Can You Recover From Heroin Addiction?
Yes, you can recover from a heroin addiction.
Specific interventions and treatments can help you get sober and start on the road to recovery. For most people, research has shown that a combination of medication and supportive services, changes in lifestyle, and professional treatment offers the best chance at recovery.1
Even though addiction is a relapsing disease, it can be managed. Relapse rates for addiction are similar to other chronic, relapsing conditions, such as diabetes or high blood pressure. For example, the percentage of relapse for those with diabetes is between 30-50%, while the relapse rate for those with a drug addiction is between 40-60%.2
Studies report varying rates of heroin relapse and, in some cases, the numbers are quite high. One study found a 60% relapse rate in people who had recently left treatment for heroin addiction. Those who avoided relapse made consistent use of different therapies offered in treatment.3
But relapse rates, no matter how high, shouldn’t discourage people from seeking treatment. Relapse doesn’t mean that treatment has been unsuccessful. Rather, it means that the person’s treatment needs to be re-evaluated and changed. Just as with diabetes or other chronic diseases, people in recovery from heroin addiction benefit from ongoing treatment, regular evaluation of recovery progress, and assessment for any challenges to continued sobriety.2
Detox is quite often the first phase of treatment for people who have used heroin for a significant amount of time. It’s the process of letting the user’s body eliminate any remaining traces of the drug while managing withdrawal symptoms. People who have detoxed are able to begin treatment without the distraction of coming off the drug.
The safest way to detox is under the care of medical professionals. They can supervise the person and tend to any possible complications. They may also prescribe medications—see “Medication” section below—that can help control the symptoms of withdrawal and make it more comfortable.
Medical detox can not only lower the risks of withdrawal, but put the person in an environment where they don’t have access to the drug, eliminating the possibility of relapse.
Counseling and Therapy
Once a person in recovery has successfully detoxed from heroin, it is recommended that they continue treatment with therapy/counseling.
The goal of heroin addiction counseling is to delve into the personal history of the person, get an understanding of what triggers them to use heroin, and formulate a plan that helps them deal effectively with situations that could lead to more heroin use.
Some of the types of therapy commonly used to treat heroin addiction are the following:1
- Individual therapy helps you examine the issues that contributed to your substance abuse by working one-on-one with a therapist. You’ll set goals and discuss other issues such as family or legal problems.
- Group therapy helps you gain support and feedback from others who are also on their journey to recovery. You can also find new ways to cope with addiction by hearing about the experiences of others.
- Family therapy is used to help people look at and work through problems in family dynamics that can lead to or affect substance abuse.
The most effective therapies for heroin addiction include:4, 5
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). In this form of treatment, you learn to identify and change maladaptive or unhealthy thoughts and behaviors and develop new and healthier coping skills.
- Contingency management. This type of therapy helps people stay motivated in treatment using positive reinforcement, such as vouchers for negative drug tests.
Depending on your needs and preferences, you can choose between an inpatient or outpatient treatment setting. Inpatient treatment involves 24-hour care and medical support, while outpatient treatment involves regularly scheduled visits to a treatment center. Inpatient treatment is usually best suited for those with more severe addictions who require a high level of support and monitoring, and/or those who have co-occurring disorders (such as bipolar disorder or major depressive disorder).6
Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is one of the most effective approaches to managing heroin addiction and maintaining your recovery. MAT is a combined treatment of medication and counseling. Evidence shows it helps reduce crime, overdose death rates, and risk of relapse.1
Some of the medications commonly used in MAT for heroin addiction include:1, 7
- Methadone. This is a long-acting medication known as an opioid agonist, which means it attaches to the same receptors in your brain that are activated by heroin. Methadone is very effective for many people, especially those with long histories of opioid abuse. It helps reduce cravings and prevents withdrawal symptoms and must be dispensed by an approved opioid treatment program.
- Buprenorphine. This medication is known as a partial opioid agonist, which means that it activates the same receptors in your brain as heroin, but not to the same extent. There is an upper limit to buprenorphine’s opioid effects and, as such, there is less risk of overdose in people who use it. Buprenorphine is similarly effective as methadone at alleviating cravings and withdrawal symptoms. As part of MAT, buprenorphine may be prescribed from specially trained and certified physicians, and it may be distributed from an office setting.
