Medications For Addiction: Types, Common Uses & Why It Works

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For people struggling with addiction, there are many roads to recovery. However, none may be as effective as medication-assisted treatment. Several medications have proven to help patients curve cravings, manage pain and discomfort during detox, and successfully recover from their addiction.

Keep reading to learn more about the efficacy of medications for addiction treatment.

Are Medications Used To Treat Addiction?

Yes, various medications can be prescribed to help addicts fight their addiction or cope with withdrawals and the after-effects of recovery. Addicts may be prescribed medications during and after treatment.

Why Are Medications Used To Treat Addiction?

Medications are used to treat addiction for many different reasons, but it depends on the addiction type. It may sound counterintuitive to prescribe a drug addict drugs, but doctors do this to help the addict stay on track.

Alcohol and drugs rewire the human brain, altering neural pathways. This change disrupts the individual’s risk and reward system in the brain, causing them to feel good when they feed their addiction and much worse when they do not.

Many addicts cannot function without the object of their dependence, to the point where recovery feels impossible. Recovery is not only difficult but immensely painful. Withdrawal symptoms can be physical, mental, and emotional. In the worst cases, withdrawal symptoms can become dangerous, posing a risk to the addict’s life.

A prime example is delirium tremens (DT), which occurs when severe alcoholics quit drinking. It causes seizures, hallucinations, fevers, and high blood pressure, among other symptoms. Experiencing such a horrific condition can lead alcoholics to drink again to stop the shakes, hallucinations, and other symptoms.

Medications used to treat addiction more often than not target withdrawal symptoms, but also counteract the high from a different medication to prevent cravings. Many addicts resist recovery because they fear immense pain and discomfort. Treatment centers offering prescriptions can encourage addicts to seek help and get well.

Why Do People Usually Need Medical Assistance To Manage Withdrawal?

Withdrawal and detox from drugs and alcohol is a grueling and painful process. People who have never witnessed or experienced severe withdrawal often do not understand the weight and intensity of the process.

Many factors contribute to how harsh the detox process will be for an addict. Even addicts dedicated to recovery can relapse simply because of the pain of withdrawal, so people often need medical assistance to get through the worst of withdrawal.

The severity of the withdrawal will depend on the patient’s:

  • Type of addiction
  • Severity of addiction
  • Age
  • Physical health
  • Mental health
  • Emotional state
  • Withdrawal strategy
  • Support system
  • Environment

Addicts with mental health conditions, such as PTSD, depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder, are predisposed to addiction. These mental illnesses can be the root causes of addiction, as the individual turns to drugs, alcohol, or unhealthy behavior to cope.

An addict with one or more of these mental conditions will have a more difficult time with recovery.

Additionally, an addict with a broken support system may be more likely to struggle with withdrawal and relapse. Many addicts do not have a support system, meaning they must fight through withdrawal alone.

Whether the addict has a support system or not, they’re likely to experience severe withdrawal symptoms, such as:

  • Insomnia
  • Irritability
  • Mood swings
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Aches and pains
  • Cravings
  • Tiredness
  • Hallucinations
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Sweating
  • Shaking
  • Paranoia
  • Confusion
  • Tremors
  • Disorientation
  • Seizures
  • Loss of appetite
  • Extreme hunger
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Congestion

Even one or two of these symptoms are challenging to manage, but most addicts will experience a combination of several symptoms. Many addicts cannot get through the detox process alone, and prescription medications can help reduce the symptoms, making withdrawal substantially more manageable.

If you research withdrawal management, you’ll likely see organic tactics for getting through detox, like eating healthy, exercising regularly, and doing breathing exercises. But when you see the horrors of an intense withdrawal, these detox strategies do not seem feasible.

And the process is not quick. Withdrawal can take 72 hours for some, but in extreme cases, detox symptoms can last months. In many cases, prescription medications are the best way to help someone through a detox so they can work toward recovery.

What Medication Is Prescribed For Addiction?

Not every addiction can be treated with the same prescription, so there are a few medications a doctor may prescribe to an addict entering withdrawal or trying to maintain sobriety.

Some medications are prescribed during detox to manage withdrawal symptoms, as discussed, but others are prescribed post-detox to help manage lingering symptoms and mental conditions that could lead an addict back into their addiction. Below is an explanation of the most common medications prescribed to addicts.

Medications Used During Detox

First, this section will take a look at the medications doctors prescribe to addicts during withdrawal. As mentioned, detox can last anywhere from a few days to several months. Some medications discussed below can be prescribed long-term, while others are okay for short periods of use.

Benzodiazepines

Benzodiazepines can reduce anxiety and irritability in people experiencing withdrawal. It’s commonly prescribed to addicts withdrawing from drugs like alcohol, opioids, stimulants, and even Benzodiazepines themselves.

They offer a sedating effect, impacting the chemical receptors in the brain in the same ways that alcohol and drugs do. This sedation can lessen cravings and anxiety and reduce the possibility of seizures. Because this medication can be addictive in itself, it’s typically only prescribed for short periods to get people through the worst part of their withdrawal.

The prescription often immediately stops following the detox, as a continued dosage can lead to a new addiction. No matter when or how long Benzodiazepines are prescribed, they are carefully monitored by doctors and treatment professionals.

Buprenorphine

Also called Suboxone, Buprenorphine is an FDA-approved prescription to combat opioid use. It’s usually prescribed at the very beginning of a detox to subdue the worst symptoms, which typically occur in the first 24 to 48 hours. It can help patients manage acute pain, chronic pain, and opioid cravings.

