Can You Treat Substance Abuse With Medication?

There are many ways to treat substance abuse disorders. Some of them include inpatient treatment and outpatient therapy. Medication can be another option depending on the kind of substance being abused. This is called medication-assisted treatment or MAT.

Not every type of substance abuse can be treated with medication. Opiate addiction and alcohol abuse can both be treated with medication. But MAT isn’t an option with most other kinds of drug abuse, including:

  • Cocaine
  • Hallucinogens
  • MDMA
  • Methamphetamines
  • Stimulants 

Opiates and alcohol are different from these drugs. There are drugs available that block the brain receptors for alcohol or opiates. Some of them prevent you from feeling high so you don’t want to use the substance anymore. Others make cravings go away so withdrawal doesn’t happen. 

Either way, the end result is the same. You’re much less likely to abuse drugs when you’re following your MAT regimen.  

How Does Medication-Assisted Treatment Work?

When you have a dependency on opiates or alcohol, you feel sick when you’re not using the drug. This feeling of sickness is called withdrawal. It usually comes with strong cravings for the drug. 

Between cravings and withdrawal, it can be nearly impossible to stop using opiates or alcohol if you have a dependency.

When you stop using opiates or alcohol, the receptors in your brain and nervous system know that there’s none of it in your system. They trigger withdrawal, which makes you sick. It also gives you a strong urge to use the substance. 

Medications used in MAT block those receptors so your body doesn’t realize you aren’t taking the drug. You won’t feel high, and you won’t have the cravings or sickness that come with withdrawal. 

This can make it much easier to have a successful recovery. A study found that patients were more than twice as likely to stay off opioids after 18 months of MAT. 

How to Start Medication-Assisted Treatment

To start medication-assisted treatment, you’ll need to be under care with a SAMHSA-certified treatment program. SAMHSA is the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. 

Certified treatment programs have to follow special guidelines for patients’ safety. MAT isn’t right for every patient. It needs to be used under supervision with special care. 

If you think MAT is right for you, the first step is to contact a certified treatment program. A doctor will help you choose a treatment option that’s right for your recovery. 

What to Expect During Medication-Assisted Treatment

Like any medication, MAT comes with risks, benefits, and side effects. You’re more likely to have a successful recovery if you know what to expect going in. 

Talk to your doctor about what to expect from MAT. Different drugs have their own guidelines and side effects. Your treatment will be tailored to what’s right for you. 

Your treatment center will expect you to:

  • Take your medication only as directed
  • Attend regular appointments
  • Take a drug screen at every appointment
  • Go to one-on-one or group therapy
  • Abstain from illicit drugs
  • Talk to your doctor right away if you have a relapse 
  • Tell your doctor if you take the wrong amount of medication or take medication between scheduled doses

Can You Treat Substance Abuse With Medication Alone?

You might start MAT as an outpatient or as part of residential treatment. Either way, expect to have MAT paired with some kind of therapy. That’s because MAT is more effective when combined with therapy. 

Some kinds of therapy that you might use with MAT include:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy, which helps you recognize and stop behaviors that make your addiction worse
  • Motivational enhancement therapy, which helps you find reasons to stay off illicit drugs
  • Contingency management therapy, which rewards you with incentives to help you stay off drugs 

Depending on your case, you might benefit from group counseling or family counseling

Some patients use MAT to get through detox and stop using it when they’re stable. Others keep taking their MAT medication long-term. Some people use MAT when they’re in treatment and come back to it after re-entering treatment. 

The right way to take MAT depends on your addiction history and how you respond to recovery. Your doctor will help you come up with a treatment plan that’s right for you.  

Medication-Assisted Treatment Pros and Cons

All treatments come with pros and cons. Your recovery will be more successful if you know the risks and benefits before you start MAT.  

