The number of Tennesseans dying from drug overdoses continues to rise, with a record number of deaths recorded in 2015.
The Tennessee Department of Health said that 1,451 people died from drug overdoses in the state in 2015. The death rate from drug overdoses was higher than those killed in car crashes on Tennessee roads.
Local treatment facilities are using certain medications to help keep addicts clean. There is some controversy behind some of these. Critics disagree on which ones work and which are enabling addicts.
The three most commonly used medications are Methadone, Suboxone and Vivitrol.
Dr. Lorin Holst is an addiction specialist at Westbrook Medical Center. He understands how an addicted brain works.
"When opioids are in the body, they get to the brain and these areas are highly stimulated," Holst said.
When you do something you enjoy, the brain releases endorphins. Those attach to opioid receptors, releasing dopamine, giving you a natural euphoria.
"When someone is doing drugs, they're just flooded," Holst explained.
When someone is doing drugs, opioids attach to the endorphin receptors and the brain releases an excess of dopamine, over-stimulating the brain and causing the high. When that high ends, the cravings begin.
That's where medication comes in.
Some doctors argue Methadone can still get an addict high, while newer medications have fewer side effects.
Holst prescribes Suboxone and Vivitrol.
A combination of the drugs buprenorphine and naloxone, Suboxone acts as a partial agonist.
“The buprenorphine is an opioid-like drug and it sends a partial signal through that nerve transmission mechanism that I was talking about and that effectively controls cravings,” Holst said.
He said the drug transforms lives. But, critics argue the drug can cause dependency. However, the drug doesn't cause the high that other illicit drugs do.
"What are we really treating? We're treating a person's life and we're seeing that improve because I am giving them a medication that helps keep them out of trouble, that's worth it to me," Holst said.
The newest drug is Vivitrol. It’s what specialists at the Helen Ross McNabb Center are using to treat addiction.
"Vivitrol is one of those that has zero abuse potential. It does not get a person high. It's not something that can be diverted on the street for sale," said Hilde Phipps, director of adult addiction services at Helen Ross McNabb.
For Tom Roach, a recovering addict, it’s the only thing that’s been able to keep him clean. He became addicted to hydrocodone after back surgery 30 years ago. Each month he goes to Westbrook Medical Center for an injection of Vivitrol.
"You don't have no craving for it. I mean, you don't even think about it. It's unbelievable," Roach said.
Vivitrol must be injected every 28 days. Holst says that is one of the drawbacks he sees.
"It's a great drug, but people tend to drop off after two or three or four months. They tend to not come in and when they're not coming in, I know they are in trouble," Holst said.
Before patients can take Vivitrol, they must be off opioids for 7 to 10 days, which means painful withdrawals. With Suboxone, treatment and relief begin almost immediately.
There is no perfect drug, but both centers agree medicated assisted treatment makes recovery easier.
"If you have a constant craving and are obsessed and have a compulsion thinking about a drug, it's very difficult to start re-engaging in your life with your family, your job, your social activities,” Phipps said, “but when you have some relief from that, there's real hope."
Roach said he is just happy to have his life back on track.
"I tried to do it myself but I couldn't," he said.
Both Helen Ross McNabb and Westbook Medical Center agree, there is still a lot that is not known about these drugs. For example, what the long term effects could be. But, they said these drugs are a temporary solution to help addicts turn their lives around.