On the surface, medication-assisted treatment may seem like a paradox. How can substituting one opioid for another lead to lasting recovery for those struggling with addiction?
The research, however, is clear. Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) — which involves the ongoing use of prescribed medications such as methadone, buprenorphine or acamprosate, combined with counseling and therapy — saves lives.
"Opioids and alcohol are powerful drugs, and people who are addicted to them often benefit from ongoing medication assistance after they've gone through initial treatment," says Dr. Kristin Steele, PsyD, manager of Sharp McDonald Center, an addiction recovery hospital in San Diego. "These medications reduce the risk of relapse and help patients successfully meet their recovery goals."
Sharp McDonald Center now offers San Diego's largest medication-assisted treatment program for drug and alcohol addiction. Participants in the program — offered in an outpatient setting — are prescribed MAT medications approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Along with close monitoring by a doctor, patients receive individual and group therapy, and meet with board-certified addictionologists, psychologists and drug rehabilitation counselors. They also have free lifetime access to aftercare programs offered through Sharp McDonald Center.
"When overcoming a condition as complex as addiction, it's often not successful to 'quit cold turkey,'" Dr. Steele says. "Medication-assisted treatment helps relieve withdrawal symptoms and cravings so that patients can focus on the education, counseling and support needed to sustain their recovery and return to their lives."
The idea of medication-assisted treatment isn't new, but the nation's opioid epidemic is leading to a wider embrace of this effective treatment, Dr. Steele says. Patients who take medication-assisted treatment as part of their recovery for 90 days or more have greater sobriety rates than those who are not on medication.
The treatment is now recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Institute of Drug Abuse, and the World Health Organization. Most private health insurers cover the treatment for as long as a patient needs it.
An estimated 72,000 people in the U.S. died from drug overdoses in 2017, according to the CDC, and some forecasts estimate that as many as 650,000 people will die from overdoses in the next decade. People in recovery from addiction are most at risk. During initial treatment, they may develop less tolerance to their drug of choice. If they relapse, the chances of overdosing or dying greatly increases.
This is where medication-assisted treatment can make a big difference, Dr. Steele says. A study of heroin overdose deaths in Baltimore between 1995 and 2009, for example, found that increasing availability of medications like methadone and buprenorphine (commonly known as Suboxone®) reduced the number of fatal overdoses by nearly half.
"Taking medication for opioid and alcohol addiction is not the same as substituting one addictive drug for another," Dr. Steele says. "Like any kind of chronic illness, these medications can help those in recovery stay in recovery. It absolutely saves lives."
To learn more or to request an assessment for Sharp McDonald Center's medication-assisted treatment program, please call 858-637-6920.