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Does Medication-Assisted Treatment Work?

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By: Renaissance Recovery

Medically Reviewed by: Diana Vo, LMFT

Last Updated: 7/1/2021

Authored By: Joe Gilmore

Table of Contents

Medication-assisted treatment, commonly abbreviated to MAT, involves the use of medications alongside counseling and behavioral therapies to treat substance use disorders.

The medications utilized for MAT are FDA-approved. Programs are evidence-based and clinically-driven. They are also highly personalized. Most current research shows that medication-assisted treatment, when delivered in combination with behavioral therapy, can be effective for both alcohol use disorder and opioid use disorder. MAT can also help improve retention in treatment, sustain long-term recovery, and prevent or reduce the likelihood of opioid overdose. How does MAT work, then?

What Is Medication-Assisted Treatment and How Does it Work?

MAT typically works in one of two different ways.

Some opioids target the same receptors as the opioids being abused, but they are absorbed into your bloodstream over a lengthier period. This serves to stave off withdrawal symptoms and break the psychological link you have formed between taking opioids and getting immediately high.

Alternatively, opioid antagonists are non-opioid medications that activate and block opioid receptors. This means if you relapse, you won’t feel the rewarding effects of the opioids, and there is no incentive to continue abusing them. That said, due to the fact your tolerance will have dramatically lowered, using opioids while taking an opioid antagonist is dangerous, and potentially even deadly.

Mat substitutes one medication for another, but you’re replacing a harmful drug with one that allows you to work, to function, and to kickstart the ongoing process of recovery. Does medication-assisted treatment really work long-term, though?

How Effective is Medication-Assisted Treatment?

Medication-assisted treatment has been proven clinically effective. MAT also reduces the need for inpatient medical detox.

MAT has a simple goal: full recovery. The approach has been shown to:

  • Increase retention in addiction treatment
  • Improve patient survival
  • Reduce illicit opiate use and criminal activity
  • Improve birth outcomes in pregnant substance abusers
  • Lower risk of contracting HIV/AIDS and hepatitis

SAMHSA states that MAT is “clinically effective and significantly reduces the need for inpatient detoxification services for those with opioid use disorder.”

Sadly, MAT is underused. Less than half of those with opioid use disorder typically take advantage of medication-assisted treatment, despite the many proven benefits.

What Medications Are Used for Opioid Overdose Prevention?

Naloxone is effective for reversing the toxic effects triggered by opioid overdose.

The World Health Organization places naloxone on a list of medications essential to a fully functional healthcare system.

What Medications Are Used for Alcohol Use Disorder?

There are three FDA-approved medications used for treating alcohol use disorder:

  • Naltrexone
  • Disulfiram
  • Acamprosate

These medications do not serve as a cure for alcohol use disorder, but they play an effective role in treatment for many people with severe AUD.

Naltrexone

Naltrexone blocks the effects of opioids and reduces the pleasurable feelings triggered by drinking alcohol.

This medication is an opioid antagonist that’s also effective for treating opioid use disorder.

Disulfiram

This medication disrupts the normal metabolic pathway for alcohol and causes an unpleasant reaction to one of the chemicals in alcohol (acetaldehyde). If you drink alcohol while taking disulfiram, you’ll experience a range of negative outcomes including nausea, headaches, and vomiting.

The medication acts to powerfully discourage you from consuming alcohol.

Acamprosate

If you have already stopped drinking, acamprosate can help minimize the chances of relapse.

This medication will not prevent withdrawal symptoms in people who have only just stopped drinking. You’ll need to wait a week or so before taking acamprosate.

What Medications Are Used for Opioid Use Disorder?

MAT is proven to be the most effective form of treatment for opioid use disorder.

Treatment plans will incorporate cognitive and behavioral therapies, and may involve the use of more than one medication.

Three FDA-approved medications are effective for treating OUD:

  • Methadone
  • Buprenorphine
  • Naltrexone

These medications work well for treating disorders to semi-synthetic opioids like oxycodone or short-acting opioids like codeine, morphine, or heroin.

You can safely use these medications on an ongoing basis under close medical supervision.

Methadone

Methadone is an opioid agonist. As such, it activates the opioid receptors in your brain fully, serving to lessen the intensity of withdrawal symptoms while also diminishing cravings for opioids.

Used since the 1960s, methadone is the only MAT drug that’s safe for use in breastfeeding or pregnant women.

Buprenorphine

Buprenorphine is a partial opioid agonist that delivers the effects of opioids without the euphoric high. This discourages abuse due to the ceiling effect where higher doses do not produce more intense effects.

This medication is commonly combined with naloxone in the form of FDA-approved Suboxone.

Naltrexone

As an opioid antagonist, naltrexone counters the effects of opioids. If you use opioids while you’re taking this medication, you won’t feel any of the euphoric effects, and you won’t feel high.

Are There Any Drawbacks to Medication-Assisted Treatment?

No approach to addiction treatment is flawless, and there is some risk involved with medication-assisted treatment.

Firstly, there is a risk that the drugs utilized for substitution might be abused. Beyond this, there’s also a black market for these medications, with often damaging consequences.

If someone uses these medications in high enough quantities and using different methods of delivery, it’s possible to get high. The medications can even be addictive themselves.

Withdrawal from synthetic opioids like those administered in medication-assisted treatment can be more uncomfortable than withdrawing from heroin.

In the worst scenario, some people undergoing MAT continue abusing substances while also taking new medications.

Overall, though, MAT combined with psychotherapy is proven to reduce the likelihood of fatal overdose than traditional treatment methods not utilizing medications.

If you need substance abuse treatment and you feel you might benefit from FDA-approved medication during detox, withdrawal, and recovery, we can help.

Medication-Assisted Treatment at Renaissance Recovery Center

Addiction treatment at Renaissance Recovery involves the use of FDA-approved medications as appropriate.

In the case of alcohol use disorder and opioid use disorder in particular, the medications outlined above can be highly beneficial. Not only can these medications streamline the withdrawal process and reduce the intensity of adverse withdrawal symptoms, but you should also find they reduce cravings for alcohol or opioids.

Alongside MAT, we’ll give you access to a range of behavioral therapies so you can move forward with a solid foundation for sustained recovery in place.

To get things started, call the friendly Renaissance Recovery team at 866.330.9449.866.330.9449

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Diana Vo, LMFT

Diana is an addiction expert and licensed marriage and family therapist who has been in the field of mental health for over 10 years.

Joseph Gilmore

Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country