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Pharmacological Interventions

Medications can be used to help with different aspects of the treatment process.  Medications offer help in suppressing withdrawal symptoms during detoxification. However, medically assisted withdrawal is not in itself "treatment"—it is only the first step in the treatment process.   Medications can be used to help re-establish normal brain function and to prevent relapse and diminish cravings throughout the treatment process. Currently, there are medications for opioid (heroin, morphine) and tobacco (nicotine) addiction, and NIDA is developing others for treating stimulant (cocaine, methamphetamine) and cannabis (marijuana) addiction.  Methadone and buprenorphine, for example, are effective medications for the treatment of opiate addiction. Acting on the same targets in the brain as heroin and morphine, these medications block the drug's effects, suppress withdrawal symptoms, and relieve craving for the drug. This helps patients to disengage from drug-seeking and related criminal behavior and be more receptive to behavioral treatments.1

CSAT provides information on medication-assisted treatment on its website,2 noting that Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) is a form of pharmacotherapy and refers to any treatment for a substance use disorder that includes a pharmacologic intervention as part of a comprehensive substance abuse treatment plan with an ultimate goal of patient recovery with full social function.

In the US, MAT has been demonstrated to be effective in the treatment of alcohol dependence with Food and Drug Administration approved drugs such as disulfiram, naltrexone and acamprosate; and opioid dependence with methadone, naltrexone and buprenorphine.

As part of a comprehensive treatment program, MAT has been shown to:

  • Improve survival
  • Increase retention in treatment
  • Decrease illicit opiate use
  • Decrease hepatitis and HIV seroconversion
  • Decrease criminal activities
  • Increase employment
  • Improve birth outcomes with perinatal addicts



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