- Naltrexone. This medication is known as an opioid antagonist, which means it is able blocks the effects of opioids at the receptor level. It doesn’t control cravings or withdrawal symptoms but instead prevents opioids from producing desired effects. In other words, if you use heroin while on naltrexone, you won’t experience the pleasurable and reinforcing euphoric effects of the drug.
Aftercare Programs and Support Groups
Completing a basic addiction treatment program doesn’t necessarily mean a person is finished with recovery. People are often faced with new challenges when they leave rehab and go out on their own, such as encountering old buddies who are still doing heroin or other stressful situations that could trigger cravings for the drug.
- 12-step programs. These are support groups, such as Heroin Anonymous (HA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA). Twelve-step programs are based on the 12 steps of recovery outlined by Alcoholics Anonymous. Participants rely on the guidance of a higher power as they make a commitment to abstinence and work through the 12 steps (often with the wisdom and support of a program sponsor).8
- Sober living. This is a substance-free group home in which you reside with other people in recovery. It is not treatment, but residents are encouraged to attend 12-step meetings. As a requirement for continued residence, they must comply with house rules by remaining drug-free, paying rent, attending house meetings, and doing their share of house chores.9
- Therapy. Many people benefit from continuing to explore the underlying issues that led to their addiction. Therapeutic settings may vary, but may include some combination of individual and group counseling.
It’s crucial to build solid recovery supports, because addiction recovery is a lifelong process. Surrounding yourself with a positive support network and taking care of yourself (such as your health and finances) can help strengthen your determination to remain abstinent. Rely on positive relationships, such as family and friends who are committed to your success; connect with other people in recovery; and try to develop a purpose in life. 1
Some additional recovery supports include:1,10
- Medical care. Taking care of your health is crucial for feeling good about yourself. Developing a regular exercise program can be very helpful for staying energized and in a positive frame of mind. You may also benefit from wellness programs offered by hospitals, community centers, and other organizations.
- Mental health care. Addressing issues that can impact your mood and attending to underlying mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety, is important for sustaining recovery.
- Child care. Being a parent isn’t always easy, and when you’re in recovery, it’s important that you have child care when you need it so you can go to treatment or attend to other needs. Some community-based organizations may be able to offer assistance in this area.
- Faith groups. Many people find a source of strength in their faith and in their faith community.
- Transportation. It might not be easy to get around if you’re just getting back on your feet. Certain community programs can help. Some recovery programs offer assistance in the form of vouchers for transportation.
Many factors play a role in recovery. One study asked people with long-term abstinence about the most significant experiences or supports that helped them start and maintain their recovery. These factors included:8
- The escalating consequences of drug abuse.
- The support of family, friends, and peers.
- Participation in 12-step groups.
- A substance-related arrest (such as DWI) or legal troubles.
- Treatment and treatment professionals.
- Surrendering and wanting to move forward and recover.
- The birth of a child/wanting to be a responsible parent.
- Spirituality/a higher power.
Many people who have recovered are openly sharing their stories. Watch Kyle Pucek share his story of recovery from heroin addiction.
Heroin addiction doesn’t have to control your life. Search the directory of heroin rehab centers on this site for more information on programs that can help you regain your sobriety.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2016). Decisions in Recovery: Treatment for Opioid Use Disorder.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition): How effective is drug addiction treatment?
- Gossop, M., Stewart, D., Browne, N. & Marsden, J. (2002). Factors associated with abstinence, lapse or relapse to heroin use after residential treatment: protective effect of coping responses. Addiction, 97(10), 1259-1267.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction: Treatment and Recovery.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Heroin: What are the treatments for heroin use disorder?
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Medications to Treat Opioid Use Disorder: How do medications to treat opioid use disorder work?
- Laudet, A. B., Savage, R., & Mahmood, D. (2002). Pathways to Long-Term Recovery: A Preliminary Investigation. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 34(3), 305–311.
- Polcin, D. L., Korcha, R., Bond, J., & Galloway, G. (2010). What Did We Learn from Our Study on Sober Living Houses and Where Do We Go from Here? Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 42(4), 425–433.
- Friedmann, P., Lemon, S., & Stein, M. (2001). Transportation and retention in outpatient drug abuse treatment programs. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 21(2), 97-103.