Doctor and patient sitting in doctor's office

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Medication-Assisted Treatment is defined as “the use of FDA-approved medications, in combination with counseling and behavioral therapies, to provide a holistic approach to the treatment of substance abuse disorders.” The FDA approved medications include buprenorphine, methadone, naltrexone and behavioral therapies are any type of counseling, family therapy, or peer support program.

How does Medication-Assisted Treatment work?

During this process, doctors have two options. First, doctors can substitute the drug for a different opiate that would activate the same receptors but would be absorbed over a longer period of time. Because an addict would avoid the initial high, it would avoid withdrawal symptoms and reduce the psychological dependence. The second option is to prescribe recovering addicts with an opioid antagonist which would block the receptors the drug would activate.

Although there is contention that medication-assisted treatment is only substituting one drug for another, past president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine Dr. Stuart Gitlow explains that while that notion is technically correct, “the drug that we’re replacing is a dangerous one that will kill you, and we’re replacing it with a drug that allows you to go back to work and have money in your pocket and allow you to live normally again.” Medication-assisted treatment has proven to be an effective method in combating addiction throughout the recovery process.

What is the Success Rate of Medication-Assisted Treatment?

There have been many studies conducted evaluating the success of medication-assisted treatment and everyone has proven that this method works. Dr. Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse explains that “I don’t think that there’s any areas where the data is shaky. It clearly shows better outcomes with medication-assisted therapy than without it.”

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Dr. Nora Volkow goes on to illustrate that “studies have shown that outcomes are much better when you are on medication-assisted therapy. For one, it decreases risk of relapse — significantly. Second, MAT has also been shown to be effective in preventing infectious diseases like HIV. Third, medication-assisted therapy has been shown to be effective in preventing overdoses.”

Many works of literature prove this to be correct. For example, one 2009 study conducted in Baltimore, Maryland, found  a statistically significant correlation between the decrease in the number deaths from opioid overdoses and the use treatment with buprenorphine, one of three drugs often used for MAT.

Other research published by the Pew Research Center shows that, especially compared to non-medicated approaches, the recovery with medication-assisted treatment has proven to help a patient adhere to the recovery process and reduces a chance of relapse. Because the medications can help with physical, mental, and emotional withdrawal symptoms, many people can feel relief from anxiety, muscle aches and cramps, sweating, diarrhea, nausea, insomnia, headaches, vomiting, and joint pain.

What is the uncertainty surrounding Medication-Assisted Treatment?

It is important to note that there is not one clear success-rate due to some gaps in the literature on medication-assisted treatment. For example, there is not one clear rule to follow that describes how to pick the right dose and the right drug for each patient.

The 2015 American Society of Medicine National Practice Guideline for medication-assisted treatment outlines that “there is some evidence supporting the relative efficacy of one medication over another, but in many cases, there are no good-quality studies comparing the relative benefits of one medication over another.” The choice and dosage of drug is in the hands of the doctor after a conversation with their patient.

Knowing that medication-assisted treatment to overcome opioid addiction is an option could save someone’s life. By alleviating the physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms, medication-assisted treatment helps a patient feel healthy and ready to begin the journey to sobriety.