On the surface, medications for addiction 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. Medications for addiction 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 and potentially lethal. People who are addicted to them often benefit from medication assistance, even after they've completed detoxification," says Serene Carruthers, LMFT, 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 offers San Diego's largest hospital-based addiction medicine program. Participants in the program — offered in an outpatient setting — are prescribed MAT medications that are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Along with close monitoring by a doctor, patients receive individual, family and group therapy, and meet with board-certified addictionologists, psychologists and therapists. They also have free lifetime access to aftercare programs offered through Sharp McDonald Center.
"Addiction is a chronic and complex condition, and merely discontinuing use is often not enough to achieve lasting recovery," Carruthers says. "Medications for addiction treatment help relieve withdrawal symptoms and cravings so that patients can focus on building new skills and a support system. These support patients in sustaining a lasting recovery and leading a healthy life."
The idea of medications for addiction treatment isn't new, but the nation's opioid epidemic is leading to a wider embrace of this effective treatment, Carruthers says. Patients who participate in medications for addiction treatment as part of their recovery for 90 days or more have greater sobriety rates than those who are not on medication.
MAT is 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.
More than 100,000 people in the U.S. died from drug overdoses from May 2020 to April 2021, according to provisional data from the CDC. 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 medications for addiction treatment can make a big difference, Carruthers 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," Carruthers 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 medications for addiction treatment program, please call 858-637-6920.