Medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction involves administering medication, in combination with behavioral therapy, to help individuals overcome an opioid addiction for the long-term.
Opioid addiction affects over 2.5 million Americans.1 A large body of research shows that medication-assisted treatment is very effective for helping people get off—and stay off—heroin or prescription pain relievers. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, medication-assisted treatment has been shown to:2
- Reduce the risk of fatal overdose
- Increase social functioning
- Improve retention in treatment
- Reduce the risk of relapse
- Reduce illegal opioid use and associated criminal activity
- Improve the chances of successful employment
- Improve birth outcomes for pregnant women addicted to opioids
- Lower the risk of HIV and hepatitis C
Medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction effectively prevents withdrawal, and it reduces powerful opioid cravings that can quickly lead to a relapse. It enables individuals to focus on treatment, which involves a variety of therapies that help people improve their lives on many fronts as well as develop the skills and strategies they need to stay off opioids for the long-term.
Medications Used in Medication-Assisted Treatment for Opioid Addiction
The FDA has approved three medications for use in medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction.
Approved by the FDA in 2002 as an option for medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction, buprenorphine is an opioid partial agonist, which means that while it can produce euphoria and respiratory depression, these effects are far weaker than those of full-opioid drugs.
Buprenorphine can be prescribed by a physician, eliminating the need to travel to a clinic every day for treatment. That’s because unlike methadone, buprenorphine’s effects initially increase with each dose, but then they level off, even if you take larger doses. This helps to lower the risk of abuse.
Methadone is a synthetic opioid medication that has been used for decades to treat heroin and painkiller addiction. Because of its high potential for abuse, it’s taken once a day at a special clinic. Methadone prevents withdrawal, and it blocks the euphoric effects of heroin and opioid painkillers. Methadone has been shown to keep people in treatment longer and improve the outcome of treatment, and it’s safe and effective for pregnant women to use.
Naltrexone was approved by the FDA in 2010 to treat opioid addiction. Naltrexone can be taken as a daily pill or a once-monthly injection. It works by blocking the euphoric effects of opioids and reducing cravings. Although it does block the “high,” there is still a risk of overdose if high quantities of opioids are consumed.
Counseling Is Essential—and Required by Law
Medication alone is ineffective for treating opioid addiction. Medication-assisted treatment is a comprehensive plan that involves a range of services, including behavioral therapies, medical treatment, vocational or educational assistance and other services, which are required by law in conjunction with taking the medication. Medication-assisted treatment offers a holistic approach to treatment that helps individuals end their opioid addiction for good and improve their lives.
Myths About Medication-Assisted Treatment for Opioid Addiction
While medication-assisted treatment has become the gold-star standard for opioid addiction treatment, many people assume incorrectly that it’s simply replacing one addiction for another. But the proponents of medication-assisted treatment, which include numerous government agencies and medical associations, stress that the medication doesn’t get people high, but rather reduces cravings and withdrawal so they can focus on addressing the issues that underlie the addiction.
Medications are used to treat numerous diseases and conditions, including addiction. Medication-assisted treatment is no different than treating diabetes or heart disease with medications, and it can help you end your addiction once and for all and restore your quality of life and sense of well-being.