Medically Assisted Treatment Is Changing the Way We Look at Addiction
Did you know we’re in the middle of the deadliest drug epidemic our country has ever faced?
It’s true. Overdose rates are higher than they ever have been and in 2016 alone an estimated 64,000 people lost their lives to addiction.
There’s never been a more important time, then, to ensure substance addiction treatment and recovery are as effective as possible. And that’s where medically assisted treatments come in.
This type of treatment method incorporates pharmacological medications into the treatment process rather than depending solely on counseling and therapy to do the job. And the results of doing so are transforming the way we treat and understand addiction for the better.
But before outlining the four ways this revolutionary type of therapy is changing addiction, it’s important to get a little background on the subject first.
What is Medically Assisted Treatment?
Also known as medication-assisted treatments or MATs, this approach to treating substance use disorders employs certain medications to make the recovery process less uncomfortable and ultimately more successful.
These medications can reduce the severity of cravings, diminish withdrawal symptoms, normalize brain chemistry, and impede the pleasurable and euphoric effects that certain drugs produce.
To put MATs into perspective, traditional methods of addiction recovery were much more demanding. The detox process would be supplemented by water and vitamins, sure, but the symptoms of withdrawal that came with it were still intensely uncomfortable – a fact that would deter many from even trying to get clean.
What’s more, even after detoxing successfully, addiction sufferers would still experience intense cravings long after treatment was over. As a result, many people would end up using again and eventually falling into full-blown relapse.
With MATs though, the detoxification process can be much milder and thus, a more realistic option for addicts who really want to get sober, but fear they can’t handle withdrawal. Beyond that, some of these medications can actually help reduce or even eliminate cravings altogether, making the unavoidable desire to return to drug use after treatment all the more manageable.
What Kinds of Medically Assisted Treatments Are Available Today?
There are several types of MATs that are currently approved for use in modern treatment programs. However, these compounds are only used to treat two types of substance use disorders: opioids (e.g. heroin, OxyContin, fentanyl) and alcohol.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), addiction specialists usually utilize three different types of medically assisted treatments for opioid dependency:
- Methadone – A light opioid itself, methadone has long been the tried-and-true method of staving off cravings and keeping withdrawals at bay.
- Buprenorphine – Similar to methadone, buprenorphine is another mild opioid that helps suppress the effects of detoxification from opioid dependency. Unlike methadone, however, buprenorphine comes in the easy-to-use forms of pills, sublingual tablets, and sublingual films.
- Naltrexone – This medication blocks the positive feelings associated with using opioids completely, taking away the incentive to abuse these drugs again.
When it comes to alcohol dependency, the FDA has cleared the use of three different drugs for use in MATs:
- Disulfiram – This drug produces extremely unpleasant sensations when it comes in contact with even the smallest amount of alcohol. These effects are so severe that even the most addicted will steer clear of a drink.
- Acamprosate – This compound helps to restore the balance of certain neurotransmitters in the brain so that users won’t be as tempted to return to abusing alcohol.
Naltrexone – Similar to how it can eliminate the euphoric effects of taking opioids, naltrexone can also reduce the intoxicating effects of alcohol as well.
The 4 Ways MATs Are Transforming Addiction Treatment
Medically assisted treatments like those above are helping people around the world get clean and are changing the way we both understand and treat addiction. Below are four of the most notable contributions that MATs bring to the field.
1. They’re Incredibly Effective Compared to Traditional Methods
Probably the most important point to recognize when it comes to MATs is the fact that, when used as part of a full treatment plan, they’re significantly more effective at promoting sobriety and preventing relapse than other methods.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), for instance, reports that when MATs were implemented in Baltimore, heroin overdoses dropped by 37%. Furthermore, medically assisted treatments decreased overall opioid use, criminal activity, and the transmission of infectious diseases.
