What is Medication-Assisted Treatment?

Medication-assisted treatment (MAT), involves the use of certain medications in conjunction with standard drug and alcohol treatment programs. Studies indicate that a combination of medication and counseling can successfully treat substance use disorders and may contribute to long-term recovery.

How Medications Help with Addiction

Several different medications are used to treat alcoholism and addiction to opioids -- both illicit drugs and legally-prescribed painkillers. As of yet, there are no medications legally approved for treatment of addiction to methamphetamines, cocaine or marijuana, although some meds may be prescribed to relieve stomach upset, nausea, headaches or other symptoms of withdrawal.

Medications commonly used for treatment of alcoholism include: Disulfiram, Naltrexone and Acamprosate, which have somewhat different purposes. Disulfiram is used for people who have completed detox and are in the early days of abstinence. Naltrexone blocks the euphoria produced by alcohol, thus helping people stay in treatment and avoid relapses. Acamprosate, which reduces long-term symptoms such as anxiety, restless and insomnia, is for people who have already stopped drinking but continue to struggle with cravings.

Medications commonly used for treatment of opioid addiction include: Methadone, Naltrexone and Buprenorphine. Although the three medications work in different ways, they all help block the euphoric effects of opioids and decrease symptoms of withdrawal, thus allowing people to engage in counseling and therapy.

The Argument Against use of Medication-Assisted Therapy

Although the use of medications is supported by the scientific community, some people argue that medication-assisted treatment only trades one drug for another, primarily because some anti-addiction medications are in the same drug family as opioids.

While it’s true that some of the drugs, including methadone and buprenorphine, may present the possibility of addiction, they replace dangerous, sometimes lethal drugs with safer alternatives prescribed at a controlled dose. The medications have no negative effect on intelligence, employability, or physical or mental functioning.

Studies over the last several years have indicated that medications help people stay in treatment longer, decrease criminal activity, improve overall quality of life, prevent overdose, improve the survival rate and decrease the risk of relapse.

Medications also improve the outcome for pregnant women who have substance use disorders.

Although medication-assisted therapy is gaining acceptance, most experts believe it is still greatly underused. As a result of misconceptions surrounding medication-assisted therapy, many treatment providers have been slow to integrate medications into their treatment plans.

Medication-Assisted Therapy: Is it Right for You?

If you’re struggling with addiction to alcohol or opioid drugs, talk to your medical provider about medication-assisted therapy. If your doctor isn’t supportive of the idea, you may need to talk to another medical provider, or consider checking into a drug and alcohol treatment or rehab that specializes in medication-assisted therapy.

Each medication presents its own set of benefits and risks, and it’s critical that your medical provider understands how to determine which medication is best for you.

It’s important to understand that medications aren’t a magical cure for addiction. However, when used along with counseling and therapy, medications may significantly improve your quality of life and increase chances of long-term success.

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