a long-term basis, should be evaluated periodically regarding the risks and benefits of their therapy. For some persons, eventual withdrawal from methadone maintenance is a realistic goal.

Research and clinical experience have not yet identified all the critical variables that determine when a patient can be withdrawn from methadone and remain drug-free. A decision to withdraw voluntarily from methadone maintenance must, therefore, be left to the patient and to the clinical judgment of the physician. Staff should encourage the patient to remain in the program for as long as necessary.

Alternatives to Medication


While some clinicians consider acupuncture an acceptable primary detoxification treatment for opiate abusers, there are few controlled studies that support this. Acupuncture can be a useful treatment adjunct to methadone or clonidine detoxification. One study found that “Increased use of acupuncture therapy not only may be an effective adjunct to therapy in current programs for patients with persistent craving for alcohol, but also may allow treatment to be extended to a large group of recidivist alcoholics for whom current therapies are not effective” (Bullock et al., 1989).

Auricular (ear) acupuncture has been used in treatment of opiate withdrawal since 1972, and it is done in clinics throughout the world. “The use of auricular acupuncture in treating acute drug withdrawal began in Hong Kong in 1972. It was used sporadically throughout the United States during the 1970s, and some experimentation with acupuncture was conducted at the Haight Asbury Free Clinic in San Francisco (Seymour and Smith, 1987). But it has been at Lincoln Hospital in New York, under the guidance of Michael O. Smith, M.D., director of the hospital’s division of substance abuse, that the protocol has been refined and expanded and has taken its firmer root” (Brumbaugh, 1993). It is difficult to conduct rigorous double-blind controlled studies with acupuncture because the acupuncturist must insert the needles into very precise locations.

One study (Washburn et al., 1993) compared standard acupuncture with “sham” acupuncture (needles were inserted into points geographically close to standard points). Dropout rates were high in both groups; however, more subjects were retained in the standard than in the “sham” group. Subjects in the standard group also attended the clinic more frequently. According to Washburn and colleagues Of significance was the finding that lighter users attended the acupuncture clinic more days and over a longer period of time than those with heavier habits. Subjects who injected heroin at least three times a day apparently found that acupuncture did not help relieve withdrawal symptoms or reduce craving and, thus, terminated treatment early. That this was true for subjects in both the standard and sham groups suggests that the heroin users may have had little expectation that a drug-free treatment modality would help them. . . . indeed, we found that individuals who injected heroin at least three times a day were less likely to volunteer to participate in the study than were the lighter users. . . . Some of the clients receiving treatment beyond the detoxification episode were using acupuncture as an adjunct to methadone detoxification and maintenance; others seemed to seek additional treatment to detoxify after relapse to heroin use. (Washburn et al., 1993)

Until controlled clinical data indicate otherwise, acupuncture must be viewed as an adjunctive treatment to detoxification.

One study (Washburn et al., 1993) compared standard acupuncture with “sham” acupuncture. Dropout rates were high in both groups; however, more subjects were retained in the standard than in the “sham” group.

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