03/28/2008 02:48 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Vivitrol: A Cure For Alcoholism?

Is there a cure for alcoholism? Certainly, there's abstinence from "hitting the bottle." But how do you get to abstinence? Some people are benefiting from the well-tried combination of counseling and a relatively new prescription drug "Vivitrol," now available in the American market.

Vivitrol is the short, market name for "Naltrexone" in an extended-release injectable suspension. That can be shortened itself to "a shot in the butt," every month, of Vivitrol with the sound advice of your doctor and the follow up care of your therapists and support group.

What has research found about this combination? That alcoholics suffered fewer drinking days and fewer heavy drinking days. Steven Lamm, M.D. is an internist and clinical assistant professor of medicine at the New York University School of Medicine, and a nationally recognized expert on medical ailments - including addiction, sexual dysfunction and obesity - and their treatment options. He says, "Advances in research have furthered the understanding of addiction as a serious brain disease with both physical and psychological components. Research shows that the combination of medication, such as Vivitrol, and psychosocial support, such as counseling, is a safe and effective approach and has helped many who struggle with alcoholism to stop drinking, stay sober and rebuild their lives."

That means, of course, fewer health complications. Alcoholism claims thousands of lives every year in the United States through other maladies, and this does not even include the thousands of lives lost each and every year through DWI (driving while intoxicated) accidents and work place incidents. It also means fewer ruined lives, better work records, less lost productivity, savings billions in health care costs, fewer hospitalizations and fewer broken marriages.

"I have witnessed every complication from alcoholism - from suicide to cirrhosis to dementia," Dr. Lamm continued. "Many of my patients have been able to remain sober with medication and counseling; these people had tried other options in the past, but it wasn't until they used Vivitrol that they were able to remain sober or dramatically reduce their number of drinking days per month.

"With Vivitrol patients don't have to remember to take a pill. Especially when first starting treatment, patients lack clarity that they achieve later on in the process. It's during these first few days when it can be hard for them to think of taking a daily pill. They might miss it the first day, miss it the second day....and then be paying the consequences on the third day. "

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) states that medication is best used in combination with long term therapeutic counseling. Counseling itself must be handled by "combining medicine and counseling" in approved settings. So in both matters, there must be a long range commitment to both taking your medication and also, at the same time, attending what the NIAAA calls "psychosocial support." This psychosocial support" includes such well proven groups as the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) program as well as the many state financed, or state supervised, alcoholic recovery programs.

What makes doctors optimistic about Vivitrol is this: it offers "people struggling with alcohol dependence a new alternative...and shown to be both effective and well tolerated" by the people using the medication. This information from the Vivitrol website is supplemented by a relatively short, and relatively mild, set of "complications" foreseen in some uses of the drug. Some forms of drug addiction, for example, and some liver diseases are contraindicated, meaning that use of Vivitrol by persons having these problems is risky business.

Most complications include nausea, headaches, fatigue, and vomiting, and these (usually) go away after a few days. Because these usually go away after a few days, the complications might be discounted by your doctor anyway.

As always, ask for doctor first about whether Vivitrol is good for your alcoholism. At best, it might be a cure. But only he or she can monitor its benefits and discern its problems.