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Prescription Drug Abuse

Treating addiction to prescription opioids

Several options are available for effectively treating prescription opioid addiction. These options are drawn from research on the treatment of heroin addiction and include medications (e.g., naltrexone, methadone, and buprenorphine) as well as behavioral counseling approaches.

Naltrexone is an antagonist medication that prevents opioids from activating their receptors. It is used to treat overdose and addiction, although its use for addiction has been limited due to poor adherence and tolerability by patients. Recently, an injectable, long-acting form of naltrexone (Vivitrol), originally approved for treating alcoholism, has also received FDA approval to treat opioid addiction (i.e., heroin or other opioids). Because its effects last for weeks, Vivitrol is ideal for patients who do not have ready access to healthcare or who struggle with taking their medications regularly. Methadone is a synthetic opioid agonist that eliminates withdrawal symptoms and relieves drug cravings by acting on the same brain targets as other opioids like heroin, morphine, and opioid pain medications. It has been used successfully for more than 40 years to treat heroin addiction, but must be dispensed through opioid treatment programs.

Buprenorphine is a partial opioid agonist (i.e., it has agonist and antagonist properties), which can be prescribed by certified physicians in an office setting. Like methadone, it can reduce cravings and is well tolerated by patients. NIDA is supporting research needed to determine the effectiveness of these medications in treating addiction to opioid pain relievers.

This page was last updated November 2014

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