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Opioid Use Disorder and Rehabilitation


Gerald F. O’Malley

, DO, Grand Strand Regional Medical Center;

Rika O’Malley

, MD, Albert Einstein Medical Center

Last full review/revision May 2020
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Heroin is commonly abused, and abuse of prescription analgesic opioids (eg, morphine, oxycodone, hydrocodone, fentanyl) is increasing; some of the increase is due to people who began taking them for legitimate medical purposes. Patients with chronic pain Chronic Pain Chronic pain is pain that persists or recurs for > 3 months, persists > 1 month after resolution of an acute tissue injury, or accompanies a nonhealing lesion. Causes include chronic disorders... read more requiring long-term use should not be routinely labeled addicts, although they commonly have tolerance and physical dependence. People who take opioids parenterally are at risk of all the complications of injection drug use Complications A number of drugs of abuse are given by injection to achieve a more rapid or potent effect or both. Drugs are typically injected IV but may be injected subcutaneously, IM, or even sublingually... read more .

The problem of opioid use is a global concern, and in the US specifically, opioid use and deaths from overdose have increased significantly over recent years.

Opioid use disorder

Opioid use disorder involves compulsive, long-term self-administration of opioids for nonmedical purposes. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) considers opioid use disorder to be present if the pattern of use causes clinically significant impairment or distress as manifested by the presence of ≥ 2 of the following over a 12-month period:

Treatment of Opioid Use Disorder and Rehabilitation

Physicians must be fully aware of federal, state, and local regulations concerning use of an opioid drug to treat an addict. To comply, physicians must establish the existence of physical opioid dependence. In the US, treatment is further complicated by negative societal attitudes toward addicts (including the attitudes of law enforcement officers, physicians, and other health care practitioners) and toward treatment programs, which some view as abetting drug consumption. In most cases, physicians should refer opioid-dependent patients to specialized treatment centers. If trained to do so, physicians may provide office-based treatment for selected patients.

In European countries, access to methadone or buprenorphine maintenance programs and alternative maintenance strategies is easier, and the stigma attached to prescribing psychoactive drugs is less.


Long-term maintenance using an oral opioid such as methadone or buprenorphine (an opioid agonist-antagonist) is an alternative to opioid substitution with tapering. Oral opioids suppress withdrawal symptoms and drug craving without providing a significant high or oversedation and, by eliminating the supply problems of addicts, enable them to be socially productive.

In the US, thousands of opioid addicts are in licensed methadone maintenance programs. For many, such programs work. However, because the participants continue to take an opioid, many people in society disapprove of these programs.

Eligibility criteria include the following:

  • A positive drug screen for opioids

  • Physical dependence for > 1 year of continuous opioid use or intermittent use for even longer

  • Evidence of withdrawal or physical findings confirming drug use

Clinicians and patients need to decide whether a withdrawal (detoxification) or opioid maintenance approach is indicated. Generally, patients with severe, chronic, relapsing dependence do much better with opioid maintenance. Withdrawal and detoxification Withdrawal and detoxification Opioids are euphoriants that, in high doses, cause sedation and respiratory depression. Respiratory depression can be managed with specific antidotes (eg, naloxone) or with endotracheal intubation... read more , although effective in the short term, have poor outcomes in patients with severe opioid dependence. Whichever course is chosen, it must be accompanied by ongoing counseling and supportive measures.

Methadone is commonly used. Physicians can begin the substitution, but then use of methadone must be supervised in a licensed methadone treatment program.

Buprenorphine is being used increasingly for maintenance. Its effectiveness is comparable to that of methadone, and because it blocks receptors, it inhibits concomitant illicit use of heroin or other opioids. Buprenorphine can be prescribed for office-based treatment by specially trained physicians, including primary care physicians, who have received the required training and have been certified by the federal government.

The typical dosage of buprenorphine is an 8- or 16-mg sublingual tablet once/day. Many patients prefer this option because it eliminates the need for attending a methadone clinic. Buprenorphine is also available in combination with naloxone; the addition of naloxone may further discourage illicit opioid use. The combination formulation is used in office-based treatment.

The US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) provides additional information on buprenorphine and the training required to qualify for a waiver to prescribe the drug. Protocols for using buprenorphine for detoxification or maintenance therapy are available for download at the US Department of Health and Human Services.

Naltrexone, an opioid antagonist, blocks the effects of heroin and other opioids. The usual dosage is 50 mg orally once/day or 350 mg/week orally in 2 or 3 divided doses. A once-monthly depot IM formulation is also available. Because naltrexone is an opioid antagonist and has no direct agonist effects on opioid receptors, naltrexone is often unacceptable to opioid-dependent patients, especially those who have chronic, relapsing opioid dependence. For such patients, opioid maintenance treatment is much more effective.

Naltrexone may be useful for patients with less severe dependence, early-stage opioid dependence, and strong motivation to remain abstinent. For example, opioid-dependent health care practitioners whose future employment is at risk if opioid use persists may be excellent candidates for naltrexone.

Levomethadyl acetate (LAAM), a longer-acting opioid related to methadone, is no longer used because it causes QT-interval abnormalities in some patients. LAAM could be used only 3 times/week, thereby reducing the expense and problems of daily client visits or take-home drugs. A dose of 100 mg 3 times/week is comparable to methadone 80 mg once/day.


Most treatment of opioid dependence occurs in outpatient settings, typically in licensed opioid maintenance programs but increasingly in physician’s offices.

The therapeutic community concept, pioneered by such centers as Samaritan Daytop Village and Phoenix House, involves nondrug treatment in communal residential centers, where drug users receive training, education, and redirection to help them build new lives. Residency is usually 15 months. These communities have helped, even transformed, some users. However, initial dropout rates are extremely high. Questions of how well these communities work, how many will be opened, and how much funding society will give remain unanswered.

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