Heroin addiction is one of the most difficult illnesses to overcome. Relapse rates are very high, and overdose rates are likewise high, particularly when the user is also using pharmaceutical opioids. In order to begin a successful recovery, addicts must first detoxify. Tapering off is very difficult, and often not successful, and the most effective method of beginning recovery begins with a radical, cold-turkey detoxification.

Given that heroin detoxification is so difficult, it’s best for heroin users to enter a medical detox facility where they are ensured the care they need. Doctors can help ease the more difficult aspects of the process, and there is no avenue for relapse, as there might be if the addict tries to detox at home alone.

Detox Only?

Some choose to enter a short-term heroin detox clinic and then go home to resume their lives. While this is a valid choice that many make, there is little long-term efficacy to this option. However, a working parent often doesn’t have the option of an inpatient, or intensive outpatient rehabilitation program. In that case, a detox-only approach can be the best hope for recovery from heroin addiction.

The chances of recovery increase for those who exit detox and immediately enter a 12-step program. This is a free option and there are many in 12-step programs who are willing to help addicts who are earnest about helping themselves. The chief advantage of this approach is that it is very low-cost. 12-step programs are free, and even offer free coffee.

How Long Does Detox Take?

The length of heroin detoxification is generally about 5 days. However, a person can be functional after only 3 days, or as little as a matter of hours. What this means is that the drug will be fully cleansed from one’s body after this short period, not that the person will be fully recovered from the disease of addiction.

While heroin detox often involves a grueling period of 3-5 days that is painful and distressing, there is a rapid detox method available for addicts. This process involves anesthesia and other medications. While many professionals consider this method efficient and effective, the National Institute of Drug Addiction found that the pain and struggle of withdrawal was not lessened by the medical procedure. Thus, addicts should reconsider before electing this option that is not likely to ease their withdrawal pain.

Additionally, the lingering psychological triggers and patterns of drug dependence remain no matter the detox method. They, too, must be addressed in some direct manner so that the addict does not have to endure the pain of withdrawal yet again. After all, once detox is completed, life’s stressors will invariably return. Those stressors are often exactly what trigger addicts to return to the needle, bottle, or pill.

What Happens During Detox?

During the detox period, the addict is first faced with the physical and emotional pain of withdrawal. Their heroin cravings will feel insurmountable. They might sweat and experience high anxiety. Some have been known to hallucinate and experience deluded thinking. They may try to manipulate others into giving them “just a taste” of their beloved heroin.

In a medical setting, heroin abusers are commonly given drugs to alleviate painful withdrawal symptoms. Buprenorphine (also known as Suboxone, among other names) is a drug commonly used with heroin and opiate drug abusers. This drug tricks the body into thinking it has plenty of its beloved opiate drug. Thus, they do not experience the pain and anguish that accompanies full withdrawal. With Buprenorphine, most addicts are able to relax and focus on other matters, such as classes related to relapse prevention, psychological counseling, or even 12-step meetings.

Buprenorphine is also used in the heat of a heroin overdose. The drug will immediately detach the opiates from the brain receptors and end the overdose immediately. In fact, it is a good idea for all heroin or opioid users to keep this drug handy in case they or a friend overdoses. Buprenorphine is also known as naloxone or narcan, and can come in a nasal spray for easy administration.

Post-Detox Options

Once the pain of withdrawal has passed and the body is free of heroin, there are many options available for the recovering heroin addict. She might elect an inpatient rehabilitation program, an outpatient program, or might simply go home or to a 12-step program.

The inpatient rehabilitation is more likely to be recommended by the staff of their detox facility. There, patients will be free from worldly distractions and thus able to focus on their recovery. Their days will be full of counseling and education related to drug addiction and recovery. They may have classes that review 12-step literature and others that attack the issue of relapse. At night, patients might attend 12-step meetings, or engage in some other recovery-related activity.

Outpatient programs can take many different forms. They might include day-long treatment schedules that are similar to their inpatient cousins. However, patients will return home at night to be with their families. Some even continue working during an outpatient program and attend counseling in the evenings, or as available.

Others may not have the time or financial resources for either an inpatient or outpatient program and will thus return home to face their addiction on their own. They do have the opportunity to attend free 12-step meetings in their community. These meetings will enable them to find fellowship among fellow travelers. Further, with the help of a sponsor, recovering heroin addicts can work the steps and find the sense of freedom they always sought in the needle, but which never materialized.

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