One of the most persistent worries about detoxing from opioids is the discomfort of withdrawal symptoms. Body aches and pains, nausea, insomnia, and other symptoms can make it challenging for an individual to maintain abstinence long enough to fully eliminate the drug from the body, increasing the chance that the person will not complete treatment.
To help avoid this problem, people often look to medicines to minimize withdrawal symptoms. Clonidine is one such medication that is used by treatment professionals to ease the discomfort of detox and give those who are struggling with opioid abuse a better chance at achieving recovery.
What Is Clonidine?
According to Mental Health Daily, clonidine was originally developed as a nasal decongestant. After a while, it was found that it did better at helping to treat high blood pressure, and it largely became marketed for that. Then, after a number of years, doctors began using the medicine for off-label applications that it seemed to help with. Its function as a support for opioid detox and withdrawal was discovered within this timeframe.
Because clonidine is technically not approved for drug detox treatment, not all treatment professionals will use it. However, it has shown a fair bit of success in treating withdrawal symptoms, which have made it a tool used in some drug treatment programs.
How Clonidine Helps in Withdrawal
The symptoms of withdrawal from opioid drug abuse that can be helped by clonidine include:
- Anxiety and agitation
- Runny nose
- Abdominal and muscle cramping
It appears that clonidine affects the systems that cause the fight-or-flight response in the body, helping to calm those responses. That is the action that alleviates the above symptoms. Other symptoms of withdrawal that are not related to these systems require other methods of support.
The National Library of Medicine states that clonidine does not help to reduce cravings. However, a study from the American Journal of Psychiatry indicates that the medicine separates the effect of stress from cravings, making it less likely that stress will serve as a trigger for relapse to opioid use.
Opioid Detox in Pregnancy
One of the applications of clonidine that could prove most useful is in helping with detox for pregnant women. As explained by a study from the Journal of Addiction Medicine and Therapeutic Science, the most common medical support for opioid detox – methadone – has been shown to have real risks for mental effects in the newborn and in the child as it develops into adulthood. This is coupled with the fact that it is not entirely known what effects methadone has on a developing fetus, even though methadone is currently considered to be a safe treatment for opioid addiction during pregnancy.
Because of these unknown risks, and because some women may choose not to use substitution therapy with methadone to begin with, clonidine has emerged as a viable alternative for helping to detox from opioids while pregnant, by reducing withdrawal symptoms and helping to ease the desire to relapse to opioid use.
Research on Clonidine for Addiction Treatment
Since the late 1970s, research has shown clonidine to be an aid to opioid detox and withdrawal. One study from the Journal of the American Medical Association demonstrated that using clonidine for 14 days made it significantly more likely that individuals could fully detox from opioids without relapse. A study from Brain Research also showed that using clonidine prior to detox helped to avoid the decrease in dopamine that contributed to the withdrawal symptoms.
However, research in recent years has also shown that using clonidine for detox can potentially lead to a renewed addiction. A study from the Journal of Addiction Medicine shows that, in individuals who are given the opioid agonist buprenorphine for detox, addiction to clonidine resulted in the individual experiencing opioid euphoria, effectively resulting in relapse. For this, and other reasons, clonidine is not appropriate for everyone.
Risks of Using Clonidine for Detox
The major risk of using clonidine for detox is the potential for relapse to opioid abuse, as described above. However, there are other risks as well. According to the Mental Health Daily article, these risks and difficulties include:
- Varied effectiveness, particularly in the case of high-dose, long-term opioid abuse
- Lack of availability outside of inpatient treatment
- Interactions with other drugs
- Contraindications based on the individual’s health profile
- Potential for risky side effects
These risks are increased if the individual tries to detox without the supervision of an experienced professional. For that reason, certified, research-based treatment is the option that is more likely to help the individual detox with the best chance for avoiding withdrawal symptoms and lowering relapse risk.
Medically Supported Detox Treatment
There are multiple options for opioid detox treatment outside of clonidine. Other forms of medical support, as well as other therapies that can help get an individual through detox, are available and can help a motivated individual complete the detox process without relapse, making it easier to continue through treatment and achieve abstinence from opioids.
Research-based rehab centers with experienced professionals can determine the most appropriate plan for that person, creating an individualized treatment program. That can help take the guesswork out of the plan and minimize risks, so the individual can start safely on the road to recovery.