Recovery from substance use can take many forms. While the classic model has focused solely on 12-step programs, there are now a variety of tools that can help. For certain substances that may produce physical withdrawal symptoms or intense cravings, medication is a viable and sometimes crucial option. An evidence-based treatment that can aid in both emotional and physiological relief may be critical for long-term recovery.
What Is MAT?
Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is typically used in combination with other therapies or group counseling. FDA-approved medications are frequently used for both alcohol and opioid addictions. These medications can help ease symptoms of withdrawal and reduce cravings.
MAT can help reduce the stigma that prevents many individuals from seeking help. By acknowledging that heavy alcohol or drug use can have physiological roots, medication is a strong reminder that this disorder is not simply a matter of “willpower.” Using medication to help treat a disease is a natural part of the healing process and does not require judgment.
Several different kinds of medications have shown to be effective when treating addiction. Buprenorphine is well-known for its ability to significantly reduce or even eliminate opioid cravings. FDA-approved medications that are used for alcohol use disorder include Disulfiram, which can cause discomfort if alcohol is consumed, and Naltrexone.
What Is Naltrexone?
Naltrexone is an effective medication that reduces cravings without inducing an unpleasant reaction to alcohol. It is frequently used as a tool in conjunction with therapy or a 12-step recovery method. By adding this option to a comprehensive treatment plan, patients have more coping methods at their disposal.
Naltrexone was first approved to treat alcohol dependence in the U.S. in 2006. It can be used in a variety of different ways, including by injection, pill, and implant. Depending on the method used, the timeframe of its effects may vary.
- Naltrexone is primarily used to treat addiction. In a low-dose form, Naltrexone can improve multiple disorders. Naltrexone has been used to treat:
- Pain conditions
- Self-injurious behavior in those with autism
- Impulse control
- Certain autoimmune diseases
- Cohn’s disease
- Opioid addiction
- Alcohol addiction
Naltrexone is best known for its success with alcohol and opioid use disorders. Those who use this medication for addiction-treatment purposes can do so on an inpatient or outpatient basis. Unlike other types of treatment, this does not require hospitalization.
How Does It Work?
Naltrexone works by blocking opioid receptors. It is not an addictive medication, and there are no withdrawal symptoms. By using this medication to reduce or to eliminate cravings, an individual is not simply “substituting” one substance for another. Depending on how it is administered, Naltrexone can be used to reduce the risk of emotional withdrawal symptoms as well as alcohol or opioid cravings.
Withdrawal vs. Cravings
Withdrawal occurs when an individual is physically dependent on drugs or alcohol. Once the brain has adjusted to its standard way of operating with drugs or alcohol, the absence of it can be a shock. Withdrawal symptoms occur when the substance is no longer used. This can happen to individuals who taper or who stop using all at once. Depending on the substance, withdrawal symptoms may differ in their severity.
- Opioid withdrawal presents both emotional and physical symptoms. Frequent symptoms that occur with opioid withdrawal include:
- Joint pain
- Leg pain
- Excessive sweating
- Digestive issues
People who experience opioid withdrawal typically notice symptoms approximately one or two days after they last used the drug. Even after withdrawal has ended, strong opioid cravings can continue for a long period of time.
Alcohol withdrawal can be physically dangerous if it is done without professional help. Many people assume that since alcohol is legal, the withdrawal will at least be safe. This is not the case. Once an individual is physically dependent upon alcohol, withdrawal can lead to medical complications. If an individual is physically dependent on alcohol, he or she may need a different form of medication that is used to reduce symptoms. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms include:
- Delirium tremens
- Digestive issues
What Are Cravings?
Alcohol and drug cravings feel like an intense need or itch that will never be satisfied unless the substance is used. Cravings are more than just wants or desires. If a substance cannot be obtained, cravings can feel psychologically painful.
Cravings are often scary symptoms of substance use disorder. They can make an individual feel out of control. It’s not uncommon for people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol to minimize cravings by saying they simply “want” another drink or drug. If the substance of choice is not acquired, however, this “want” can become so overpowering that it can drive people to act in ways they wouldn’t otherwise.
Cravings can disrupt a person’s mental and physical states. When alcohol or opioids are consumed, it can have a direct effect on the neurological pathways in the brain. When this occurs, learning and memory are negatively impacted. In one study, alcohol dependence is seen as having a significant reduction in the reward threshold, which can lead to an increase in alcohol cravings.
Triggers that can cause the brain to crave alcohol or drugs without having used any substances may include emotional and environmental factors. Triggers can occur when something sad has happened, like the loss of a pet or a job. Certain friends or even family members can also be triggering for many people in recovery. In early recovery, cravings can be intense and may seem all-consuming, regardless of where a person is or who he or she is with.
Once the physical withdrawal process has ended, Naltrexone can help eliminate these cravings. By freeing up the mind, drug and alcohol compulsion is not as likely to occur in the long run.
