There is a relatively new treatment for addiction on the market. It isn’t a new type of therapy or a variation of a 12-step program and it isn’t a replacement for a drug, like methadone, which acts as a replacement for heroin. The new drug, called Vivitrol, is an injection that prevents addicts from getting any pleasure out of using their substance of choice. When a heroin addict on Vivitrol shoots up, she gets no high. When an alcoholic on Vivitrol drinks, he may lose coordination, but it’s no longer any fun.
The promise of this new, research-based, medical treatment for the disease of addiction holds great promise. There are however, possible downsides, such as cost, side effects and the possibility of long term negative effects that simply haven’t been studied. Furthermore, there is the hurdle of facing down the traditional manner of addiction treatment, which focuses more on therapy and tough love than on medicine and science.
How Vivitrol Works
The actual medication in Vivitrol isn’t new. In pill form, it’s called Naltrexone and it was developed decades ago to help heroin addicts. Naltrexone was approved for use with heroin addicts and alcoholics, but taking it daily requires discipline that many patients do not have. To make the drug’s use more successful, a monthly, injectable form, Vivitrol, was created.
A drug user gets a high when the drug causes the brain to release dopamine, the chemical that gives a pleasurable sensation. Over time and with repeated drug use, the wiring that causes dopamine release in normal, non-drug induced pleasurable situations goes haywire. Addicts struggle to feel any pleasure at all and end up needing their drug just to feel somewhat normal again.
An injection of Vivitrol causes the brain to stop releasing endorphins. Endorphins are what normally trigger the release of dopamine to produce pleasure. Using Vivitrol to prevent dopamine release gives the brain of an addict the time it needs to recover and to start functioning normally again. It also prevents any high from a drug, making its use unnecessary. Unlike other medical treatments for addiction, such as methadone and Suboxone, Vivitrol is not addictive.
At first glance it seems as if Vivitrol is a magical cure for addiction. There are plenty of people who have benefited from its use, including heroin addicts who had given up hope of ever coming clean. However, it is not a magic bullet. Those who find success with Vivitrol also receive traditional therapy. It cannot cure addiction, but can help addicts stay clean while they work through deeper issues.
Treatment with Vivitrol can cost over $1,000 per month. For most addicts, this is a cost that is simply not possible. Without money or insurance that covers the care, treatment with Vivitrol is just a dream. Coverage by Medicaid varies by state, with many requiring that several other methods of treatment fail before an addict can get authorization for medical addiction treatment. Currently, only 28 states cover the costs of Vivitrol and two other addiction medications.
Another issue is that an addict actually has to come clean before using it. Seven days of sobriety are required before treatment can begin—another huge hurdle for most addicts. Some professionals also question the safety of Vivitrol treatment. Research into how it affects people over the long term is scarce. Even the research indicating that it is an effective treatment for addiction is lacking. Few treatment facilities offer Vivitrol treatment for this reason and also because many cling to old-fashioned ways of treating addiction.
In spite of the problems, there are still many ways in which Vivitrol is giving people hope. As more research is conducted into both the efficacy and the safety of this medical treatment, professionals hope that doors to funding will open and allow more people to benefit from it. Already, public programs are making moves toward offering Vivitrol to those most in need. For instance, some prisons are setting up programs to give inmates Vivitrol as an addiction treatment. As awareness of this medication grows, more people should be able to benefit from it and begin to heal from addiction.