Tools To Know: The Basics of Vivitrol, aka Naltrexone

The non-habit-forming medication can be highly effective in combating addiction to opioids and alcohol. Read up on it

August 16, 2022
Nurse checking computer for treatment options

It may sound obvious, but it’s worth stating: Like many diseases, addiction can be treated with medication. Among the tools that can be deployed to fight addiction — and can provide hope for those seeking recovery — medication-assisted treatment (MAT) has emerged as a valuable one, giving many people a potent advantage in the battle against substance use disorder. And among the medications available to those who choose to explore the option, naltrexone, also called Vivitrol, can provide some particularly compelling benefits.

What Is Naltrexone (Vivitrol)?

Naltrexone is a generic medication designed to suppress cravings for alcohol and other substances, and Vivitrol is the brand name for a formulation of it received as a monthly injection. This medication is used in the treatment of alcohol use and opioid use disorders (AUD and OUD) and allows people in recovery to stay on track by reducing the risk of relapse, if they desire an abstinence-based lifestyle. The extended-release intramuscular injectable version (e.g. Vivitrol) is FDA-approved for the treatment of both OUD and AUD, and administered once every four weeks. There is also a pill form of naltrexone that is taken by mouth daily, primarily for the treatment of AUD.

How Does It Work?

Vivitrol is a medication that binds to opioid receptors in the brain, and once Vivitrol is bound to these receptors, it stays attached to them for a long time. This allows the medication to block the opioid receptors from interacting with any opioid, from painkillers to heroin, and so prevents these substances from connecting with the receptors. That’s why it’s called an “opioid antagonist.”

By preventing the connection between opioids and the brain’s receptors for them, Vivitrol essentially stops those drugs from “working” — that is, the opioids’ euphoric or sedative effects don’t materialize, and cravings subside. This can protect someone against getting high or overdosing.

Opioid receptors in the brain also influence the reinforcing effects of alcohol. So, while naltrexone does not block receptors that alcohol acts on, it is prescribed to help treat AUD because it interferes with the positive feelings that using alcohol can bring.

Without the positive reinforcement of euphoria (or whatever attractive feelings alcohol brings) after consumption, alcohol loses its appeal. Those who take naltrexone may lose the desire for alcohol, making it much easier to manage the moderation of alcohol use — or, of course, stop it altogether. Unlike some medications, naltrexone does not provoke a negative reaction to alcohol consumption in the body; it does not make you sick.

Benefits to Treatment and Recovery

Vivitrol or naltrexone can add many benefits to someone’s recovery while introducing very little risk. The Vivitrol shot is easier to administer than other MAT options, and it’s long-acting. Both factors make it a low-maintenance addition to someone’s recovery tool kit.

Another great upside of naltrexone is that it is not habit-forming, meaning that there is no risk of becoming addicted to it, regardless of how the medication is prescribed and dispensed. It also does not cause withdrawals once a patient is no longer using it to support their recovery. Naltrexone has proved effective in increasing abstention rates and reducing the risk of relapse.

Like all MAT options, naltrexone and Vivitrol support recovery best when they are part of a holistic treatment plan that includes psychotherapy, mutual aid support groups and other recovery support services.

More Help & Information

Airplane flying through pink clouds

Does the 'Pink Cloud' of New Sobriety Help or Hurt? It's Complicated

The euphoria of early recovery may be fleeting, but long-lasting balance is the goal. Here's how to keep your head up through the process and handle reality with confidence.

Auguste Rodin, The Thinker

Sobriety vs. Recovery: What's the Difference?

Are the concepts themselves up for debate? Do they require certain treatments, or abstinence from everything? It's complicated! And new ways of thinking are changing the conversation.

NFL players celebrate after a touchdown

Now Elite NFL Players, They First Tackled Addiction | News Roundup

All Sober compiles the best of the latest headlines. Here's your addiction and recovery news for the week of Feb. 19, 2024!

Family members in a counseling session

Help Them Help You: Explaining Your Mental Health to Your Family

Your mental health can affect — and be affected by — your loved ones. Here's how to discuss it with them so everyone can heal.

Two women hailing a cab in a city

Dry January (and Beyond): The Possibilities Are Endless

There's never been a better time to go sober. Whether you're trying it out this month or already living the life, join us for some tips, ideas, inspiration — and maybe even new friends.

Men hugging at a 12-step recovery meeting

Sober Holiday Tips: Meeting 'Share-a-Thons'

Need to get out of the house for a bit and see some friendly sober faces? Recovery support group meeting marathons run 24/7 from Christmas Eve through New Year's Day.

People hugging

What Happens After an Intervention?

Your loved one agreed to get treatment for addiction during their intervention — or not. Here's what you need to know about what comes next.

People in a recovery community support group meeting

We're in This Together: Building a Healthy Sober Support Network

You are the captain of your recovery, but you don't have to do it alone. A sober support network will lift you up in tough times and celebrate your triumphs.

New Report