In Brief: Study suggests best way to treat a painkiller addiction

In Brief

Study suggests best way to treat a painkiller addiction

Published: February, 2012

Nearly two million Americans are addicted to painkillers such as oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), and meperidine (Demerol). Painkiller addiction has soared since the early 1990s — to the point where it now dwarfs cocaine and heroin addiction. Now a large randomized controlled trial suggests that painkiller addiction may be similar to heroin addiction in one important way — that it requires ongoing treatment with a substitute drug to quell cravings.

Researchers at McLean Hospital led the national study, which involved 653 people addicted to painkillers. Half of the participants were randomly assigned to standard medical management (occasional clinician visits and referrals to self-help groups) while the other half received more intensive outpatient drug counseling. In addition, all participants received Suboxone, a pill that combines buprenorphine with naloxone. Buprenorphine relieves withdrawal symptoms while delivering less of a "high." But some people abuse buprenorphine — which is why the narcotic-blocker naloxone was added. When the patient takes Suboxone under the tongue as directed, very little naloxone is digested and absorbed into the bloodstream. But if the patient crushes the pill for injection, intending to abuse the drug, naloxone floods the bloodstream, neutralizing the slight "high" from buprenorphine while causing unpleasant side effects.

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