Opioids are a class of drugs commonly prescribed to treat pain and include drugs like oxycontin, vicodin, dilaudid, and morphine. With over 10 million people reporting misusing prescription opioids in 2020, America is facing an epidemic (1). The Biden administration is providing $1.5 billion to states and territories, including tribal lands, to fund responses to opioid overdoses and support recovery (2). Opioid withdrawal symptoms are painful and can feel like having the flu. People can experience gastro-intestinal complaints, heart pounding, trouble sleeping, sweating, restlessness, tremor, and more. The intensity and duration of these symptoms is often severe, posing a significant challenge to those wanting to stop using their opioid pain medication. In addition to physical problems, there is a significant psychological challenge from the stigma associated with opioid addiction. Dr. Paul Williams is a family physician affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in Harrisburg who cares for many patients suffering from Opioid Use Disorder (OUD). He shares, “Patients desperately want to quit, but the fear of having to experience the severe withdrawal symptoms is preventing them from trying to quit. We need a way to decrease withdrawal symptoms so that patients can taper off and stay off opiates.”
In response to the epidemic, state and federal governments have increased funding for opioid withdrawal therapy. Current medication-assisted treatments (MAT) for opioid dependency include methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone. These are controlled substances that are prescribed just like opioids and while they can help reduce OUD cravings they are not holistic solutions. The aim of these treatments is to replace current opioid use and/or abuse with these prescription medicines while gradually tapering down on dose. While these treatments are effective, once an individual is stabilized on the new replacement medications, they often experience craving and withdrawal symptoms each time their dosage is reduced. These experiences add to the psychological burden of stigma because patients using MAT therapies may be perceived as replacing one opioid for another. Despite the growing availability of MAT, the American Medical Association recently released a report (3) that found barriers to care have worsened the epidemic. Thus, there is an urgent need for more treatment solutions where the added value of non-opioid treatments could impact psychological wellbeing as well.
There is promising early research (4) showing that a combination of specific over-the-counter antihistamines and non-steroidal pain medications like ibuprofen can reduce the intensity and duration of withdrawal symptoms. By targeting inflammation, scientists believe that these medicines can be repurposed in a combination that can both treat pain and decrease withdrawal symptoms through an anti-inflammatory process. These findings are also very important because these commonly used non-opioid medicines are proven to be safe when used appropriately. As a result, this will make it easier and faster to test these new treatments. More research will be coming as physicians and scientists collaborate to take care of patients suffering from OUD.