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Naltrexone (Vivitrol) as an Addiction Treatment 

Addiction to alcohol or drugs affects millions of people throughout the US, with some types of substance abuse reaching epidemic proportions. Because of this, researchers are diligently seeking forms of treatment that can help people stop using and start along a path to recovery.

One of the paths of research involves using medications to support addiction treatment. Among the various medicines that have been researched and developed for this purpose is naltrexone, a medicine that is typically used in treating alcoholism and opioid abuse, and being researched for use in treating aspects of other addictions as well.

How Naltrexone Works

Naltrexone, also known by the brand name Vivitrol, is described by Mayo Clinic as an opioid agonist – that is, a substance that blocks opioid action in the body. As a result, the euphoric feeling caused by taking opioids is eliminated and the individual feels no reward from taking the drug.

Combining Naltrexone and Opioids

This happens because of the way naltrexone works, making it more difficult to abuse. For this reason, naltrexone or Vivitrol therapy is not started until the individual has been through detox and is free from the drug.

Naltrexone and Addiction Treatment

Naltrexone has been shown in research to be effective in opioid addiction treatment. One study from Current Psychiatry Reports shows that naltrexone can help people stop heroin and other opioid use, especially when dosing is supervised, when naltrexone is the only choice, and when long-acting, slow-release versions of the medicine are used.

Other research shows that naltrexone is effective in treating other addictions. As described by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, it has been shown to block the euphoria that normally results from alcohol use, making it easier for individuals to stick to treatment for alcoholism. Also, several studies, including one from Addictive Behaviors, demonstrate that naltrexone can also aid in relapse prevention for cocaine abuse and addiction.

Continuing research may determine other benefits of using naltrexone or Vivitrol for addiction treatment. However, this does not mean that naltrexone is a magic bullet for addiction treatment. There are some concerns around using this medication to treat substance abuse.

Concerns about Treating Addiction with Vivitrol

Despite some amazing claims and the research above, there are multiple reasons that Vivitrol  or naltrexone is not considered to be the right treatment for everyone. First of all, as explained by the Current Psychiatry Reports article, there is a simple issue of adherence to the regimen. Many people who are given a daily pill to take will stop complying with the treatment, negating its helpful effect. This can be managed with the long-acting injectable version of the drug. However, there can be other issues.

If the individual who is taking naltrexone requires other medications that are affected by naltrexone use, it may be a risk to that person’s health to have naltrexone as part of a treatment regimen.

One other issue that has been investigated is the fact that naltrexone can cause liver damage. Some articles, such as one from the journal Alcohol, demonstrate that this damage is not usually enough to require avoidance of the medicine; in fact, continued heavy drinking is likely more of a risk than naltrexone is. Nevertheless, this issue warrants consideration for patients who are already struggling with severe liver disease, such as those who have been abusing alcohol heavily for a while.

Supporting Naltrexone Treatment

  • Regardless of the issues above, naltrexone does not provide adequate treatment for addiction on its own. Experts agree that addiction treatment is more likely to result in positive outcomes if the individual also receives cognitive therapies, peer support, and other appropriate, research-based treatments that offer a wide range of tools to achieve recovery.
  • For this reason, individuals who are struggling with addiction are best served by enrolling in certified, experienced treatment programs that offer these services and that have the expertise to determine whether or not naltrexone is an appropriate part of that individual’s treatment plan.