Is Medication Essential to Opioid Addiction Treatment?

In almost all cases, medication is an essential part of opioid addiction treatment. This is because the effects of opioid addiction and recovery can be extremely severe, and in many cases, these effects can only be treated safely with medications.

What Can Medication Do to Help Opioid Addicts?

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, medication is one of the essential, evidence-based practices for the treatment of opioid addiction. Treatment for heroin addiction is similar to treatment for prescription painkiller addiction, and usually, behavioral therapies and pharmacological therapies (medications) are used together in both types of treatment programs to help patients stop using and build strong recoveries.

When used together, medications and behavioral therapies are at their most effective. However, medication can treat opioid addiction in a number of ways that behavioral therapies can’t and vice-versa, which is why they are so often paired together. Some of the ways in which medications can help opioid addicts include:

  • Minimizing one’s withdrawal symptoms, either during detox or as a maintenance treatment
  • Reducing cravings
  • Blocking the opioid receptors in the brain
  • Increasing treatment retention
  • Decreasing criminal activity
  • Decreasing the transmission of infectious diseases
  • Reducing drug use and chances of relapse

Do I Have to Use a Medication During Opioid Addiction Treatment?

In general, pharmacological options for addiction treatment have a number of benefits. But what if a person does not want to use medication during their recovery?

In some cases, patients can recover from opioid addiction without the use of medications, but most should not attempt to do this for a number of reasons.

  • The severity of opioid withdrawal
    • The symptoms caused by opioid withdrawal can be extremely severe. They feel similar to a bad case of the flu, and most individuals also experience muscle, joint, and bone pain that they are often not equipped to handle after being on these drugs for so long.
    • When someone simply quits using opioids without some kind of pharmacological treatment option, withdrawal can be extremely painful and cause patients to suffer. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services suggests this treatment choice would cause “needless suffering” in a population that is often unable to cope with physical pain.
  • The risk of relapse and overdose
    • Opioid addicts are often at a serious risk of relapse and overdose death, especially after detox.
    • Those who are not being maintained on a medication or at least treated for their withdrawal symptoms with some kind of pharmacological option are usually more likely to return to substance abuse just to make the symptoms of withdrawal stop.
    • Even those who have been in recovery for a long time can be at risk of relapse, but when maintained on a medication, this risk minimizes.
  • The benefits of using medication and behavioral therapy together
    • Behavioral therapy and medication are both effective options for opioid addiction treatment, but neither one alone is as effective as when both are used together.
    • The use of behavioral therapies and medications for the treatment of drug addicts creates a well-rounded treatment program that takes all the needs of the patient into account.

Don’t Medications Like Buprenorphine and Methadone Just Replace Opioid Abuse?

Many people believe drugs like buprenorphine and methadone, when used as maintenance medications, merely replace a patient’s substance abuse with a different drug. However, this is untrue.

According to the NIDA, when buprenorphine and methadone are dosed correctly, they do not cause the euphoric high people experience when they abuse opioids. As long as one’s doctor is giving them correct doses, patients can safely take buprenorphine or methadone as long as necessary without experiencing the dangerous effects of opioid abuse or the painful effects of withdrawal and recovery.