Vivitrol is a medication that has been gaining more attention in recent years, being touted as “the miracle drug” and the overall cure to opioid and heroin addiction. Its chemical makeup and generic name, Naltrexone, has actually been around for quite some time, since the early 90’s to be exact. So what is this medication, how does it work, and is it really a cure to opioid addiction?
How Does Vivitrol Work?
Many wonder what Vivitrol is and how it actually works for the addicted individual. Naltrexone, the generic name for the injection, is what is known as an opioid antagonist. Differing from chemicals such as Buprenorphine (the main ingredient in Suboxone & Subutex) and Methadone, which are opioid agonists, Naltrexone actually blocks the effects of opioid and alcohol abuse.
Buprenorphine and Methadone, opioid agonists, activate opioid receptors in the brain, which can suppress cravings, but only because they are continuing to feed the addiction. Naltrexone, an opioid antagonist, is non-addictive because instead of feeding the opioid receptors, it binds to and blocks them, reducing the craving for the drug.
Naltrexone comes in both a pill form and in an injection. The pill, also known by its brand names, ReVia or Depade, is prescribed by a physician and taken once per day. Naltrexone’s injectable extended-release form, goes by the brand name Vivitrol, and is administered once a month. Originally the medication came only in its pill capacity and was prescribed only for alcohol abuse. In the early 2000’s, a Boston pharmecuetical company, Alkermes, created injectable extended-release Naltrexone, otherwise known as Vivitrol.
The reasoning behind creating the injection, was to promote better compliance. It eliminated the issue of alcoholics forgetting to take their once-a-day medication, or deciding not to take it at all, if they felt like having a drink that day. Vivitrol has been used in the treatment of alcohol since 2006, and in 2010, the FDA approved its use for opioid addiction.
Side-Effects from Vivitrol
The Vivitrol shot has a multitude of side effects and risk factors. The more common side effects which are listed below, mirror those of opioid withdrawal symptoms.
- Nausea & Vomiting
- Muscle cramps
- Cold symptoms
- Loss of appetite
- Inability to sleep
In more extreme cases, Vivitrol can cause liver damage and hepatitis. Furthermore, accidental overdose and death can occur when an addict attempts to overcome the medication’s blocking abilities by consuming large amounts of opiates.
Does Vivitrol Actually Cure Opioid Abuse?
There are many ways to define drug addiction. The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) describes addiction as a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. They further explain that without the proper treatment and recovery activities, addiction is progressive and could result in early death.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) defines addiction as a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by an individual’s compulsive drug seeking behavior and abuse, despite adverse effects and consequences. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), now refers to substance abuse and/or substance dependence as substance use disorders (SUD), which are categorized on a mild, moderate and severe basis. The DSM-5 goes on to further explain that SUDs cause clinical and functional impairment, including health problems, disability and inability to meet major responsibilities, such as employment and/or education. SUDs are based on impaired control, diminished social skills, risky use and pharmacological criteria.
So what does this tell us about Vivitrol? Can a pharmaceutical medication cure drug addiction? The reality is, like many other diseases, including cancer, drug addiction cannot be cured. It can be managed; it can be put into remission. Vivitrol doesn’t erase drug addiction. It simply blocks an individual’s physical craving for the drug. It does not address the other components of the disease; the emotional, mental, and spiritual aspects. These are typically major factors that lead someone into addiction in the first place.
Many Vivitrol advocates will argue they curb the spiritual and emotional ailments with addiction therapy and the 12-step recovery process, but in reality, that is not always the case. Similar to Suboxone and Methadone “treatments”, Vivitrol is typically administered by a physician, and then little is done in terms of monitoring patients’ progress. Without the necessary tools to manage life without drugs and alcohol, addicts will surely use again.
Consider this, if the manufacturers planned for Vivitrol to be the cure for opioid addiction, then why would they leave this warning on their website:
“Do not use opioids in amounts that you used before Vivitrol treatment. You may even be more sensitive to lower amounts of opioids.”
Do not use opioids in amounts that you used before Vivitrol? We thought the point was to stop using opioids all together, not to stop for a period of time, just to begin again in hopes the individual could manage smaller doses.
Katelyn is an alumni of ours. She wrote a candid letter about her addiction, her struggles and why the reliance on anything other than the 12-steps and a Higher Power hasn’t worked for her. She asked us to share her letter with you, and with her experience with Vivitrol, we saw this as the most appropriate time.
“Drugs and alcohol ran my life. I absolutely never thought I would be able to get sober. I always assumed I would either be drinking, smoking pot, or relying on Suboxone. It just wasn’t possible for me to go through life without the help of something. After years of abusing alcohol, pot, cocaine and benzos, I eventually moved on to opiates, like so many others. Soon, that addiction progressed into IV heroin use, which sent me off the deep end. Several years later, I knew I had to stop living the way I was, so I contacted a family friend who encouraged me to see a doctor. That doctor prescribed me something I thought was going to be the answer to all of my problems. Suboxone helped with my dope-sickness, which in turn got me through the day. Eventually though, the mental obsession got the best of me. I didn’t physically crave any drugs but I couldn’t stand living in my skin, so I eventually starting getting high on anything I could, while still taking my Suboxone.
Back to alcohol, benzos, pot and cocaine I went. After getting honest with my doctor about my drug use, he recommended I go to inpatient rehab. During my stay there, my counselor explained it wasn’t Suboxone that failed me, I was just simply not ready to get sober. Before completing treatment, that same counselor suggested I try the Vivitrol shot. Although reluctant, I did it, hoping the outcome would be better than the first maintenance program.
At first, it was. I felt better than ever before. I had just finished treatment, Vivitrol took away all of my cravings, I was going to meetings and I had some friends. Life was great. Here is where my descent started. I stopped going to meetings. I never got a sponsor. I never opened the Big Book. Why did I have to? Vivitrol fixed the problem. It was like Deja-vu. I was smoking crack and drinking massive amounts of Whiskey before I knew it. I hated myself for it, but I just couldn’t stop.
My doctor didn’t do much but give me my shot every month. He recommended I try counseling, but never checked in on me or forced me to go. He also suggested I get a sponsor and get involved, but never asked for progress on that either.
Yes, Vivitrol helps with the physical craving, but it does absolutely nothing to fill the spiritual void that all of us addicts and alcoholics feel. It doesn’t silence the constant voices in my head at night. Vivitrol doesn’t stop my skin from crawling or heal my feelings of shame, guilt or self-hatred; before the 12-steps and my higher power, the only thing that drowned those feelings out was Jack Daniels, heroin, cocaine and benzos.
I wanted to write you all a letter to say thank you. I thought for a very long time that I could do it alone. Clearbrook taught me differently. You stressed the importance of abstinence, finding a Higher Power, working the steps with a sponsor and getting involved. I have to tell you, it is by far the only thing that has worked for someone like me. I tried every option out there and this program is the only thing that gave me my life back. Actually, it gave me a brand new life. Today, I am 3 years sober. I am a friend; a wife; an employee; a good citizen. And I’m doing it all completely abstinent!! Thanks!” – Katelyn D.
Contact Clearbrook Today
Are you or someone you love struggling with alcoholism or chemical dependency? Please allow us to help. Clearbrook Treatment Centers has been a leader in the treatment of addiction for over 4 decades. We can provide you with customized detox and treatment plans, as well as the tools necessary to maintain lasting sobriety and recovery. Contact our Admissions Specialists today for further information.