Kratom for opioid withdrawal: Does it work?

Kratom is promoted as an aid in overcoming withdrawal from opioid medications, but research suggests that it leads to more health problems than it solves.

If you take pain medications such as oxycodone (OxyContin, Roxicodone) for a long time, your body becomes used to these drugs and dependence may develop. If you become dependent, you may experience unpleasant physical signs and symptoms — such as sweating, trembling and cravings — when you stop taking these medications. This process is called withdrawal, and it may last for several days to weeks.

Because withdrawal can be unpleasant, many people look for ways to ease their symptoms. Getting extra rest or doing things that are distracting, such as watching TV, helps some people during withdrawal. Other people take medications or substances to try to reduce their symptoms.

Kratom, an herbal extract from the leaves of an evergreen tree (Mitragyna speciosa) that grows in Southeast Asia, is one substance that is promoted as a treatment for withdrawal. Kratom is sold as a dietary supplement and is not currently regulated in the United States, but federal agencies are taking action to combat false claims about kratom.

In Asia, people have used kratom in small amounts to reduce fatigue or treat opium addiction. In other parts of the world, people take kratom to ease withdrawal, feel more energetic, relieve pain, or reduce anxiety or depression. People take kratom to ease withdrawal because kratom evokes feelings of euphoria and may be obtained more easily than drugs prescribed for withdrawal.

Natural, but not safe

Because kratom may ease withdrawal symptoms, researchers have studied it as a potential treatment. The evidence suggests that rather than treating addiction and withdrawal, the use of kratom may lead to them.

In one study, people who took kratom for more than six months experienced withdrawal symptoms similar to those that occur after opioid use. Over time, people who use kratom may develop cravings for it and need the same medications that are used to treat opioid addiction, such as buprenorphine (Buprenex) and naloxone (Narcan, Evzio). When kratom is used during pregnancy, the infant may experience symptoms of withdrawal after birth.

As with pain medications and recreational drugs, it is possible to overdose on kratom. The treatment for kratom overdose is similar to that for opioid overdose, and people experience many of the same treatment problems. Kratom has caused at least 36 deaths. Although people may enjoy the good feelings that kratom can produce, kratom has not proved to be an effective treatment for opioid withdrawal.

May 17, 2018 See more In-depth