Every year, millions of people across the United States and Canada struggle with addiction to drugs and alcohol. According to the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence, one in 12 adults suffers from alcohol abuse or dependence. Meanwhile, a national survey on drug abuse found that 20 million Americans aged 12 or older admitted to using an illegal drug in the past month.
Dependence on drugs and alcohol can affect all aspects of a person’s life. In addition to serious health issues, abuse of drugs and alcohol can also impact your emotional health, financial stability, career and your relationships with family and friends.
Whether it’s alcohol, prescription painkillers or an illicit street drug such as heroin, the first step to overcoming addiction is being willing to get help. But for those who have never sought help before or known someone who has, the steps involved can be intimidating. Many people have heard about inpatient rehabilitation centers and twelve-step programs as part of organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. What they may not realize is that there are other tools to fight addiction, especially when it comes to extremely addictive opioids such as prescription painkillers and heroin. One such tool is medication-assisted treatment.
What Is Medication-Assisted Treatment?
Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is the use of medications, in combination with counseling and behavioral therapy, to help patients overcome substance abuse disorders. It’s important to note that MATs are prescribed as part of a successful treatment program. Taking one of these medications alone is not enough, as they are not a cure for dependence on drugs or alcohol. It’s critical to also attend counseling sessions, group meetings, education programs and any other treatments recommended by your health care provider or substance abuse professional.
MATs are available to treat substance abuse disorders for both opioids and alcohol. The following MATs are among the most common being used in treatment programs today.
- Methadone: One of the first MATs used to treat opioid addiction, methadone is an opioid agonist, which means it activates receptors in the body to suppress withdrawal, block the effects of other opioids and reduce craving. Because it must be taken daily and has a high potential for abuse, methadone is only available through licensed opioid treatment programs.
- Buprenorphine: This opioid agonist has a lower risk of abuse, dependence and side effects compared to methadone. It can be prescribed by a certified physician, eliminating the need to visit a specialized treatment clinic.
- Naltrexone: Used to treat dependence on both opioids and alcohol, naltrexone blocks the effects of opioids, eliminating a major reason for the user to continue taking them. However, naltrexone does not prevent or relieve withdrawal symptoms (e.g., irritability, anxiety, muscle aches and cramps, etc.). For this reason, naltrexone is not recommended for those still experiencing withdrawal symptoms from opioids.When taken as an alcohol treatment, naltrexone reduces the effects of alcohol and the craving to drink. An injectable form of naltrexone known as Vivitrol can also be administered monthly for patients who have difficulty taking the drug daily at home.
- Disulfiram: Commonly known by its brand name, Antabuse, disulfiram is an aversion therapy that works by making patients violently ill if they consume alcohol. If even a small amount of alcohol is consumed, this MAT causes effects that can include nausea, vomiting, headaches, blurred vision and chest pains. The effects become more severe as more alcohol is consumed.People taking Antabuse have to be careful to avoid products that contain alcohol such as aftershave, cologne, mouthwash and some deodorants. This also includes less common products like paint thinners, solvents, stains and lacquers that patients may come in contact with on the job or around the house.
- Acamprosate: Also known by its brand name, Campral, this MAT helps reduce cravings for alcohol and withdrawal symptoms by normalizing the brain activity that alcohol use disrupts.
If you or a loved one need more information on getting help for substance abuse, you can call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357. LIUNA members can also reach out to their local Health and Welfare Fund or Member Assistance Program.
The LHSFNA has several publications about overcoming addiction which can be ordered through by going to www.lhsfna.org and clicking on Publications. For more information about the process of getting help for addiction, visit www.helpguide.org or www.drugabuse.gov.