The treatment options for addiction to heroin and prescription narcotic painkillers such as Oxycontin and Vicodin have traditionally included daily medications.
These medications, including methadone and buprenorphine, act as substitutes for the addictive opioid drugs. They suppress the symptoms of withdrawal without providing a high. The risk in this form of treatment is that many addicts find it difficult to stick with the daily regimen of medication. Missing a dose can trigger withdrawal and increase the chances of relapse.
New treatments are becoming available that provide longer-lasting relief and reduce the reliance on daily medication dosages. A matchstick-size buprenorphine implant that will work for up to six months at a time is currently undergoing final testing prior to evaluation by the FDA. The slow-release implant, called Probuphine, is placed under the skin and releases buprenorphine directly into the bloodstream. Buprenorphine is currently administered by prescription in the form of a pill that is placed under the tongue. Many people find the pill difficult to take on a daily basis, making a long-term implant an attractive treatment option.
Another new treatment option for addiction to heroin, morphine and opiate painkillers that was recently approved by the FDA consists of monthly injections of a drug calledVivitrol. This drug, known generically as naltrexone, works on the body differently than methadone or buprenorphine. It actually blocks the effects of opioid drugs and reduces the craving to take them.
Vivitrol is already being used for the treatment of alcoholism. About 45,000 people have used it since its approval in 2006. There are good indications that it will be equally successful for the treatment of opioid addiction. In a study conducted in Russia of 250 opioid addicts, 70% of test subjects who received Vivitrol stayed with treatment during the entire 6-month study.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there are currently about 1.85 million people in the U.S. who are dependent on opioid painkillers. An additional 810,000 are addicted to heroin. After undergoing initial detox, many people are required to make daily visits to a public clinic for methadone. For those struggling with the daily requirements for medication, Vivitrol is a promising alternative treatment.
Vivitrol is not meant to replace the need for a detoxification program when first stopping the use of opioid drugs. Because Vivitrol blocks many of the effects of opioids, there’s greater risk of overdose if opioid use is resumed in the month following administration of a Vivitrol injection. The FDA recommends that Vivitrol only be administered by a physician in a clinical setting. While Vivitrol can help stop the cravings for heroin and narcotic painkillers, a recovering addict should also seek treatment for the underlying emotional and psychological issues that led to addiction.