When used to treat alcohol dependency, SAMHSA reports that:
There is clear and consistent evidence that naltrexone is significantly beneficial in helping those patients who cannot remain abstinent to reduce their drinking behaviors. They drink less often and in lower quantities, avoiding full-blown relapse.
One of the most exciting aspects of medically assisted treatments in addiction, however, is the fact that the effectiveness of all of these is backed up by hard science.
In order to gain approval, a medication first needs to go through rigorous testing to prove its effectiveness in the field. Rather than relying on anecdotal evidence, then, these treatment methods necessarily must have adequate data behind them before they can be used.
The result is treatment methods that not only trump the traditional approach to addiction treatment in terms of effectiveness, but methods that are also actually backed up by the numbers. And when the lives and livelihoods of individuals is on the line, proven treatment methods are more important than ever.
2. MATs Are Combating the Biggest Drug Epidemic the U.S. Has Ever Seen
The impressive results of MATs are proving to be instrumental in fighting against the deadliest and most widespread substance abuse epidemic in our nation’s history.
You’ve probably heard some of the numbers in the news but if not, here are some statistics to put the severity of this problem into perspective.
- From 2000 to 2015, over half a million U.S. citizens died from drug overdoses, with opioid-related overdose numbers quadrupling since 1999.
- Every single day, 91 Americans die from overdosing on opioids.
- In 2015, drug overdoses accounted for more deaths than cars accidents or gun violence.
- In 2016 alone, overdoses may have killed more Americans than both the Vietnam and Iraq wars combined.
In a situation as dire as this, time is obviously of the essence. Incorporating evidence-based treatment methods (like MATs) into rehabilitation facilities as soon as possible then is absolutely essential to mitigating the harm of extensive and deadly addiction.
3. They Also Help Promote the Fact That Addiction Is an Actual Disease
Despite the controversy surrounding the subject, the majority of the medical community classifies addiction as an actual disease, not simply as a moral failure or character flaw. These organizations include:
- The American Board of Preventative Medicine (ABPM)
- The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)
- MedlinePlus (a division of the National Institutes of Health)
In the past, the dominating opinion was that drug addicts simply couldn’t bring themselves to quit the substance of abuse. Maybe they didn’t really want to give it up in the first place or maybe they just weren’t strong enough to abstain from using anymore. This type of thinking is exemplified in programs that rely solely on counseling and therapy like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.
When addiction is considered an actual disease though, it opens up a whole new method of treating it based on pharmacology and clinical trials. Rather than treating it like some sort of behavioral disorder, addiction specialists can now prescribe medication to help treat the disease on a physical level as well.
4. They Can Offer Long-Term Relief from Cravings & Withdrawals
Another benefit of medically assisted treatments is that they can be utilized in the long-term to help promote continued abstinence from substances of abuse. In fact, some treatment centers prescribe such drugs as part of maintenance plans that can last for years.
This aspect of medically assisted treatments in particular has come under fire recently. Opponents of MATs argue that they are simply replacing one drug abuse problem with another. However, there are a few important points to consider with this argument.
First, these substances aren’t actually producing a “high” in recovering individuals. Most of these substances are either too weak to do so or have safeguards to prevent their abuse. What’s more, clinics that administer these programs must first be approved through highly-regulated programs. Abusing these substances, then, is very unlikely.
And second, addiction isn’t always “curable.” This is a hard pill to swallow for some but many times this disorder needs to be treated as a chronic disease rather than an acute one. That means continual treatment to prevent eventual relapse. After all, relapse rates for drug addiction are actually quite similar to those of other chronic illnesses like diabetes, hypertension, and even asthma.
Ultimately, while maintenance programs may be a topic of contention among some, they are more effective at promoting lifelong sobriety than any other method.
MATs: Changing Addiction for The Better
While it’s true that medically assisted treatments are causing a bit of controversy, the consensus among most of the medical community is that MATs are part of the most effective treatment programs when it comes to substance use disorders.
And when you consider the four ways they’re changing the field of addiction, it’s undeniable that medically assisted treatments are the future of recovery.