What Does Naltrexone Do Long-Term?
Withdrawal symptoms can be an intense part of the recovery process. While certain other medications can help ease this discomfort, recovery is a long-term lifestyle. Many people who have been sober for several months after withdrawal symptoms may still find the process difficult.
Drug and alcohol triggers can lurk in unexpected situations. Positive events like finding a new job or celebrating an anniversary or birthday can be especially triggering for those who have struggled with alcohol. Alcohol has historically been used to celebrate good occasions, to socialize, or to unwind. Enjoyable activities may not come naturally to those who are new to recovery. When cravings are strong, this can distract many people from enjoying life and staying sober.
Cognitively recognizing situations that can cause cravings is a critical part of recovery. Logically understanding risky circumstances can dramatically decrease the chance of relapse. Simply knowing that a certain area of town, person, or date can be triggering may not be enough. Since triggers can happen anywhere, there will likely be places that cannot be avoided. If work, for instance, is a trigger, the individual may still need to enter a potentially risky circumstance.
Medication that helps reduce or eliminate cravings on a physiological level is particularly helpful for these situations. While walking past a bar may be perfectly fine for some individuals, those who are dealing with alcohol cravings can find this experience daunting. Since cravings can become obsessive, eliminating them as much as possible is ideal.
Naltrexone and Prevention
Much of substance use recovery is about the prevention of using drugs and alcohol. According to the CDC, more than 8,000 lives were taken due to heroin overdose in 2013. Currently, it is estimated that over 17 million people are battling alcohol addiction. Naltrexone has been used as an effective treatment option to reduce the risk of relapse in those with intense cravings for alcohol or opioids.
Cravings frequently fade with time. The longer time an individual goes without drugs or alcohol, the less likely his or her cravings are to return. Although the intensity will usually dissipate with time, the first year of recovery can be particularly difficult. Even with 12-step programs and therapeutic support, many people find it difficult to concentrate on anything except drugs or alcohol.
How to Experience Joy
Preventing relapse is often a multi-step approach. Once drug and alcohol cravings can be reduced or eliminated, the brain can seek pleasure in other areas of life.
It’s natural for many people to feel depleted after quitting an addiction. Brain imaging studies suggest that individuals who have been addicted to alcohol or drugs can actually show decreased activity in the frontal cortex. If the frontal cortex is no longer functioning properly, the decision-making process of the brain becomes faulty.
Substance use disorders take an enormous amount of effort to maintain and will physiologically change the brain over time. Even without the negative consequences of drugs or alcohol, depression is common.
During addiction, the brain’s hardwiring changes. Activities like exercising or even relationships with other people may no longer provide joy. This can be especially alarming for those who are two or three weeks past the withdrawal stage. Even once alcohol or drugs has completely left the body, the effects may last longer than expected. This is a normal part of addiction.
During the recovery process, it takes time to heal the physiological response in the brain. Depending on the duration of substance use, this could take a matter of weeks or even months. Having as many tools as possible to deal with possible setbacks or life changes during this time is key. Medications that reduce cravings can help individuals focus on new hobbies and other goals while adjusting.
Naltrexone vs. Vivitrol: What’s the Difference?
For long-term recovery, many people choose medication that will reduce or eliminate cravings. Some of the most common names heard in association with this type of recovery method are Naltrexone and Vivitrol.
While the two medications are administered differently, they are technically both Naltrexone. Vivitrol is a form of Naltrexone that is taken intravenously. For convenience, many people prefer the shot form to ensure that the medication will stay in their systems for a long period of time.
Vivitrol only needs to be administered once a month. If an individual worries that he or she may not remember or have the discipline to take Naltrexone in pill form, the shot is a way to secure treatment for at least one month. There is much less room for error when taking the shot because timing pills correctly, filling prescriptions, and remembering to take it on schedule are no longer issues to worry about.
Naltrexone comes in pill form and must also be prescribed by a medical professional. There are several different ways to take Naltrexone depending on the needs of the individual. Before taking any medication for substance use disorder, a medical professional will ask for a medical history and any allergic reactions. Naltrexone is usually used once or twice a day for several months, but this dosage can be adjusted if necessary.
A Comprehensive Treatment Center
Granite Recovery Centers have several methods for recovery. Since there are multiple developmental stages to substance use disorders, treatment options can greatly vary. Just as individuals are unique, treatment options should be too.
Our medical assisted treatment program comprises FDA-approved medication as well as holistic methods. Since addiction affects both the mind and body, the entire person is taken into account. Holistic methods used in conjunction with medication can help with recovery and support overall well-being.
Specialists are often crucial to both physical and mental health. While in recovery, trained counselors who have a comprehensive understanding of substance use disorder and multiple forms of treatment can help. While medication may eliminate cravings, behavioral therapists and other experienced counselors can uncover any underlying issues. Both efforts can provide optimal treatment for anyone seeking recovery.