Psychosocial and pharmacological treatments versus pharmacological treatments for opioid detoxification

People who abuse opioid drugs and become dependent on them experience social issues and health risks. Medications such as methadone and buprenorphine are substituted to help dependent drug users detoxify and return to living drug free, by reducing physiological withdrawal symptoms (pharmacological detoxification). Yet psychological symptoms can occur during detoxification and may be distressing. It is often a personal crisis that led to a drug user deciding to detoxify. Furthermore the psychological reasons why a person became addicted are important. They may not be able to cope with stress and have come to expect that using mood modifying illicit substances helps. Even after successful return to a drug-free state, many people return to heroin use and re-addiction is a substantial problem in rehabilitation. The physiological, behavioural and social conditions in an individual's life that made them an opiate addict may still be present when physical dependence on the drug has been eliminated, which makes psychosocial therapy important. Psychosocial treatments include behavioural treatments, counselling and family therapy.
The review authors searched the medical literature and found evidence that providing a psychosocial treatment in addition to pharmacological detoxification treatment to adults who are dependent on heroin use is effective in facilitating opioid detoxification. This conclusion is based on eleven controlled studies involving 1592 adults. The addition of a psychosocial treatment to substitution detoxification treatment improved the number of people who completed treatment (relative risk (RR) 1.47), reduced the use of opiate (RR 0.82), increased abstinence from opiate at follow up (RR 2.43) and halved the number of failures to attend clinic absences (RR 0.48). The findings of an improved rate of clinical attendance may help in suppressing illicit drug use and provides clinical staff with more opportunities to counsel patients in psychiatric, employment and other drug and non-drug related areas. Variations in the populations who are substance users and use of a wide range of different psychosocial interventions means that it is difficult to single out particular therapeutic interventions.

Authors' conclusions: 

Psychosocial treatments offered in addition to pharmacological detoxification treatments are effective in terms of completion of treatment, use of opiate, participants abstinent at follow-up and clinical attendance. The evidence produced by this review is limited due to the small number of participants included in the studies, the heterogeneity of the assessment or the lack of detailed outcome information that prevented the possibility of cumulative analysis for several outcomes. Nevertheless it seems desirable to develop adjunct psychosocial approaches that might make detoxification more effective.

Read the full abstract...

Different pharmacological approaches aimed at opioid detoxification are effective. Nevertheless a majority of patients relapse to heroin use, and relapses are a substantial problem in the rehabilitation of heroin users. Some studies have suggested that the sorts of symptoms which are most distressing to addicts during detoxification are psychological rather than physiological symptoms associated with the withdrawal syndrome.


To evaluate the effectiveness of any psychosocial plus any pharmacological interventions versus any pharmacological alone for opioid detoxification, in helping patients to complete the treatment, reduce the use of substances and improve health and social status.

Search strategy: 

We searched the Cochrane Drugs and Alcohol Group trials register (June 2011), Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL) (The Cochrane Library Issue 6, 2011), PUBMED (1996 to June 2011); EMBASE (January 1980 to June 2011); CINAHL (January 2003 to June 2008); PsycINFO (1985 to April 2003) and reference list of articles.

Selection criteria: 

Randomised controlled trials and controlled clinical trial which focus on any psychosocial associated with any pharmacological intervention aimed at opioid detoxification. People less than 18 years of age and pregnant women were excluded.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two authors independently assessed trials quality and extracted data.

Main results: 

Eleven studies, 1592 participants, fulfilled the criteria of inclusion and were included in the review. The studies considered five different psychosocial interventions and two pharmacological treatments (methadone and buprenorphine). Compared to any pharmacological treatment alone, the association of any psychosocial with any pharmacological was shown to significantly reduce dropouts RR 0.71 (95% CI 0.59 to 0.85), use of opiate during the treatment, RR 0.82 (95% CI 0.71 to 0.93), at follow up RR 0.66 (95% IC 0.53 to 0.82) and clinical absences during the treatment RR 0.48 (95%CI 0.38 to 0.59). Moreover, with the evidence currently available, there are no data supporting a single psychosocial approach.