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Effective Treatment of Heroin Withdrawal in Corrections
By Jeffrey E. Keller MD
Published: 08/07/2017

Pills Imagine this: You’re practicing medicine and a patient comes to you with an illness. You make the diagnosis and then say to the patient, “I can see that you are very sick. And there is a highly effective treatment for your condition that would make you feel a lot better. It’s simple and it isn’t even expensive. But, you know what? I’m not going to give it to you! You’re not sick enough. Come back tomorrow. If you’re sicker tomorrow—well, if you’re sick enough—I will treat you then. But not right now.”

Crazy, right? We’d never do such a thing.

But . . . the problem is, we frequently do that exact thing with our heroin withdrawal patients. I’m not singling out correctional medicine practitioners here. I think that, in general, heroin withdrawal is treated better in correctional settings than it is in the community. Nevertheless, it is a fact that heroin withdrawal is often not properly treated in jails and prisons. I have seen it.

I believe that there are four main reasons that some facilities do not appropriately treat heroin (and other opioid) withdrawal.

This is a Myth: Cold turkey withdrawal is not dangerous

The first is the belief that cold turkey withdrawal from heroin does not hurt anyone. I myself was taught in my residency “no one dies from opiate withdrawal.“ This is a very commonly held belief to this day.

The problem is that this is simply not true. It is a myth to believe that no one ever dies during withdrawal. People do.

Think of the situation of heroin withdrawal this way: No one disputes that patients can get very sick when going through heroin withdrawal. And maybe young and healthy patients can tolerate being that sick with no lasting problems. But what about someone who isn’t that healthy to begin with? Say someone who has asthma and heart disease? Or maybe they have an underlying sepsis acquired from sharing needles? What if this patient is also malnourished and dehydration from not eating? Could such a person already weakened by these conditions end up dying when the physiological stress of withdrawal is piled on? Of course they could!

And they do. I personally know of cases where patients did indeed die while going through opiate withdrawal. But even if they don’t, people get very sick from heroin withdrawal. To assume that opiate withdrawal is a benign condition is a serious fallacy.

Clonidine is an effective treatment for heroin withdrawal

The second reason that opioid withdrawal is often not treated is the mistaken belief that the only effective treatment is more opioids. And jail practitioners are reluctant to prescribe opioids for opioid withdrawal for various reasons. I understand this.

But the belief that the only effective treatment for opioid withdrawal is more opioids is also a myth. There is indeed a highly effective non-narcotic treatment for opioid withdrawal: clonidine.

I should point out here that I am talking here about using clonidine as a short-term treatment for acute heroin withdrawal in a correctional facility. I am not talking about treating the underlying opioid addiction itself. The treatment of opioid addiction itself commonly uses long term prescriptions of Suboxone or methadone, known as Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT).

I am a big fan of addiction MAT, but, treating withdrawal is different than treating addiction. We are talking here about withdrawal, most commonly from heroin. When heroin addicts are booked into a jail for, say, a few days, it is simply not logistically possible get them enrolled into a MAT program. These patients are going to experience withdrawal. Let’s treat that first—using clonidine.

Clonidine has been validated as an effective treatment for opioid withdrawal in several studies.

I also have my experience of successfully treating literally hundreds of patients for opioid withdrawal with clonidine. I can tell you from long experience, it works and it works well.

I understand the reluctance to use opioids in a correctional facility for heroin withdrawal, but I do not understand any reluctance to use clonidine, especially since clonidine is now in common use as a treatment for all sorts of other conditions, such as PTSD and nightmares.

Don’t use Benadryl to treat heroin withdrawal!

The third reason that heroin withdrawal patients are not treated adequately for withdrawal is that some facilities use ineffective treatments such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl) or hydroxyzine (Vistaril).

Let me be simple and clear: hydroxyzine is not by itself an effective treatment for heroin withdrawal! There is no medical literature to support using hydroxyzine in this role.

And why would anyone prefer Benadryl over an effective medication like clonidine, anyway? One works, one doesn’t. Benadryl is, at best, an adjunctive therapy. If you want to add Benadryl to a clonidine regimen for heroin withdrawal, I have no objection to that. Just don’t use Benadryl as the main therapeutic agent

A word about diarrhea. During heroin withdrawal, patients commonly have diarrhea and abdominal cramps. Many facilities treat this with loperamide. I also have no problem with the use of loperamide as an adjunctive therapy to clonidine, but since the cause of the diarrhea is withdrawal, a more effective treatment for the diarrhea would be to simply give more clonidine. Clonidine treats the underlying cause of the diarrhea. My opinion. Also remember that loperamide has a high risk of abuse.

COWS undertreats withdrawal

The final reason that heroin withdrawal is often not adequately treated is reliance on withdrawal scoring systems that require patients to meet a certain minimum symptom score before they qualify for treatment. A protocol found in Uptodate using the Clinical Opioid Withdrawal Score (COWS), for example, and does not begin treatment until a patient has a COWS score of at least 8. That means that a particular heroin withdrawal patient could present with anxiety, muscle aches, chills and nausea—and not get treated! We’re back to “Come back tomorrow and if you’re sick enough, I’ll treat you then!”

I suspect that scoring systems like this are modeled after the alcohol withdrawal scoring system CIWA, which also requires patients to hit a set minimum criteria of sickness before starting treatment. I do not understand this approach (I’ll address CIWA another day). We know that most patients who do not score very high initially are going to get worse. We also know that some patients are more stoic than others, and since they don’t complain enough, they will not get treated. And we know that the earlier that you begin treatment for withdrawal, the more effective it will be. So why wait?

Personally, if a patient in one of my jails says that he is a heroin user and is starting to feel sick, I will start that patient on clonidine. I don’t see the point of waiting. The clonidine will predictably make him feel better. And then he’ll be reassessed later to see if the clonidine dose is adequate or if he needs more.

A word about opinions

What I have written here is my own opinion. I arrived at this opinion as a result of my own training, experience and review of the medical literature. I believe that what I have written here is evidence-based and accurate. But I acknowledge that I could be wrong! You may disagree with me based on your training, your experience and your review of the medical literature.

But if you do disagree, please explain why, in comments.

How do you treat heroin withdrawal in your facility? Please comment.

Corrections.com author, Jeffrey E. Keller is a Board Certified Emergency Physician with 25 years of practice experience before moving full time into the practice of Correctional Medicine. He is the Chief Medical Officer of Centurion. He is also the author of the "Jail Medicine" blog

Other articles by Keller


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