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Do you really need new drugs to stop taking the old drugs? There’s something sort of counter-intuitive about taking new drugs to quit using other substances, but research tells us that in most cases, combing an appropriate med with education and addiction treatment produces the best odds of lasting recovery success.

Why consider medications?

1. Addiction is a brain disease. It changes the brain’s structure and function. Much of this change is reversible, but some is not. Some of these brain changes cause symptoms - like memory problems or poor impulse control - that make relapse very likely. Some medications help you to feel better and function more normally during this initial recovery period and this reduces your relapse risk and increases the odds of a successful long term recovery.

2. Addiction treatment works… but only if you stick with it. A lot of people drop out of treatment early because they feel so sick or discouraged or because they can’t handle the cravings. Medications that reduce some of the negative symptoms can help you to stick with treatment for long enough to start seeing some of the lasting benefits. 1

How Can Medications Help?

1. They Can Help with Withdrawal Symptoms

Medications like benzodiazepines for alcohol or the short term use of methadone or Suboxone for opiates can help to reduce the severity of withdrawal symptoms during the initial abstinence phase. During detox, medications can increase comfort and decrease health risks.

2. They Can Help You Avoid Relapse

Some medications, like Antabuse, are designed to discourage relapse by making you very ill if combined with alcohol. Other medications, like naltrexone (taken as a daily pill or a once a month injection) discourage relapse by taking away many of the rewarding effects of alcohol or drugs use.

3. They Can Help with Cravings

Medications like Suboxone, methadone and naltrexone can partly or completely eliminate drug or alcohol cravings.

4. They Can Help You Manage Co-Occurring Psychiatric Disorders

It’s difficult to make recovery progress when symptoms of active mental illness sabotage your best efforts. Research tells us that mental illness and addiction are best treated concurrently, and in many cases this means using psychiatric medications while participating in an addiction treatment program.2

Addiction Treatment Medications

The following medications are FDA approved for use as addiction treatment medications. In some cases your doctor may also suggest the off label use of medications not included in the list below.

  • Alcohol – Acamprosate, Disulfiram (Antabuse) and Naltrexone
  • Opiates – Methadone, Buprenorphine (Suboxone) and Naltrexone
  • Tobacco – Bupropion, Varenicline, nicotine replacement therapies

Do Most Addiction Treatment Programs Make Use of Addiction Treatment Medications?

Although addiction treatment researchers at NIDA and SAMHSA endorse a combination of appropriate addiction treatment medications and behavioral therapies as the most effective form of treatment, many treatment programs do not make use of these medications.

  1. Some programs do not have a physician or psychiatrist on staff capable of prescribing medications
  2. Some programs choose not to use medications for philosophical reasons

A research study released in March 2011 revealed that even among private treatment programs with access to a prescribing physician, less than 50% of these programs made any use of available addiction treatment medications and only 24% used any kind of addiction treatment medication to treat alcoholism.3

If you are searching for a treatment program, you should...

  1. Consider your willingness to take an addiction treatment medication (should a doctor consider one appropriate)
  2. If you would be willing to take medication, you should ask any program under consideration if they are capable and willing to provide such medications, when appropriate
  3. If the program does not use medications, you should ask them to explain their reasoning for rejecting these effective medications
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Page last updated Aug 15, 2016

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