A Little Pill Is Making A Big Difference For Heroin Addicts

For some addicts in recovery, these pills are a miracle drug.

“It was extremely helpful. For me, it was very effective,” said one recovering heroin addict who spoke with us.

The medication is called Naltrexone. It works by blocking the opioid receptors in the brain to take away the sensation of getting high. That means people who take a narcotic like heroin while on Naltrexone won’t feel the effects of the heroin.

We found it’s being used to help people in Watertown at the Right Turn Outpatient Addiction Program.

“I would just say that it took the mental obsession out of my head and made it possible to focus on my recovery,” said the former addict.

The FDA approved Naltrexone decades ago to treat alcohol and opiate addiction, but 7News has learned the potentially life-saving drug is still not being widely used to treat substance abuse.

“The problem is that some people refer to them as drugs,” said Woody Giessmann, a counselor at Right Way Addiction. “And they say, ‘Oh my god, you’re just substituting one drug for another,’ but I want to be very clear. When you’re talking about trying to help someone with a substance abuse disorder, you want to use anything and everything because not everything is going to work.”

Naltrexone is not a narcotic and is not addictive. Recovering addicts we talked to say the drug was a big part of their treatment.

“It is just a good safety net,” said the former heroin user. “It’s a good medication to be able to use to get you to where you want to be.”

But there is a dangerous downside to the drug. Using opioids like heroin while taking Naltrexone could be deadly. Addicts could be more likely to overdose because they may take bigger and bigger doses of a drug like heroin trying to feel the high.

For this reason, the FDA warns the medication should only be given to addicts who have completed detox, have been off drugs for 7-10 days and are committed to sobriety.  They are warnings that lead some doctors to question whether Naltrexone is really the answer for heroin addicts.

“Nothing’s a panacea,” said Dr. Edward Boyer. “Naltrexone alone will not fix the opiate crisis.”

The doctors at the Watertown facility say the drug must be used along with behavioral therapy and family support to help addicts stay clean.

“When people who have been conditioned to believe that they have no hope and then they are getting better is what it’s all about,” said Dr. Laura Keohe. “And they do get better and the treatment works and it really, really works.”

The former heroin addict agrees.
“With taking the pill and doing all the necessary steps” he says,  “I believe anyone can be successful.”

Doctors say recovering addicts using Naltrexone should be closely monitored.  They can stay on the medication as long as they need since there are few side effects.

Most insurance companies do cover the cost.

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