Naltrexone to Treat Opioid Addiction

Opioid antagonists (blockers)

Opioid antagonists are drugs that firmly attach to the opioid receptors, but don’t activate these receptors. Antagonists prevent other opioids from reaching and activating the receptors. They also remove opioids from the receptors, so if antagonists are given to an actively using opioid addict, the addict will become sick with immediate withdrawal. This is called “precipitated withdrawal” because it was caused, or precipitated, by a medication.

Naltrexone is the most common oral opioid blocker that is used. It’s taken orally, in pill form. It’s started after an opioid addict has completed opioid withdrawal. It can be a difficult medication to start. Because it is a blocker, it may also block endorphins, our own naturally made opioids. Some patients complain of headache, muscle aches, and fatigue while taking naltrexone. Many times these unpleasant symptoms will subside with more time on the medication. The medication can be started at a half dose for the first week or so, then increased to the full dose, for better tolerability.

Naltrexone has been used in this country mainly for relapse prevention, particularly for addicted professionals. Many professionals such as doctors and pharmacists, who have been treated for opioid addiction, are started on naltrexone when they return to work. These professionals may need to work around opioids, and if they relapse while taking naltrexone, the illicit opioids will have no effect. The antagonist thus serves as extra insurance against a relapse. Many licensing boards for impaired professionals insist they take naltrexone as a condition of being allowed to return to work in their career fields.

Naltrexone works well – but only if the patient takes it every day. If the addict “forgets” to take her dose for one or two days, it is then possible for her to get high from ingested opioids. Because of this, the medication is also available in an implantable form. Pellets containing naltrexone are placed just under the skin and the medication is released into the body over three months. With this method, compliance is ensured, unless the addict wants to dig the pellets out to be rid of the blocking drug.

Naloxone is the intravenous form of an opioid antagonist, better known by its brand name Narcan. It’s injected to rapidly reverse the effects of opioids. Emergency workers often carry Narcan with them to use if they encounter a person who has overdosed with opioids. This medication can be life-saving, but it also puts the opioid addict into immediate withdrawal.

Sometimes people get confused, and think that this drug will alleviate opioid cravings. It doesn’t. Sadly, those cravings are still present, but opioid blockers can be an added bit of insurance against an opioid relapse.

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One response to this post.

  1. Treatments for Opioid Withdrawal…

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