Heroin Withdrawal Gets Pioneering Treatment from St. Louis Doctor

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Dr. Arturo Taca treats addiction as a "disease of the brain, not a disease of poor will." - PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • Photo by Danny Wicentowski
  • Dr. Arturo Taca treats addiction as a "disease of the brain, not a disease of poor will."

To break a heroin habit, an addict must live through the personal hell known as withdrawal. Like a debilitating flu, the process afflicts the body with fever, tremors, nausea, muscle aches and diarrhea. And those symptoms might not even be the worst part.

"With the flu you don’t have this component of fear, this unusual preoccupation with dying in pain," says Dr. Arturo Taca, a board-certified addictionologist who runs a clinic based in Creve Coeur. It's all too common for patients to return to drugs after just a few days of anguish, he says.

But a little more than a year ago, following his own preoccupation with neuroscience, Taca deployed a groundbreaking treatment helping addicts defeat withdrawal. The results are generating waves of interest in addiction clinics across the country.

The treatment isn't a new drug. It's a small, plastic device, not much larger than a bottle cap, which is fitted with adhesive just behind a patient's ear. The device uses tiny wires to send electrical pulses to specific areas of the brain, effectively blocking pain signals.

The Bridge is fitted behind a patient's ear, where it remains active for five days. - COURTESY OF INNOVATIVE HEALTH SOLUTIONS
  • Courtesy of Innovative Health Solutions
  • The Bridge is fitted behind a patient's ear, where it remains active for five days.
"This helped them reduce 85 percent of their withdrawal symptoms within minutes, and it gave them a fighting chance," Taca says.

He named the device the Bridge, since it is intended to function as a bridge between an addict's first five days of withdrawal and their first injection of Vivitrol, a non-narcotic medication that blocks opioid receptors, but can only work after detox. Vivitrol can't eliminate the cravings by itself, but it's able to annihilate the brain's ability to get high off opiates. If you can get on Vivitrol, your chances of recovery go way up.

Now, Taca didn't invent the Bridge from a garage workshop. He'd already been using similar devices in his clinic to target physical pain. His breakthrough was to realize that if the device could lessen post-surgery soreness or chronic knee pain, it could probably also help an addict shaking and sweating through detox.

Around the start of 2015, Taca contacted Indiana-based medical device distributor Innovative Health Solutions. Over the course of months, Taca worked with engineers to fine-tune the design. It turned out to be a fairly simple to tweak the device for opioid withdrawal: Taca wanted a device that could remain active for five days straight instead of just a few hours at a time, providing continuous stimulation to the brain during the worst stretch of the withdrawal process.

In September 2015, Taca began distributing the Bridge to his patients. Even he was shocked at the outcome. In as little as 20 minutes, the withdrawal symptoms appeared to retreat to manageable levels.

Since then, Taka says he's administered the device to hundreds of patients from his clinic. A study of 73 patients (currently under submission to the Journal of Addiction Medicine) found that 88 percent of Bridge users were able to successfully transition to medication-assisted therapy like Vivitrol.

And Taca noticed something else in his patients.

"We saw the fear go away," he says. "What surprised me was that the anxiety, the fear, almost disappeared. So it was like telling the person going through withdrawal, ‘I think I can do this. I think I can make it this time.'"

The Bridge is cleared by the FDA for treating pain, but it's not yet covered by insurance, meaning patients are on the hook for around $600 per device. But even so, the Bridge is now being used in clinics in more than a dozen states, including Louisiana, Ohio and Indiana. In an interview with the Indianapolis Star, an addiction specialist said of the Bridge, "It’s not a matter of if it will work. It’s a matter of will I ever see a case where it doesn’t work."

There's still further research to be done, says Taca. He's already testing a "super Bridge," which discharges an electrical pulse ten times more powerful than the debut version. He believes that future peer-reviewed studies will confirm what he's already seen in his patients.

One of those patients, who spoke to Riverfront Times on condition of anonymity, represents Taca's best-case scenario. We'll call the patient Dave.

Dave was referred to Taca's clinic about six months ago. His addiction had started with prescription painkillers, and he gradually moved to the cheaper and more accessible relief found in heroin. He wound up homeless and, despite his college education, jobless. He devoted most of his energies to shooting $75 worth of heroin into his veins each day.

"My disease was in a pretty advanced state at that point," Dave says in a phone interview. "I had been on methadone. I did drug court. I had been to three in-patient rehab facilities before. I never made it that long."

Dave was desperate to kick his addiction. At the very least, the Bridge was something he hadn't yet tried.

"Withdrawal is a painful, intimidating process," Dave says. "That period of time that the Bridge helps with, it's probably the most crucial and vulnerable period of your recovery when you’re starting out. That’s when you’re at your worst and you need the most help." In that stage, it's incredibly tempting to turn to another fix: "What’s challenging is that you know instantly how to relieve those symptoms by returning to your substance of abuse. It’s hard to endure that for a period of time, even if it is a few short days."

Using the Bridge felt like turning the volume down on the physical and psychological pain. And five days later, once Dave got his first shot of Vivitrol, he says it felt like heroin was finally losing its tenacious grip on his mind. The freedom allowed him to focus on piecing his life back together.

Today, Dave says his life is unrecognizable. He just started a new job and he's got a roof over his head. He's receiving treatment for depression and attends a twelve-step program.

"I can’t tell you how happy I am with the results," Dave says. "It is going so well, it’s feeling like it’s happening to someone else."

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com


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