How Medications Help with Addiction Treatment
In many instances, substance abuse treatment programs will include prescription medication as part of the recovering addict’s treatment plan. The type of medication prescribed will depend on the type of drug abused.
As of 2022, the primary substance use disorders suitable for medication-assisted treatment are opioid addiction and alcohol use disorder. However, addiction medicine can also help prevent relapse, relieve cravings and ease other withdrawal symptoms early into recovery.
Research shows that including treatment for patients’ behavioral health alongside prescription medication can significantly improve their chances of recovery.
Medications are an important element of treatment for many patients, especially when combined with counseling and other behavioral therapies.
—National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)
What is a Medically Assisted Detox, and Why Do Medical Professionals Supervise?
Medical detox is typically the first step in getting help for a substance abuse issue. During detoxification, the body’s natural process of eliminating chemicals (i.e., drugs) from its system. Patients often experience withdrawal symptoms during detox.
Some withdrawal side effects — can be life-threatening, particularly for alcohol and benzodiazepine withdrawal. Having medical supervision throughout the detox process dramatically increases patient safety.
In addition, uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms may discourage recovering addicts, causing them to return to substance abuse. Certain prescription medications can lessen these cravings and withdrawal discomfort, increasing people’s chances of abstaining from drug use.
Medical detox can also occur at inpatient and outpatient levels, depending on a patient’s individual needs. Heavy drug users recovering from more dangerous substances may require access to inpatient rehab (24-hour healthcare), with mild drug users may only require an outpatient treatment program and at-home prescription during their detox phase.
Types of Meds Used to Treat Substance Use Disorders
The following medications are approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat opioid use disorder and alcohol use disorder. Presently, there are no other official FDA-approved medications for these or other substance use disorders.
That doesn’t mean doctors won’t prescribe other medications to assist with other substance abuse problems. For example, doctors may prescribe antidepressants (such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors SSRIs) to help combat depression after quitting crystal meth abuse.
However, unlike the below medications, complementary medications are not being used to directly treat substance abuse concerns such as cravings and relapse prevention.
Medications Used to Treat Opioid Use Disorder
Opioid treatment programs will often include medication to help opioid addicts avoid relapse by reducing cravings or blocking their brain’s ability to feel the euphoric effects of an opioid.
Research shows that it only takes about three weeks to develop opioid dependence. Someone appropriately using a legal prescription for hydrocodone or oxycodone could also develop an opioid addiction and need help quitting.
Methadone works by blocking any potential euphoric effects a person might feel from opioids. Methadone also reduces the discomfort of withdrawal, including symptoms like muscle cramps and nausea.
Methadone treatment is one of the more well-known treatments for opioid addiction but is becoming less common. Methadone can only be provided at a licensed facility and is unavailable for most users to self-administer. Patients must also take methadone daily for the drug to be effective, which is not always ideal when a person has to travel to a clinic to receive their medication. Lastly, it has caused its own issues with addicts becoming addicted to methadone.
Buprenorphine, or Suboxone, is what’s known as a partial opioid agonist, which means it binds to the brain’s opioid receptors. If someone receiving buprenorphine treatment tries to take an opioid, the buprenorphine will block it from taking effect.
Buprenorphine also reduces cravings and other withdrawal discomforts. Additionally, licensed doctors can prescribe Suuboxone to a patient to self-administer via tablets, including an extended-release version.
Naltrexone also blocks any euphoric effects of opioids, making it easier for individuals to resist cravings and maintain abstinence as they work on their recovery. Naltrexone does not provide much relief for withdrawal symptoms, and so it is often used in conjunction with buprenorphine in the early stages or prescribed later as a relapse deterrent.
Naltrexone treats alcohol use disorder because it helps users combat cravings.
Naltrexone is not generally used to treat opioid use disorder except in instances of opioid overdose. Naloxone works by stopping the effects of an overdose, allowing enough time for the victim to receive life-saving medical attention before it’s too late.
Medications Used to Treat Alcohol Use Disorder
Alcohol use disorder has one of the most dangerous detoxification processes. Due to how alcohol sedates the brain, the sudden lack of alcohol use causes the brain to become overactive and can result in seizures, coma, brain damage, and more.
The FDA has approved the following medications to treat alcohol use disorder. These medications help alcoholics avoid returning to drinking and alleviate some of the withdrawal discomforts.
Similar to how it helps opiate addicts, naltrexone helps reduce or eliminate cravings for patients that have quit drinking alcohol. Naltrexone will also block any effects of intoxication that the user might feel if they relapse, which can help them remain sober in the long term. It is also a popular choice in assisting patients in avoiding returning to heavy drinking.
Naltrexone can be self-administered by pill or given as a monthly shot by a doctor or other licensed addiction specialist.
Acamprosate was approved in 2004 to treat alcohol use disorder, making it one of the newest FDA-approved medications for alcohol treatment. Acamprosate is beneficial when taken if the user is already sober and helps users avoid cravings for alcohol.
Acamprosate is not known to be habit-forming nor cause any significant side effects. Acamprosate is taken twice daily by mouth.
Disulfiram changes how the body metabolizes alcohol, which results in an unpleasant reaction if the user tries drinking while taking this medication. A typical treatment with disulfiram happens early on in recovery from alcohol abuse. Patients are also encouraged through behavioral therapy alongside taking disulfiram to help them build mental strength against relapse.
Other Substance Use Disorders and Medication Treatment
Sometimes, physicians may prescribe medication alongside addiction recovery treatment to alleviate other adverse effects and improve patient well-being. Individuals recovering from benzodiazepine abuse will often receive a tapering plan from their doctor or medical professional.
Other individuals may need an antidepressant medication to help stabilize them while their brain recovers and heals from the excessive chemicals to which it was exposed.
In some cases, such as stimulant addiction, there are no current medications used to assist with the withdrawal and early sobriety process—but according to the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), research on appropriate medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for other substances is still underway.
Are These Medications Dangerous?
Overall, medication prescribed to assist with addiction treatment is not dangerous when used as prescribed by your treatment provider. Some of these medications, such as methadone, pose a risk of becoming habit-forming themselves. However, recovering addicts should not fear using these medications when taken according to the prescription details.
These prescription drugs can help you or your loved one avoid relapse, and they can also provide you with relief during the challenging withdrawal phase. Never skip doses (if you forget to take a dose, do not double-up) and take the medication as prescribed.
With the help of medication-assisted treatment, you or your family member have a better chance of beating substance use disorder.
Curious About Your Medication Treatment Options?
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a free program locator that will allow you to see what kind of addiction treatment services are near you.