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Medications for Addiction Treatment

Medication is frequently used in the treatment of substance use disorders.1 Addiction treatment medications can support people through detox and withdrawal, during rehab, and throughout their lifelong recovery journey.1

Addiction treatment medication may be part of a comprehensive, individualized treatment plan that can also include behavioral therapies, drug education, and social or legal services.

According to the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Mental Health, out of the 28.3 million people (aged 12 and older) with a past year alcohol use disorder, 1.0% of them received medication-assisted treatment.6

For opioid use disorder (OUD), medications may be the primary intervention used to help people reduce or stop opioid misuse along with behavioral therapies or other addiction treatment modalities.1

Among the 2.5 million people aged 12 and older with a past-year opioid use disorder, 11.2% received medication for opioid misuse.6

This article will discuss:

  • What treatment medications are.
  • When they are used.
  • Medication-assisted treatment and its effectiveness.
  • Common types of addiction medications.

What Are Addiction Treatment Medications?

Addiction treatment medications aid in the treatment of substance use disorders (SUDs). The treatment of disorders or diseases with medication is also known as pharmacotherapy.3

Medications for addiction treatment can be used to:1, 4

  • Manage withdrawal symptoms.
  • Reduce drug cravings.
  • Help prevent relapse.
  • Treat co-occurring disorders (e.g., depressive or anxiety disorders).

When Are Addiction Treatment Medications Used?

Treatment medications are available only by prescription and are commonly used:1

  • During withdrawal to reduce or eliminate withdrawal symptoms.
  • As a relapse prevention technique that helps decrease cravings as people continue their recovery.
  • In the treatment of co-occurring mental health disorders like depression or anxiety.

Some medications for opioid and alcohol use disorders cannot be administered until after a person has been abstinent from the substance for a set amount of time.5

Combining Addiction Treatment Medication with Psychosocial Treatment

Medications for addiction treatment may be more effective when combined with psychosocial treatment modalities like motivational enhancement therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, or other behavioral interventions.18

This combination is sometimes referred to as “medication-assisted treatment.” However, since medication is an increasingly common standard of care, particularly for treating OUD, the idea of medication as a mere “assist” is considered outdated by many addiction treatment professionals.18

Medication and therapy can provide a whole-person approach that addresses the varied and often complex needs of people with substance use disorders.4 Combining medication with psychosocial interventions can provide support and skills that can:16, 19

  • Benefit the person as they’re waiting for the medication effects to become apparent.
  • Enhance treatment adherence.
  • Improve treatment retention.
  • Address symptoms and problems that the medication will not address (e.g., identifying triggers and learning alternative coping skills).

What to Expect When Treated with Addiction Medications

The initial assessment for addiction treatment can help determine a person’s treatment needs, level of readiness to stop using substances, and whether medication for addiction treatment is appropriate in helping to achieve their recovery goals.16 Ongoing assessment is likely to take place throughout the recovery process.16

Medication used for alcohol or drug addiction treatment can be part of an outpatient or inpatient rehab program, or they may be prescribed by emergency room physicians, primary care doctors, or other healthcare providers. Dosages may be changed by prescribers throughout the course of treatment to best meet a patient’s needs.16

Some may benefit from a combination of medications.9 For example, naltrexone used to reduce alcohol cravings might be prescribed alongside acamprosate, which reduces symptoms of withdrawal.9

Common Types of Addiction Medications

There are several treatment medications that may be used to treat specific types of substance use disorders, including opioid use disorder and alcohol use disorder.

For other substances, however, medications are generally supportive (to target specific withdrawal symptoms, for example) and they don’t play a major role in reducing substance use. For drugs like marijuana and stimulants, there are currently no FDA-approved medications, although research is still ongoing.1

The following sections will outline commonly used medications.

