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.