New research suggests a treatment that can block the painkiller’s effects.
People hooked on painkillers like OxyContin may find real relief with steady doses of Suboxone, according to a study published yesterday by Harvard researchers. The study is the first large randomized, controlled investigation into treatment for prescription opioid abusers. (The use of opioid blockers to treat heroin addiction is still contentious.) Lead investigator Roger D. Weiss, MD, professor of psychiatry at Harvard University and chief of McLean Hospital’s alcohol and drug abuse treatment program, tells The Fix that this program took just twelve weeks, “so we don’t know what much longer-term treatment would look like.” In the study of more than 600 painkiller abusers, 49% of those who took Suboxone for 12 weeks and attended weekly meetings with their doctors were able to limit their use of painkillers to fewer than five days a month. But of those who were tapered off Suboxone over two weeks, 93% relapsed back into heavier use. All the participants had been using prescription painkillers illegally before the trial, and the study specifically excluded injection-heroin users. “We didn’t systematically collect data on how many milligrams of whatever [drugs] they were,” Weiss says. “Only because we didn’t think that was going to be reliable information—a lot of people were buying things on the street.”
His research team is planning to follow the subjects of this study for the next three-and-a-half years. “We’re looking to see whether there was a subgroup of people who did better with counseling,” he says. “Also, there are people who will do well without meds, but the likelihood is lower. We want to look at the characteristics of people who do well and figure out what makes them different.”