Treatment Medication for Opioid Use Disorder

Addiction treatment medications for OUD are found to be quite effective at preventing illicit opioid use and reducing the risk of overdose-related deaths. Medications for OUDs  can help in several ways depending on a person’s needs, including:16

  • Reducing or eliminating withdrawal symptoms.
  • Blunting or blocking the effects of illicit opioids.
  • Reducing or eliminating cravings for opioids.

There are several FDA-approved opioid treatment medications, including the following:16

  • Buprenorphine is a partial opioid agonist that works to relieve drug cravings and withdrawal symptoms while blunting or blocking the effects of illicit opioids.16 Research has shown that the use of buprenorphine helps to keep people in treatment and limits illicit opioid use after treatment.16
  • Naltrexone is an opioid antagonist that blocks the euphoric effects of opioids after a person goes through the withdrawal process.16 Naltrexone is not an opioid and its brand name is known as Vivitrol.11
  • Methadone is a full opioid agonist that lessens or blocks the effect of opioids, reducing cravings and symptoms of withdrawal.1, 12 When taken as prescribed, methadone is both effective and safe.12
  • Lofexidine is a medication that helps to ease the severity of withdrawal symptoms when stopping opioid use. It is approved for longer-term treatment of OUD.2

Treatment Medication for Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcohol treatment medications include the following:

  • Benzodiazepines may be used to mitigate the risk of severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms.9
  • Disulfiram (brand name Antabuse), the first medication approved for the treatment of alcohol dependence, works as an alcohol-aversive agent that causes unpleasant effects if someone were to drink alcohol, including warmth and redness in the face (i.e., flushing), nausea, chest pain, and irregular heartbeat. These uncomfortable reactions occur as soon as 10 minutes after drinking even a small amount of alcohol and may last an hour or more. It is most effective in the initial stage of abstinence following detox.4
  • Naltrexone (brand name Vivitrol) works by blocking opioid receptors that contribute to the rewarding effects of alcohol use, which may also contribute to craving.1
  • Acamprosate (brand name Campral) is a treatment medication used to support abstinence after the post-withdrawal phase of alcohol recovery when a person is not currently drinking.5 Acamprosate mediates alcohol-caused brain changes, thus reducing the potential for relapse.5

Other Medications Used for Addiction Treatment

Some treatment providers may use medications off-label to manage withdrawal symptoms or to reduce substance use.13 Off-label use of medication is when an FDA-approved medication is used for a purpose it has not yet been approved for.13

Effectiveness of Medications for Addiction Treatment

Addiction treatment medications can play an important role in a person’s recovery from substance use; however, a treatment plan that integrates medical and behavioral healthcare can provide patient-focused, comprehensive treatment that meets the wide range of symptoms and service needs that many patients with SUDs may have.16

Medication can certainly help improve the quality of life for those with SUDs and may help curb substance use for certain substances like opioids. Remember that many of the people who enter addiction treatment have complex issues that can’t be addressed by medication alone. Some of these issues include:16

  • Co-occurring substance use disorders.
  • Complex mental health issues and distress, including co-occurring mental health disorders.
  • Medical problems.
  • History of trauma.
  • Lack of social support.
  • Unemployment or legal issues.

Find a Medication-Assisted Treatment Center

Medications for addiction treatment are available widely by prescription, although there are limitations for methadone. Access to buprenorphine is less restricted, although doctors need to undergo some training to receive a federal waiver to prescribe buprenorphine.

Most medications for addiction treatment are also available in outpatient, inpatient, and residential settings. Outpatient treatment may include individual or group counseling in addition to medication. Shorter-term residential treatment often provides patients with detox assistance, therapy, and help when transitioning into community-based or outpatient treatment.

There are numerous insurance options for those who are looking for help with addiction. Group, private, and public insurance plans will often cover or help cover the cost of addiction treatment including both medication and behavioral interventions. Coverage for services varies amongst insurance programs.

If you are struggling with addiction and need help finding treatment, American Addiction Centers has caring admissions staff ready to take your call 24/7 at . Call us today to learn about treatment options like medication and behavioral therapy so you can start on a new path today.