When Psychotherapy May Cause Harm: The Case Of Cue Exposure Therapy In Opiate Addiction

Persistent cue reactivity to drug-related stimuli is a well-known phenomenon among abstinent drug users and has been found to be a predictor of relapse. Cue exposure therapy (CET) aims to reduce this cue reactivity by exposing abstinent drug users to conditioned drug-related stimuli while preventing their habitual response, i.e. drug use. 127 abstinent heroin-dependent Dutch inpatients were randomized to CET (n = 65; 55 completers) and placebo psychotherapy treatment (PPT) (n = 62; 59 completers).

It was examined whether CET would lead to a decrease in drug-related cue reactivity (using mixed-design ANOVA) and subsequently to lower dropout and relapse rates (using logistic regression) compared to PPT. Both groups responded with a similar decrease in self-reported cue reactivity (craving, mood). The CET group did show a significant decrease in physiological reactivity (skin conductance) compared to PPT. However, dropout and relapse rates were, contrary to our expectations, significantly higher in the CET group.

This is the first randomized controlled trial showing that CET, compared to a non-specific psychotherapy, might increase dropout and relapse rates among abstinent heroin-dependent clients in a drug-free setting. Caution is warranted when applying CET in this specific context.

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Dr Marlies A.E. Marissen alfa

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