Opioid Withdrawal Treatments

A post on the Forum asked about the best remedies for opioid withdrawal.   I will review the medications and other treatments for opioid withdrawal that I have heard discussed by physicians or by people on the internet.  Hopefully readers will leave comments about medications or approaches that they have found useful.  Likewise, if you are a physician, please weigh in with the approaches that you have found to be useful.

For readers, it is very important to understand a couple things about this post.  First, the medications listed here are not FDA approved for treating opioid withdrawal.  They have not been systematically tested for that purpose. Most of the medications that I will list are available only by prescription— and must be taken ONLY by prescription.  They all have interactions with other medications, and they all have toxicity in certain doses, and in people with certain conditions.  Do NOT take them other than through guidance by your doctor.  This post is intended to spark discussion with your doctor— and to help doctors learn about approaches that they have not heard about elsewhere.

I will encourage doctors or other contributors to this post to avoid discussion specific dosages.  These medications must be prescribed by physicians who understand them, or who know how to become knowledgeable about them.

One problem for doctors is that CME meetings generally discuss treatments that are FDA indicated.  I do not know of any medications that have been approved or marketed specifically for opioid withdrawal, and I do not have the sense that the field of medicine views opioid withdrawal as a pressing issue.  But I am aware that for buprenorphine patients, the treatment of withdrawal symptoms has the highest priority of any medical concern.

With those caveats, here are the medications that I have heard the most about, roughly in the order of what consider their usefulness:

– Clonidine:  Available by tablet or by patch.  The medication reduces CNS excitability, and relieves all opioid WD symptoms to some extent.  Side effects include sedation (which may be useful), dry mouth, and hypotension.

– Gabapentin:  An anticonvulsant that some people find relieves anxiety and perhaps the sweating during withdrawal.

– Benzodiazepines: A controversial topic.  They are potent sedatives, but they are also potent respiratory depressants when combined with opioids.  Most overdose victims have these drugs on board.  They relieve anxiety, insomnia, and muscle tension, and cause fatigue.  Should NEVER be combined with opioids unless under very careful supervision (i.e. ‘self treatment’ = NO treatment).

– Phenobarbital: A Forum participant wrote that his/her doc prescribed phenobarbital for opioid withdrawal with great success.  All barbiturates act similarly to benzodiazepines, and have potent respiratory depression, especially with opioids.  Again, must NOT be used except under close supervision.  Have effects similar to benzodiazepines.  Dangerous if combined with alcohol.

– Quetiapine: AKA Seroquel.  A potent sedative, used to treat psychosis, bipolar mania, depression… and off label, insomnia.  Side effects include dry mouth and sleepiness.

– Natural ‘remedies’: A variety of withdrawal remedies are advertised on opioid-related web sites.  I’ve had patients who tried most of them, and I’ve never heard anyone say they were useful. Some come in ‘daytime formula’ and ‘nighttime formula’.  Always read the ingredients– and if you see a long list of herbs and roots, realize that there is NO oversight of the claims that are made.  You could put bundles of dandelions into empty capsules and sell them over the internet, making the same claims.  How hard do you think it would be to find a people to write ‘testimonials’ for twenty bucks? Or you could just write them yourself! Buyer beware.

– Amino acids:  Again, advertised on the internet, and offered at steep cost by ‘select’ doctors.  One of the ‘pioneers’ of amino acid treatments for withdrawal was convicted of fraudulent practice in Texas, and now offers the same as he did in Texas, but safely across the border, in Mexico.  He has clinics in the US, run by other doctors, who boast of using his methods.  The appeal of buying into a treatment that was proven fraudulent in court escapes me.  But the treatment of opioid dependence is strongly influenced by perception, and so is strongly subject to placebo effects.  The appeal of snake-oil remedies has created a living for many, many charlatans over the years, and a sucker is born (at least) every minute.

– General sedatives:  Insomnia is such a big problem that anything that helps with sleep will help during opioid withdrawal.  Meds include diphenhydramine and hydroxyzine (antihistamines), zolpidem and zopiclone (short-term sleep meds), and trazodone and mirtazapine (sedating antidepressants).   Cyproheptadine is a sedating antihistamine that reduces nightmares, and stimulates the appetite.

– Stimulants:  I’ve read of people using them to fight the depression and fatigue during withdrawal.  That use of a schedule II medication may be illegal in some states, and is probably frowned-upon by agencies that regulate medical practice.  The energy and mood effects from stimulants are temporary, and must be ‘paid back’ with fatigue and depression when the stimulants are discontinued.

– Naltrexone: An opioid antagonist that has been used to speed the reduction of opioid tolerance.  Naloxone and naltrexone are used during rapid detox, under strong sedation or anesthesia, but I believe that some have used naltrexone in very low doses in awake patients.  If you are a doc who knows about this approach, I’m all ears…

– Antidepressants:  Depression is one of the worst aspects of opioid withdrawal.  Antidepressants would seem appropriate… but I know of no antidepressant medications that have a chance against the severe depression caused by opioid withdrawal.  I’ve used them for patients after the withdrawal ends, when depression lingers… but I see little use for them during acute withdrawal.

Gosh, I thought my list would be longer.  Given how many people suffer through discontinuation of opioids, our approach to easing misery is pretty limited.   I will remind readers–  most of the medications listed above will cause serious harm, if taken without doctor supervision.

If you are a doctor who has found success with other medications, or if you are a patient of such a doctor, leave a comment to help spread the knowledge.  If you are not comfortable with leaving a post, send me an email, or a message through LinkedIN.