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Does Relapse Mean Treatment Has Failed?

Demi Lovato made major headlines in the media this past week after an alleged

overdose that hospitalized her for 5 days. I find it interesting that the only mention of

prior drug use involved cocaine and alcohol, and yet accounts of the incident state that first-responders used Narcan to revive the star. Many of Lovato’s’ fans and friends are responding with tweets and social media messages of encouragement. Ellen DeGeneres, Ariana Grande, Bruno Mars, and Lady Gaga are just some of the celebrities that have come out in support of Demi, who relapsed after 6-years of sobriety.

A question came to mind after reading Lovato’s story last week. Does relapse to drug use mean treatment has failed? According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the answer is no. In fact, relapse rates for drug use are similar to rates for other medical conditions. If a person with a chronic disease prematurely quits medical treatment it exposes them to relapse, which is the case with addiction. A recent study revealed patients who were using opioid agonist medications at 18-months were more than twice as likely to report abstinence as those who were not (80 % versus 36.6%). However, as this statistic proves, treatment does not equate to abstinence or the lack of episodic relapses.

The point is that treatment for opioid use disorder should never be regarded as a waste of time or money regardless of how many times an individual returns to using drugs. Medicated Assisted Treatment (MAT), including buprenorphine/naloxone, methadone, and suboxone, save lives and significantly reduce the number of relapses. Fortunately for Demi, the paramedics who responded to her 911 call had access to Narcan and were able to reverse the effects of her overdose. Let’s just hope Demi gets back on track and realizes that relapse doesn’t mean defeat but rather a new start.

1. Sarlin, E. Long-Term Follow-Up of Medication-Assisted Treatment for Addiction to Pain Relievers Yields “Cause for Optimism”. National Institute on Drug Abuse.

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