Naltrexone, in low doses, has recently become a popular drug for treating multiple sclerosis. This is an off-label use, and research into its effectiveness is still underway.
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a disease that damages the nerve cells. As it progresses, symptoms can get in the way of daily life and impair movement, speech, and other bodily functions. There is no cure, but there are treatments people can use to manage the symptoms and slow down the disease progression.
Naltrexone is one emerging treatment option. Naltrexone is a drug officially approved to treat alcohol and opioid addictions. In lower doses, doctors have started using the drug to help manage MS.
In this article, we look at the current research into naltrexone, how doctors use it to treat MS symptoms, its side effects, and warnings.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have approved naltrexone for treating alcohol dependence and preventing a relapse from opioid dependence. The drug prevents people from feeling the high they associate with these substances.
In lower doses, doctors are also using naltrexone to treat a variety of conditions, including MS.
Using naltrexone to treat MS is considered off-label use. This means that though it may be effective, researchers have not thoroughly studied its effectiveness, and the FDA have not approved it for treating MS.
Low-dose naltrexone causes the body to release endorphins over an extended period. Endorphins are hormones that the body usually releases during stress or pain. They interact with the opiate receptors in the brain, which helps reduce the feelings of pain.
Naltrexone may work for MS because endorphins help reduce inflammation. Inflammation is the underlying cause of MS symptoms.
Some anecdotal evidence supports using low-dose naltrexone for treating MS symptoms. This evidence is primarily from people who report noticing a reduction in symptoms after taking naltrexone.
However, clinical evidence is lacking, and what does exist appears to point out that naltrexone may not do much for people living with MS.
For example, a study published in 2017 looked at whether people taking naltrexone for MS reduced their use of other medications. This would suggest that naltrexone was working. However, the study found that few people reduced their use of other medications.
Researchers found similar results in another study. They collected 10 years of clinical data and lab reports specifically looking at people who used naltrexone. They found that naltrexone is generally safe but likely does not have a significant effect on treating MS symptoms.
Still, doctors need more research to understand the effects of naltrexone on MS symptoms better. Specifically, studies need to look at the direct use of low-dose naltrexone to treat MS symptoms.
Low-dose naltrexone appears to be generally safe for people with MS. Research has not shown serious side effects. And though evidence may be lacking to suggest it will help greatly, there is also no evidence that suggests naltrexone is dangerous.
However, a person taking naltrexone should know about potential side effects that this article highlights below.
Warnings, side effects, and risks for naltrexone apply to higher doses. Lower doses may be safer, but this is not a guarantee.
As with any medication, there are certain risks that people associate with the full dose of naltrexone. One of the primary risks is the potential for long-lasting liver damage.
Naltrexone can also lead to the development of thrombocytopenia. Thrombocytopenia is a condition that causes uncontrollable bleeding or increased bruising.
Common side effects of full-dose naltrexone include:
- nausea and vomiting
- abdominal pain
- decreased appetite
A person should not take naltrexone without a doctor's recommendation if they are:
- taking opioid medications
- in acute opiate withdrawal
- in an opioid maintenance program
- dealing with liver problems
Finally, people should not take medications without first discussing them with a doctor.
People should also avoid splitting higher dose pills on their own. Instead, they should talk to their doctor about getting a prescription for a lower dose of naltrexone.
Naltrexone for MS symptoms is not well studied or proven.
Some people have reported that it works well in controlling their MS symptoms, but what studies exist indicate it has limited, if any, effect on MS symptoms.
People should discuss using naltrexone with their doctor before trying to use it on their own.