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Biol Psychiatry. 2003 Oct 15;54(8):854-61.

Safety of injectable opioid maintenance treatment for heroin dependence.

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Center of Applied Technologies in Neuroscience-Basel, Psychiatric University Clinic of Basel, Wilhelm Klein-Strasse 27, 4025 Basel, Switzerland.



There is a growing debate about injectable opioid treatment programs in many Western countries. This is the first placebo-controlled study of the safety of injectable opioids in a controlled treatment setting.


Twenty-five opioid-dependent patients on intravenous (IV) heroin or IV methadone maintenance treatment were randomly assigned to either their individual prescribed IV maintenance dose or placebo. Acute drug effects were recorded, focusing on electrocardiography, respiratory movements, arterial blood oxygen saturation, and electroencephalography (EEG).


After heroin injection, marked respiratory depression progressing to a Cheyne-Stokes pattern occurred. Peripheral arterial blood oxygenation decreased to 78.9 +/- 8.7% (mean +/- SD) ranging from 52%-90%. During hypoxia, 7 of the 16 subjects experienced intermittent and somewhat severe bradycardia. Five subjects exhibited paroxysmal EEG patterns. After methadone injection, respiratory depression was less pronounced than after heroin injection. No relevant bradycardia was noted.


Opioid doses commonly prescribed in IV opioid treatment induce marked respiratory and circulatory depression, as well as occasionally irregular paroxysmal EEG activity. Further studies are needed to optimize the clinical practice of IV opioid treatment to prevent serious complications. Moreover, the extent of the observed effects raises questions about the appropriateness of IV opioid treatment in the present form.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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