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How is Opiate Addiction Treated?

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Since the 1970’s, methadone maintenance therapy (MMT) has been the top treatment for opiate addiction. In recent years, additional pharmacological therapies have developed. The most promising of these is buprenorphine, often combined with naloxone. Addicts are prescribed these drugs in controlled doses during detox to alleviate withdrawal symptoms. Doses are continued after detox to curb cravings. Tapering prescriptions to reduce usage or reach drug-free status typically happens over long periods of time, often months to years. It is not uncommon for addicts to remain on drug therapy indefinitely, as relapse is frequent if the drug is ceased completely.

What Do These Drugs Do?

    • Methadone: This medication is a synthetic opioid agonist. It activates the same brain receptors as other opioids such as heroin, morphine and pain medications, to eliminate withdrawal symptoms. Taken daily, it replaces any physical need for other opiates. A Schedule II medication, methadone is highly regulated and can only be distributed legally at specialized MMT clinics.While somewhat controversial due to its own addictive nature and long-term reliance, methadone has continued to lead in opiate addiction treatment. While the addict is still opioid-dependent, this controlled method usually removes the drug-abusing behaviors. Its effects offer stabilization in the addict’s life, reducing criminal activities, needle sharing, and promiscuous conduct.
  • Buprenorphine: Known best by its brand name, Suboxone, buprenorphine is a partial agonist, similar to methadone, which suppresses cravings and withdrawal. The advantage buprenorphine offers is increased safety. Higher doses cause no additional effects, unlike methadone, which can cause lethal overdose.Due to this quality, buprenorphine is classified as a Schedule III medication and is available by prescription. Combining buprenorphine with naloxone reduces likelihood of abuse.

Is Drug Therapy Enough?

Recurring cycles of detox, short-term recovery, and relapse are common for opiate addicts. Studies have shown that these long-term maintenance therapies offer the best methods for addicts to beat opiate addiction. However, it is helpful to pair these drug regimens with additional therapies. Other beneficial treatments include cognitive behavioral therapy, supportive therapy, and analytical-oriented psychotherapy. Support groups such as Narcotics Anonymous and Methadone Anonymous offer 12-step programs that can also prove valuable. These supports help addicts develop coping skills and techniques for resisting abuse. Combining these additional support methods with drug therapy offers opiate addicts the best chance of a life in recovery. Image Source: iStock