The original trade name of heroin is typically used in non-medical settings. It is used as a recreational drug for the euphoria it induces. Anthropologist Michael Agar once described heroin as “the perfect whatever drug. Tolerance develops quickly, and increased doses are needed in order to achieve the same effects. Its popularity with recreational drug users, compared to morphine, reportedly stems from its perceived different effects.
Short-term addiction studies by the same researchers demonstrated that tolerance developed at a similar rate to both heroin and morphine. When compared to the opioids hydromorphone, fentanyl, oxycodone, and pethidine (meperidine), former addicts showed a strong preference for heroin and morphine, suggesting that heroin and morphine are particularly susceptible to abuse and addiction. Morphine and heroin were also much more likely to produce euphoria and other “positive” subjective effects when compared to these other opioids.
In the United States, heroin is not accepted as medically useful.
Under the generic name diamorphine, heroin is prescribed as a strong pain medication in the United Kingdom, where it is administered via oral, subcutaneous, intramuscular, intrathecal, intranasal or intravenous routes. It may be prescribed for the treatment of acute pain, such as in severe physical trauma, myocardial infarction, post-surgical pain and chronic pain, including end-stage terminal illnesses. In other countries it is more common to use morphine or other strong opioids in these situations. In 2004 the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence produced guidance on the management of caesarean section, which recommended the use of intrathecal or epidural diamorphine for post-operative pain relief.
Diamorphine continues to be widely used in palliative care in the UK, where it is commonly given by the subcutaneous route, often via a syringe driver, if patients cannot easily swallow morphine solution. The advantage of diamorphine over morphine is that diamorphine is more fat soluble and therefore more potent by injection, so smaller doses of it are needed for the same effect on pain. Both of these factors are advantageous if giving high doses of opioids via the subcutaneous route, which is often necessary in palliative care.
It is also used in the palliative management of bone fractures and other trauma, especially in children. In the trauma context, it is primarily given by nose in hospital; although a prepared nasal spray is available. It has traditionally been made by the attending physician, generally from the same “dry” ampoules as used for injection.