After Sarah*, a 48-year-old admin professional in New York, got into a car accident in 1993, she suffered from chronic pain. To alleviate it, she was prescribed the muscle relaxant Soma and the combined opioid/non-opioid pain reliever Percocet. “Not only did the pills get rid of my pain, they also dulled the pain I had inside from a terrible childhood,” she says. “I very quickly figured that out. All of my problems were solved… or so I thought.”
She knew she had a problem when she was finding multiple doctors and pharmacies to give her more and more, until she was consuming around 90 pills a week.
Then, in a Facebook group for chronic pain sufferers, she learned about kratom, a drug made from the leaves of the Indonesian Mitragyna Speciosa tree that has been used for pain management and anxiety reduction. Kratom is typically ground into a powder and then made into a tea, mixed with food or swallowed in a capsule. Some opioid addicts, Sarah learned, took it to lessen their withdrawal symptoms. At that point, her husband was threatening to leave her if she didn’t get her act together, so she asked a friend to help get her kratom.
The kratom made the pain that came back after stopping Soma and Percocet less excruciating, and after six years, she’s been able to stay off her pain meds, maintain her marriage and get two promotions at work. She even used kratom to keep pain at bay after a recent surgery so that she wouldn’t fall back into her opioid habit.
Sarah is one of many former opioid addicts who have used kratom to overcome their addictions. John Dee, owner and founder of Red Devil Kratom, has had many customers with opioid problems. The kratom relieves their pain without the same addictiveness or health risks.
Given this, it may appear ironic that that FDA recently declared kratom an opioid, warning that it has potentially been associated with 44 deaths. However, it’s likely the opioid properties in kratom that make it helpful for those weaning themselves off opioids, says James Giordano, professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center.
Like all opioids, kratom binds to your brain’s opioid receptors, Giordano explains. In particular, it binds to μ-opioid receptors, reducing opioid withdrawal symptoms, and to kappa opioid receptors, which decreases the craving for drugs and even creates an aversion to them. It also binds to alpha-2 adrenergic receptors, mimicking the actions of the drug clonidine, which decreases sympathetic nervous system activity during opioid withdrawal.
Kratom does have its own withdrawal symptoms, including blunted emotions, insomnia, a runny nose, poor concentration and muscle aches, which tend to last for seven to 10 days, Giordano says. But they’re milder than withdrawal from other opioids.
Taken together, these actions make kratom promising for treating opioid addictions. Still, Giordano encourages caution with kratom because more research is needed to determine its risks. The deaths linked to kratom seem to be largely due to its interactions with other drugs, which are not well understood. In addition, since kratom is unregulated, you can’t be sure what you’re getting.
“The market is laden with impure kratom,” he says.
Eventually, he hopes pure kratom will be available as a prescription medication for opioid addicts. Until that happens, some addicts view kratom as their only hope, but not all have access to it.
Kratom is legal is most states, but many states impose restrictions, and people are fighting to keep it available to people like Sarah. Laws aside, kratom vendors often run into business-related obstacles, like getting their credit card processors shut down and their packages seized at post offices, says Dee.
“The patients also may get stigmatized if they tell their doctor they are doing kratom.”
Thankfully, the people in Sarah’s life have been supportive. Now, she can even take kratom in front of her coworkers, who have realized how much more productive she is with it.
“Kratom saved my life,” she says. “I am a better wife and mom because of it. I can work a full-time job and lead a productive lifestyle. I never ever want to go back.”