One of the most promising tools used for substance use recovery is naltrexone, the non-narcotic drug sold under the brand names Vivitrol and ReVia. Naltrexone is a vital tool in medication-supported recovery (MSR™), a pharmacotherapy regimen for treating certain substance use disorders.
When utilized in conjunction with psychotherapy and other continuing care efforts, naltrexone can help reduce opioid or alcohol cravings during the early months of recovery. To learn more about the use of naltrexone in substance use recovery, read on.
What does naltrexone do?
Naltrexone hydrochloride is a synthetic opioid antidote that was invented in 1963. In 1984, the FDA approved naltrexone (then branded as Trexan) for the treatment of heroin addiction. It was found that naltrexone binds to the opioid receptors in the brain and blocks the euphoric effects of the opiate. Over time, this leads to a reduction in drug-seeking behavior.
A decade later, naltrexone was approved for treating alcoholism after it was discovered that the drug also mediated the effects of alcohol, leading to reduced alcohol cravings and relapse occurrence. Since then, studies have shown that naltrexone is most effective in the treatment of severe alcohol use disorder, as opposed to more mild or moderate forms of the disease.
How to use naltrexone
Naltrexone is available in a daily pill form, as a monthly time-release injection, and as a pellet implant that can last for several months. Because it aids in improving compliance rates, the pellet form of naltrexone treatment has gained popularity among treatment programs.
Treatment with naltrexone is a short-term MSR intervention designed to assist the individual during the early stages of recovery in avoiding relapse. The drug works by blocking the pleasurable sensations of opioids or alcohol, which eventually reduces cravings. This allows the individual to stabilize in recovery, thus improving the long-term outlook. After 3-6 months, the naltrexone will be tapered off, although some individuals may benefit from long-term MSR.
Another added benefit of using naltrexone is that it doesn’t need to be controlled and administered the way that methadone does — it can be prescribed and administered by any physician. This added convenience increases patient compliance, further supporting long-term recovery outcomes. The use of naltrexone for treating alcohol or opioid use disorders is one aspect of a comprehensive treatment approach.
Naltrexone side effects
Naltrexone is generally well tolerated, with minimal side effects. Because it’s not an addictive medication, there is minimal risk of misuse. However, as with all drugs, there are some potential side effects to be aware of. These might include:
- Cold symptoms
- Ringing in the ears
- Reduced appetite
- Muscle or joint pain
- Sleep disruptions
Patients being prescribed naltrexone for opioid or alcohol recovery must wait until a certain point in detox and withdrawal before beginning the regimen. These guidelines help prevent severe withdrawal symptoms or side effects. For someone with opioid use disorder, this means allowing 7-14 days to pass after the last dose of the opioid. For individuals in alcohol recovery, it’s advised that they wait until the detox process is completed before starting naltrexone therapy.
By including naltrexone in the treatment regimen, programs help those in early recovery to remain committed to sobriety, to be able to maintain steady employment, and to enjoy fulfilling lives.
Ashley Addiction Treatment, formerly Father Martin’s Ashley, is a nationally recognized nonprofit leader in integrated, evidence-based treatment for substance use disorders and is accredited by The Joint Commission. We offer holistic care that encompasses the mind, body and spirit through inpatient and outpatient treatment, and provide drug detox, relapse prevention plans, family wellness programs and a variety of other services tailored to each patient’s unique needs. Our driving principle – “everything for recovery” – reinforces our mission to transform and save lives through the science of medicine, the art of therapy and the compassion of spirituality, and is complemented by our philosophy of healing with respect and dignity. For information about our comprehensive programs, please call (866) 313-6307.