There’s not a single method of addiction treatment that works for everyone. As difficult as it might be to accept this fact, if you or your loved one are spiraling through an endless addiction loop, it’s tempting to grasp any lifeline.
One possibility for combating addiction that frequently comes up is medication-assisted treatment (MAT). The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines MAT as “the use of medications, in combination with counseling and behavioral therapies, to provide a ‘whole patient’ approach to the treatment of substance abuse disorders.”
While MAT may sound appealing in theory, Willingway believes that its limitations and pitfalls outweigh its benefits.
What MAT Does
Common medications used in MAT include name-brand versions of buprenorphine, methadone, naltrexone, and suboxone. The medications work by blocking the “high” experienced from drugs or alcohol, or even causing unpleasant side effects from using them, thus reducing cravings. Depending on the substances and the condition, these medications could help stabilize cravings, moods, and behavior; ease withdrawal symptoms and chronic pain; and improve birth outcomes for pregnant women with addictions.
SAMHSA notes that MAT is used primarily for addiction to:
- Heroin and other opiates
- Prescription pain-relieving opiates and opioids such as codeine, hydrocodone, morphine, and OxyContin
MAT is also one method for treating alcoholism. Prescription medications used to reduce the urge to drink include name-brand versions of acamprosate, disulfiram, and naltrexone.
Specialists at inpatient rehabilitation facilities or extended outpatient treatment clinics may also prescribe medications to help someone deal with anxiety, depression, and smoking cessation in the early stages of addiction recovery if they believe an individual’s continuum of care plan benefits from these approaches.
The Pitfalls of MAT
Many of the drugs used for MAT are opiates and have addictive properties of their own, which can result in several problems:
- abusing the medications by selling them for others to use recreationally
- becoming dependent on them, requiring more of the drug to maintain stasis
- the many side effects these drugs can cause, especially when taken long-term
Perhaps the most troubling pitfall of MAT is the tendency for people to rely on the medication as their primary treatment instead of working to heal the root psychological and emotional causes of addiction.
Without identifying and addressing the primary reasons for addictive and compulsive behavior, a person will simply become addicted to the new substance—even one prescribed as part of a MAT plan. The lack of essential behavior modification and resolution of inherent causes for addiction in general often sets someone up for failure with MAT programs.
Even those experts in favor of moderate MAT reinforce that this approach is strictly temporary: these medications should be considered only in the first few weeks of detoxification and early withdrawal. More importantly, they’re not to be used alone, although they often are. Many addiction professionals believe that all processes of recovery should include psychological treatment to not only help a person understand the reasons for addiction, but also to enable them to learn new ways of handling daily life, addressing conflicts, resolving past trauma and other contributing factors, and managing stress.
Alternate Treatment Philosophies
Consequently, many treatment philosophies, including ours at Willingway, support full abstinence from all drugs, regardless of their purpose, to establish a chemical-free baseline. Then, more focus is placed on:
- Comprehensive behavioral therapy
- Group and recreational therapies
- Individual counseling
- Integrated family programming
- 12-Step and other support groups
- Alternative or holistic treatments for easing withdrawal symptoms and helping recovery
While some people experience effective results from MAT regimens, others still struggle. So another problem some addiction scientists witness is high cases of relapse—as much as 70 percent in some circumstances—after individuals stop their MAT program. Some may even overdose or die on MAT programs.
At this point, there is not enough research to help treatment professionals accurately predict drugs and dosages for each individual case. A study in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment stresses that each MAT drug carries specific risks and benefits, and there isn’t a singular compass of support for the treatment overall. Until more research is available, the variables involving each individual in treatment are too great.
An additional complication with MAT is the current healthcare system. A fact sheet from the Pew Charitable Trusts reports that most insurance companies cover addiction rehabilitation, but often don’t allow specific applications such as MAT or place restrictive limitations on program length, reducing its effectiveness. Other reported issues include:
- A lack of medical personnel with proper qualifications to administer MAT programs.
- Obstacles involving Medicaid coverage for it.
- Some private-sector rehabilitation facilities don’t prescribe MAT medications at all, while only 23 percent of all U.S. publicly-funded treatment programs do, so follow-up services are limited.
How Willingway Can Help
While medication-assisted treatment might seem like the golden ticket to make addiction problems quickly disappear, it’s better to be proactive and collaborative. At Willingway, we customize treatment plans based on decades of experience and an individual’s specific needs. We’ve also helped people successfully recover from secondary addictions to MAT drugs such as methadone and suboxone, among others.