Tramadol versus buprenorphine for the management of acute heroin withdrawal: A retrospective matched cohort controlled study

Melinda Threlkeld, Theodore V. Parran*, Christopher A. Adelman, Scott F. Grey, Jaehak Yu

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

41 Scopus citations


Many medications have been used over the past thirty years for the treatment of opioid withdrawal, including propoxyphene, methadone, clonidine, parenteral buprenorphine, and, more recently, sublingual buprenorphine. Each has been found to have clinical strengths and limitations. Tramadol is a centrally acting synthetic analgesic with opiate activity primarily due to the binding of a metabolite to the μ receptor. Despite this μ receptor activity, tramadol appears to have low abuse potential and is a non-scheduled analgesic. The pharmacologic profile of tramadol makes it a candidate for opiate withdrawal treatment. A chart review was undertaken to retrospectively compare treatment outcomes of heroin-dependent patients when detoxified with parenteral buprenorphine (1996-1997) versus tramadol (1999-2000). Inclusion criteria for this study were heroin as drug of choice, current opioid physical dependence (ie, withdrawal symptoms), no current abuse of oral opioid analgesics, and no alcohol or benzodiazepine withdrawal symptoms. Patient cases that met inclusion criteria were group-matched between buprenorphine and tramadol on the basis of age, sex, and amount of heroin used (bags/day). Charts were audited for patient demographics, daily heroin use at admission, withdrawal symptoms, and discharge status. In total, 129 patient charts were reviewed, and 115 met all inclusion criteria and were group-matched (45 patients in the buprenorphine group, seventy in the tramadol group). There were no differences in demographics between the two groups of patients. Fifty-six percent of the buprenorphine group and 71% of the tramadol group completed detoxification; tramadol-treated patients had significantly higher average withdrawal symptoms when compared to the buprenorphine group and a greater reduction in withdrawal symptoms over time. Finally, the number of side effects was small and did not differ between the groups. The results of this study are consistent with previous pilot reports that indicated few clinical differences between parenteral buprenorphine and oral tramadol protocols when used in the management of acute heroin withdrawal. As a consequence, tramadol shows some promise as an opioid withdrawal management medication.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)186-191
Number of pages6
JournalAmerican Journal on Addictions
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1 May 2006
Externally publishedYes


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