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Medications to Treat Substance Abuse

Two pharmacists examine some medication.
Medication-assisted therapy can be a very important tool in the treatment of alcohol addiction and addiction to heroin or painkillers.


It may seem like detox is the hard part, but anyone who has battled addiction knows that it’s the weeks and months that follow that prove the most challenging.

That’s because drugs change the brain and, once you get off of them, it takes time to recover. One of the jobs of rehab is to give you the tools you need to get through the hard part—and to the good part.

A good rehab uses many different methods of accomplishing these goals, and one of them is medication-assisted treatment, which has been proven effective in the treatment of both alcohol addiction and opioid addiction.

Medication Assisted Treatment for Opioid Addiction

Methadone is an opioid agonist that has been used since the 1960s to treat opioid addiction. It works by “tricking the brain into thinking it’s still getting the abused drug,” according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). It also blocks the euphoric effect of other opioids. One of the big downsides of methadone is that people taking it have to go to a registered clinic each day to receive their dose.

The second option is buprenorphine, a synthetic opioid that acts as a partial agonist at opioid receptors. It doesn’t produce the same euphoria or sedation that other opioids do, but it does reduce or eliminate withdrawal symptoms and carries a low risk of overdose. The most common form of this medication, called Suboxone, has a second element (naloxone) that causes severe withdrawal symptoms if Suboxone is injected.

The third option, naltrexone, is a synthetic opioid agonist that is also used to reverse opioid overdoses. Because it blocks opioids from binding, the theory is that it will diminish cravings over time.

Drug Treatments for Alcohol Addiction

In addition to being used to treat opioid addiction, naltrexone is also used for alcohol addiction and works the same way as it does for opioid addiction—by blocking the “rewards” of drinking.

It’s not known exactly how acamprosate works, but it’s thought to block withdrawal symptoms such as insomnia, anxiety and restlessness. Research shows that it may be more effective for those with severe dependence.

Disulfiram interferes with the way alcohol is processed, resulting in the accumulation of acetaldehyde. This causes an extremely unpleasant reaction, even after drinking a small amount of alcohol, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. So, if you drink, the result will be nausea, flushing and heart palpitations. It’s effective with highly motivated patients and can also be useful in high-risk social settings, such as weddings.

Addiction Treatment in Colorado

The Raleigh House is a residential treatment center located in Denver that believes addiction isn’t just a physical problem. Our master’s level trained therapists get to the root cause of addiction and will help you develop a strategy to manage and enjoy life without drugs or alcohol. Fill out our form or contact us today to learn more about our 90-day drug and alcohol addiction treatment programs.

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