While Buprenorphine can be an addictive substance, the risk of overdose is much lower, so in many opioid use disorders (OUD), it acts as a substitute for the more dangerous drugs, such as oxycontin, heroin, and fentanyl. It’s often prescribed at the beginning of a detox, as mentioned, but is also frequently part of a long-term medication program for serious OUDs.

Clonidine

Clonidine is a sedative and antihypertensive drug used to manage high blood pressure, ADHD, post-surgery discomfort, and cancer pain. It helps manage a wide range of withdrawal symptoms from various drugs, most commonly opioids.

It can reduce anxiety, high blood pressure, sweating, shaking, muscle pain, fever, congestion, cramps, and more. This medication is only prescribed at the very beginning of a detox to help someone through the initial symptoms.

However, the medication is typically reduced during detox and stopped shortly after detox, as it can be addictive on its own. Clonidine can be safely combined with other prescriptions to manage withdrawal and boost the effects of the medications.

Methadone

Methadone binds to the receptors in the brain in the same way opioids do, mimicking the chemical response. However, methadone does not provide euphoric effects, so it’s used to manage cravings in detoxing opioid addicts.

It also has mild sedating effects, so it can reduce the acute pain and body aches many addicts experience. Methadone is used to help addicts escape their opioid addiction and it has no other uses, so it’s strictly regulated and exclusively used within treatment centers. It’s essentially a manmade opioid minus the euphoria.

Methadone is administered to addicts at the very beginning of their detox and is typically only given to them for one day or a maximum of three days in emergencies. Like opium, it’s highly addictive, so it is only meant to stop cravings and pain at the beginning of a detox.

Naltrexone

The last medication frequently prescribed to addicts before recovery is Naltrexone, also called Narcan or Vivitrol. This medication is significantly different from the drugs mentioned above, as it’s used to save someone who is overdosing.

It also has no sedating effects to manage withdrawal symptoms. It’s sometimes used during detox to manage cravings in the most severe cases. But its main use is to bring someone back from an overdose. It does this by rapidly traveling through the blood-brain barrier and binds to opioid receptors, reversing the symptoms of an opioid overdose in about 30 seconds.

Unlike other medications mentioned above, it is not addictive or harmful in any way, even safe for pregnant women. Also, unlike the medications above, Narcan is widely available in all 50 states as an over-the-counter medication.

Medications Used After Detox

Depending on the severity of the addiction and where the patient was in the stages of change in addiction before they began the detoxification and recovery, they may continue taking prescription drugs. Initial withdrawal can last a long time, but as the worst symptoms fade, the addict enters the post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS) phase, which can last years.

This phase does not consist of physical withdrawal symptoms, but mental and emotional ones, such as depression, anger, anxiety, and mental cravings. Below are the two most common drugs used to help recovering addicts through PAWS.

Acamprosate

Acamprosate, also called Campral, is frequently prescribed to alcoholics in recovery following their detox. It can reduce urges and cravings in the weeks and months following an alcohol detox. The medication can also help people manage anxiety and insomnia, which can lead to relapses.

For now, acamprosate is typically prescribed for only one to two years to reduce the chance of a relapse, but some studies suggest long-term use may have benefits. The medication is used exclusively to treat alcohol withdrawal and recovery and is not addictive in any way.

Disulfiram

Disulfiram is a fascinating medication used to manage PAWS in alcoholics. It discourages alcohol ingestion in the body, meaning the alcohol cannot enter the bloodstream.

Instead, it sits in the stomach, causing very unpleasant effects, including nausea, vomiting, sweating, headaches, and chest pains. These awful symptoms can help require the reward and risk system in the brain to see alcohol as a threat, not a treat.

However, it’s not highly effective, as it must be taken daily, and recovering alcoholics will skip the dose when they feel the urge to drink. It works best for alcoholics in the early stages of addiction and those with a support system to keep them accountable.

How Effective Is Medication-Assisted Treatment For Addiction?

Medications that assist with addiction treatment come with risks and downsides but are generally effective in helping people beat their addictions.

Studies show that up to 90% of patients who take prescribed medications to manage their withdrawal and addiction reach two years of sobriety. These medications and treatment options have saved countless lives.

In Baltimore alone in 2009, deaths caused by heroin overdoses decreased by 37%. The use of agonist medication in OUD treatment reduced the death rate by an estimated 50%.

As of 2018, medication-assisted treatment (MAT) resulted in a 60%+ success rate of recovery. Medication-free treatments and therapies yield a recovery success rate of only 5% to 15%, exemplifying how effective medication-assisted treatment is.

Frequently Asked Questions

Below are a couple of commonly asked questions about medications for addiction.

Can a general practitioner prescribe medication for opioid addiction?

Yes, general practitioners can prescribe medications to help addicts beat opioid addictions. However, they typically only do so in tandem with the patient entering a treatment program.

What is the most commonly-prescribed addiction medication?

Buprenorphine is the most common prescription for managing withdrawal symptoms.

Wrapping Up

Addiction recovery is a long, painful journey, but certain medications can ease the suffering and discomfort of withdrawal.

Treating addiction with medication is still a relatively new strategy and has not been accepted by all healthcare professionals yet. However, these medications have proven effective in helping patients manage detox symptoms, fight cravings, and successfully beat their addictions.

Leave a comment if you have any questions or want to reach out for treatment help.

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