The professional addiction treatment community is always on the lookout for new, more reliable ways of treating substance use disorders, and research is continually ongoing into various means of medical support for treatment. One of the tools that has been researched and used in the past two decades is a drug called baclofen, which some are saying is a “miracle” drug for alcohol, opioid, and cocaine addiction treatment.
Oftentimes, the benefits of drugs for any purpose are over-reported by the media, while the potential pitfalls of such medications are washed over. Because of this, people who are prescribed these medications may not know the risks of using the drug compared to the benefits. In the case of baclofen, it’s important to note the drug’s potential for difficult side effects as well as its addiction potential.
What Is Baclofen?
Baclofen was originally designed to treat epileptic seizures. While it had limited effect on the seizures themselves, it did prove to be helpful in decreasing muscle spasms, and it is therefore used to manage spasms related to spinal cord diseases such as multiple sclerosis, according to the National Library of Medicine’s Medline Plus. It is thought to do this through activating the brain’s GABA system, which helps to relax and calm nerves, as explained in an article from Neuropharmacology.
Since then, the drug has been found useful to treat other conditions, including mental health disorders. While these are considered off-label uses, the drug has been gaining popularity as a potential treatment for substance abuse and addiction, and it has been researched for treating alcoholism and addiction to opioid medications and cocaine.
Baclofen for Addiction Treatment
Baclofen is indicated in a variety of different areas of substance abuse treatment, and it may be able to be used for others.
- Alcohol: Studies from as far back as 2000, like one from Alcoholism Clinical & Experimental Research, have demonstrated potential for using baclofen to aid in reducing alcohol cravings. More recently, a study from Frontiers in Psychiatry demonstrated that very high doses of baclofen may be particularly helpful in suppressing alcohol cravings.
- Opioid drugs: Baclofen has also been used to manage detox and provide maintenance treatment in opioid addiction, as described in an article from BMC Psychiatry. The results of this study were that individuals on baclofen were much more likely to remain in addiction treatment and maintenance than those who were not taking it.
- Cocaine: Similarly, a study from Neuropsychopharmacology revealed that people recovering from cocaine addiction were more likely to decrease self-administration of cocaine when not taking methadone, and reported reductions in cravings for cocaine if they were taking methadone concurrently.
All of the research above indicates that baclofen can be a helpful tool supporting treatment of substance abuse. However, there are also some risks in using it that both treating professionals and individuals who might want to use it should be aware of first.
Issues with Treating Addiction with Baclofen
It is important to emphasize that baclofen, while it may be useful in supporting addiction treatment, is not a silver bullet. Often, claims like these are exaggerated, as explained in an article from Psychology Today. The drug can help diminish cravings and make it easier to avoid relapse to substance use, but it is necessary to provide complementary therapy and other treatments to help the individual gain true control over addiction.
There are also side effects of taking baclofen that need to be considered before the individual undergoes treatment with this medication. These side effects include difficulty breathing, seizures, and suicidal ideation. If these side effects are experienced, medical help should be obtained right away.
Other side effects that are not as bad but can be uncomfortable include:
- Upset stomach
- Drowsiness or dizziness
Because some of the side effects can be dangerous, it is important to obtain input and oversight from a medical professional before using this drug to treat addiction. If the side effects for the individual are severe, it may counter any craving reductions or other substance abuse benefit the drug might provide. It also may be risky to the individual’s health.
While there is minimal data on whether baclofen is addictive, a case study from the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine indicates baclofen addiction may be possible. Similar to reports of addiction to gabapentin from a variety of sources reported by Medscape, this individual reported a euphoric sensation when taking the drug and had a reaction to stopping baclofen use that included classic withdrawal symptoms, such as:
- Physical tremors
- Cravings for the substance
- Angry outbursts
Withdrawal symptoms are usually an indication that the body has become dependent on a drug, and compulsive use of higher doses than needed, which can lead to tolerance, is also a sign of possible addiction to the drug.
While more information and research are needed to confirm that addiction may be a risk with this drug, it is always challenging to use medicine to treat drug addiction because of the potential for addiction to the treating drug. Luckily, there are other ways to treat addiction that research has shown to be helpful in controlling substance abuse, including psychological and peer support group programs.