When you decide to enter a treatment program for addiction recovery, there will be numerous service offerings available. For example, there are inpatient programs that require patients to live on site, as well as outpatient programs that allow people to live at home while attending appointments at a facility. Regardless of which setting you choose, most programs provide a combination of services, including support groups, individual and group therapy, and recreational activities like yoga or art therapy.
Another option that has become more popular is the use of medication-assisted treatment. If you’re seeking addiction treatment, it’s important to have an understanding of addiction medications and their uses in the recovery process. Addiction medications may become a part of your personal treatment plan.
What is medication-assisted treatment for addiction?
Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is a common term in the addiction recovery community. This term refers to the use of medications, often in combination with behavioral treatments like counseling, to treat addiction. Medications used in addiction treatment are government approved, and they can prevent relapse, in addition to keeping people engaged in treatment.
Sometimes people argue that medication simply causes a person to “replace one addiction with another,” but medications serve a legitimate medical purpose. Furthermore, because addiction medications are government regulated and administered by a doctor, they are much safer than the drugs purchased illegally on the streets. Addiction medications can alleviate withdrawal symptoms and psychological cravings, so they can play an important role in the addiction treatment process.
Medications used in addiction treatment
Addiction treatment medications are most often used to treat opioid use disorder (OUD) or alcohol use disorder (AUD). These medications are described in more detail below.
Opioid Use Disorder (OUD) Medications
Medications used in the treatment of opioid use disorder include:
- Methadone: Methadone prevents cravings and withdrawal symptoms by acting on the opioid receptors, which are the same receptors activated when a person misuses heroin or a prescription opioid like oxycodone. This type of medication can only be dispensed in opioid treatment programs. While it does act on the opioid receptors, it does not produce the “high” that people with an opioid addiction experience when misusing opioids.
- Buprenorphine: Buprenorphine acts on opioid receptors, but less strongly than a full opioid agonist like methadone does. Similarly to methadone, buprenorphine reduces cravings and withdrawal symptoms but doesn’t produce a high. A patient does not need to visit a specialized opioid treatment clinic to receive buprenorphine, because eligible physicians can prescribe it after completing training.
- Naltrexone: Naltrexone, most commonly known by its brand name, Vivitrol, blocks opioid receptors from activation. It deters patients from misusing opioids, because they will not experience the usual euphoria or high if they take an opioid while also taking Vivitrol. The benefit of Vivitrol is that it is a long-acting, injectable medication, so it only needs to be administered once a month.
Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) Medications
Medications used for treating alcohol addiction include:
- Acamprosate: This medication is effective for promoting abstinence in people not currently consuming alcohol.
- Disulfiram: This medication doesn’t reduce cravings, but it discourages alcohol use, because a person will become sick if they consume alcohol while taking disulfiram. The caveat is that if patients don’t take the medication, it won’t provide any benefit.
- Naltrexone: As is the case with opioid use disorder, naltrexone is effective for treating alcohol use disorders because it blocks the pleasurable effects associated with drinking.
Pros and cons of medication-assisted treatment
The use of medication-assisted treatment comes with many benefits, which are summarized below:
- Reduced risk of overdose death
- Lower risk of contracting HIV or hepatitis C
- Decreases in illegal drug use
- Reductions in criminal activity
- Better employment prospects
- Higher likelihood of remaining in treatment
In summary, medication-assisted treatment can help people to avoid misusing substances, while also helping them to stay committed to treatment. When people remain in treatment and abstinent from substances, they experience other positive outcomes, such as better health and reductions in criminal activity.
While medication-assisted treatment can be beneficial, it is not without risks. Some potential drawbacks include:
- Limited access (especially for methadone, which requires obtaining medication from a speciality clinic)
- Potential side effects of medications
- Some potential for abuse and diversion of medications like methadone and buprenorphine
- Stigma associated with taking such medications
For many patients, the pros of medication-assisted treatment outweigh the cons. However, it’s important for patients to take these medications exactly as prescribed, and to keep them locked in a safe place to prevent theft. It’s also critical to keep these medications out of reach of children. A doctor can help you to determine if medications are appropriate for you, and they will provide guidance to ensure that you take any prescribed medications safely.
When to consider medication
Medication-assisted treatment can be beneficial for managing withdrawal symptoms and cravings and preventing the risk of relapse. If you’ve struggled to stay engaged in addiction treatment, or you find that cravings and withdrawal symptoms are unmanageable, you may benefit from using medications. With medication, you may find that the urge to use drugs or alcohol lessens, so you can fully participate in your treatment plan.
Given that medication-assisted treatment significantly increases abstinence rates, this form of treatment can be particularly beneficial for patients who have experienced multiple relapses or unsuccessful attempts to enter a recovery program. Talk with your physician or addiction treatment provider if you believe you may benefit from taking medications.
For those seeking treatment for mental health and co-occurring substance use disorders, Mission Harbor Behavioral Health provides outpatient care in Southern California. We have office locations in both Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, and we offer programs for adults and teens. Contact us today to learn more about our service offerings.