And no, I don’t mean itchy in the Calamine Lotion sense…I mean fingers that lift merchandise without paying for it. A study out of the University of Minnesota Medical School administered the drug Naltrexone to 25 kleptomaniacs between the ages of 17 and 75. After eight weeks on the pills, the subjects had considerably less urge to steal.
Naltrexone is a narcotic often prescribed to people with substance abuse problems to quell the urge to indulge. The drug basically reduces cravings and compulsive behavior associated with addiction by blocking the release of opiates that trigger pleasure centers in the brain. And so, getting stoned or indulging in the addictive behavior no longer gives a rush to the user.
To date, naltrexone primarily has been useful in helping alcoholics get sober. The drug also has been shown to be useful in curing sexual dysfunction, aiding in smoking cessation, alleviating Crohn’s disease, reducing gambling addiction, and bolstering the immune system in patients suffering from diseases ranging from AIDS to MS and cancer.
The researchers hypothesized that naltrexone might work in alleviating the symptoms of kleptomania because, “Kleptomania appears to share many…similarities to substance use disorders: urges or cravings, tolerances, withdrawal, repeated unsuccessful attempts to cut back or stop, and impairment in areas of life functioning,” according to study director Dr. Jon Grant. The subjects recruited for this study were confirmed kleptomaniacs who spent at least an hour each week stealing. Unlike thieves with a more criminal bent, kleptomaniacs rarely steal to make a profit and tend to go for stuff that they don’t even necessarily need, just for the thrill of it. “These are people who steal even though they can easily afford not to,” Dr. Grant explained.
Half of the subjects in the study took naltrexone, and the others took a placebo. According to the study report, two-thirds of those on naltrexone lost their urge to steal (or they noticed significant reductions in that urge) compared to only eight percent of the subjects taking the placebo. The report also noted that the naltrexone subjects showed improved psychosocial functioning in standardized tests as well as reduced depression and anxiety. And, the report notes, “Subjects assigned to naltrexone also had greater improvement in overall kleptomania severity.” (Does that mean they stole just one sock instead of a pair?)
For the most part, the side effects associated with naltrexone are mild and brief: nausea (10% of users), headache (7%), dizziness (4%), fatigue (4%), insomnia (3%), anxiety (2%), and sleepiness (2%). There is, however, on potential serious possibility, and that is that naltrexone can have toxic effects on the liver. Although rare, it must be tested for if your doctor puts you on the drug.
Dr. Grant concedes that psychotherapy is an important adjunct to pill-popping for those with a kleptomania problem. This certainly seems like sound advice. For although the drug seems to deter thievery in the short run, in the case of other addictions, naltrexone, in most cases, only works for as long as the patient takes the prescription and apparently, recidivism is very high. Eighty percent of those taking naltrexone for substance addictions stop taking their pills and return to their addiction within one year.
It seems that as annoying and destructive as addictions can be, shutting down the pleasure centers artificially doesn’t work over the long haul, as the human psyche does crave pleasure and relief from anxiety. If that relief and/or pleasure comes in the form of indulging in petty theft, the pill may eventually seem a poor substitute for the apparent rush gained from stuffing illicit trinkets into the pocket.
Though recent large-scale studies found that although some 11 percent of the US population admits to having shoplifted at one time or another, very few people consider themselves addicted to the habit, and so few will rush out to the doctor on news of this breakthrough begging for a naltrexone prescription to control their filching. On the other hand, as for the 89 percent who claim that they’ve never, not even once in their lives, lifted any little thing, there might exist an array of other nasty habits that could be treated with naltrexone therapy — nasty habits such as telling “porky pies.”