Here’s what you need to know about the risks and benefits of medication-assisted treatment: 

Benefits of Medication-Assisted Treatment

  • Allows you to focus on recovery: MAT can remove the feeling of withdrawal so you aren’t focused on how detox makes you feel.
  • Lessens your urge to use alcohol or opiates: MAT can block cravings so you aren’t always thinking about the substance you’re detoxing from. 
  • Effective when part of a full treatment plan: When combined with therapy, social support, and addiction counseling, MAT increases the odds that you’ll stay in treatment and recovery.

Risks of Medication-Assisted Treatment

  • Side effects: All medications have side effects. The drugs used in MAT are no different. The side effects depend on the drug that you’re taking. 
  • Abuse: Some drugs used to treat opiate withdrawal are prone to abuse. When you abuse drugs used for MAT, you put yourself at risk of overdose and set back your recovery.
  • Social stigma: You may have heard someone say that using MAT is substituting one drug addiction for another. But that’s not true at all. When you take it as directed, MAT is a tool that helps you maintain your sobriety. 

Methadone Treatment

Methadone is a common drug used to treat opiate addiction. People who might use methadone include people who abuse heroin or narcotic pain drugs. 

Never stop taking methadone without medical supervision. Don’t take more methadone than your doctor prescribes. Don’t take methadone more often than prescribed. 

Buprenorphine Treatment

Buprenorphine is the only MAT drug for opioid abuse that doesn’t require dosing in a clinic or doctor’s office at first. 

Naltrexone Treatment

Naltrexone helps block cravings and prevents you from feeling euphoric when you use other opioids. 

Medication-Assisted Treatment for Alcohol

Drugs used in MAT for alcohol might block the euphoric effect from alcohol. They might soothe the symptoms of withdrawal. And they can cause you to feel ill when you drink alcohol. Any of these effects help boost your success in recovery by helping you stick to your treatment goals. 

Disulfiram Treatment 

Disulfiram is a drug that causes your body to stop tolerating alcohol. When you drink alcohol on this drug, you’ll feel side effects that include: 

  • Flushing
  • Nausea and vomiting 
  • Headache and migraine
  • Dizziness and confusion
  • Chest discomfort 

The side effects usually start within 10 minutes of drinking alcohol. They can last for an hour or longer. Most patients take disulfiram once a day and abstain from drinking alcohol while taking it. 

Acamprosate Treatment 

Acamprosate makes alcohol withdrawal tolerable by lessening the physical and mental symptoms. You’ll need to stop drinking completely before you start taking this drug. 

Once you start taking it, you’ll feel relief from symptoms such as: 

  • Vomiting and nausea
  • Headache
  • Anxiety and mood changes
  • Sweating
  • Insomnia 

Many people start drinking again during withdrawal because they’re so uncomfortable. Acamprosate eases this discomfort and helps you abstain from alcohol. 

Naltrexone Treatment 

When you take naltrexone, you won’t feel euphoric when you drink alcohol. And when you abstain from alcohol, you won’t feel the harsh side effects of withdrawal. 

Which MAT Option is Right for Me?

Whether you’re looking for treatment for opioid addiction or alcohol abuse, MAT can make your recovery easier and more successful. 

There are several drugs available to treat addiction to both substances. When you go into treatment, your doctor will talk to you about the risks and benefits of different MAT options. He’ll also talk to you about your addiction history and medical history. 

If you’re a candidate for MAT, then your doctor will help you choose a drug that’s most likely to succeed for you. There’s no treatment plan that’s right for every person. A tailored treatment plan is built just for you and your needs. 

Don’t keep struggling alone with substance abuse disorder. Medication-assisted treatment could be the tool you need to thrive. Call an addiction treatment center today to start your recovery!

  1. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: Medication and Counseling Treatment
  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse: Long-term follow-up of medication-assisted treatment for addiction to pain relievers yields cause for optimism
  3. MedlinePlus: Opioid abuse and addiction treatment
  4. The Pew Charitable Trusts: Medication-assisted treatment improves outcomes for patients with opioid use disorder

Written by Spring Hill Recovery Editorial Team

© 2024 Spring Hill Recovery | All Rights Reserved

* This page does not provide medical advice.

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