A study by Washington State University researchers has discovered that high-pressure chamber treatments of pure oxygen can reduce the symptoms of opiate withdrawal.
In the study, Washington State University psychology professor and pharmacologist, Ray Quock, provided mice addicted to morphine with pure pressurized oxygen prior to their withdrawal from the drug. Addicted mice that weren’t provided with this treatment had many more withdrawal symptoms with greater severity than those who received the treatment.
In the journal, Brain Research, Quock says that this discovery’s implications may be of “profound importance,” because current treatment therapies for heroin addiction are addictive, in themselves. Additionally, the severity of withdrawal symptoms from heroin makes the addiction difficult to fight. These symptoms include low energy, anxiety, insomnia, hot and cold sweats, muscle aches and pains, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and abdominal cramping. Some addicts continue using simply to escape withdrawal.
The current national heroin epidemic calls for improved treatments. According to the US Centers for Disease Control, heroin use amongst young adults has doubled within the last ten years. But the use of hyperbaric oxygen therapy has yet to be approved for drug withdrawal by the US Food and Drug Administration, though it is approved for use in treating wound healing, decompression sickness, and carbon monoxide poisoning, among 11 other indications. This means that though a physician could apply the therapy, it wouldn’t be covered by health insurance.
As quoted by Science Daily, Quock emphasized the importance of this study: “Our research and work that we hope to do in the future should stimulate some clinical researchers to come up with clinical evidence to convince the FDA that this should be an approved indication.”
Quock’s interest in heroin withdrawal started 40 years ago, when working as a volunteer at the University of California. This is where he first saw addicts in withdrawal. He’s recently been examining hyperbaric oxygen therapy and how it impacts various conditions. His research has stretched beyond heroin withdrawal, as he found that it also relieves chronic pain for up to four weeks, a longer duration than any drug.
One of the mechanisms by which hyperbaric therapy relieves pain is through the brain’s own opioid system. Quock hypothesized, “If hyperbaric oxygen can activate the body’s internal opioid systems, it should be able to alleviate opioid withdrawal.”
A 1995 paper on the subject reported that opiate withdrawal was relieved through hyperbaric therapy, a study in which WSU researchers had given morphine sulfate to mice, twice a day for four days, after which they induced withdrawal with naloxone, which combats the effects of opioids. Morphine sulfate is similar to heroin.
Some of the mice had been given 30- or 60-minute hyperbaric treatments with pure oxygen. Those mice that had been treated demonstrated fewer withdrawal symptoms than those who were untreated.
Quock’s study seems to confirm this result and is “the first to demonstrate this phenomenon in an animal model of opiate dependence.”
Currently, heroin detoxification involves medically supervised opioid withdrawal, in which medication is administered to relieve severe withdrawal symptoms. Treatment medications include methadone and buprenorphine, which are opioid agonists, along with clonidine, which is an alpha-2 adrenergic agonist.
Supervised withdrawal allows a user to transition from opioid use to treatment for opioid use disorder. The treatment, alone, doesn’t guarantee abstinence from opioids, neither does it account for the issues the user had which made them opioid-dependent in the first place. Moreover, recovering addicts need assistance in recovering the damage their addiction has caused to their mental and physical health, along with their relationships, employment status and financial state. This all calls for a broader scope, nationwide, of treatment options and assistance to recovering addicts.