Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) for Addiction Recovery and Aftercare
Medication-assisted treatment, or MAT, uses a combination of medication and counseling to treat a substance use disorder. It’s particularly suited to treating opioid use disorders, including addictions to prescription painkillers and heroin. It’s also commonly used to treat alcohol use disorders.
Myths and misconceptions about MAT abound, but research continues to find that it’s highly effective for treating addiction. Here’s an in-depth look at medication-assisted treatment to help you decide if this pathway to recovery is right for you.
Addiction, Dependence and MAT
To understand how and why medication-assisted treatment works, it’s important to understand how addiction and dependence develop. While these terms are often used interchangeably, there is a difference between addiction and dependence.
Addiction is a chronic disease resulting from brain changes that occur with heavy substance abuse. It’s characterized by compulsive drug abuse despite the negative consequences it causes.
Drugs and alcohol are psychoactive substances, which means they act on brain chemicals or neurotransmitters. Different substances act on different neurotransmitters. For example, some increase the activity of GABA, a neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of calm and well-being. Others increase the activity of glutamate, which is responsible for feelings of excitability. While there are a number of neurotransmitters affected by drugs, all psychoactive substances act on the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is the primary neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of pleasure. It plays a key role in the brain’s memory, reward, and learning systems.
Dopamine is what produces the euphoric feelings you get from pleasurable activities like eating when you’re hungry, doing a good deed, or exercising. When you engage in these activities, your brain creates a memory of the activity and the pleasure it produces. It also records the environmental cues present, such as the people who are there or an emotion you’re feeling at the time. When an addiction develops, these environmental cues become triggers for relapse.
Under normal circumstances, the brain carefully regulates the amount of dopamine it produces. But when you use drugs or alcohol, dopamine activity increases beyond what’s natural. This jolts the brain with pleasure far greater than what you can feel by doing normal, everyday activities.
Heavy substance abuse can lead the brain’s reward circuit to become re-wired. Repeated use leads to the brain’s pleasure and planning centers to communicate in a way that causes an association between pleasure and drug use. Your brain associates liking the drug with wanting it. The result is powerful cravings, a conditioned response that leads to compulsive drug-seeking and drug-taking behaviors.
People who are addicted may want or try to quit using, but most find that they can’t sustain recovery for very long. The National Institute on Drug Abuse stresses that for those who become addicted, recovery requires more than willpower and good intentions.
Risk Factors for Addiction
The number of people who develop an addiction is actually very small. Some of the risk factors that increase the chances of developing an addiction include:
Addiction as a Chronic Disease
Addiction is progressive, chronic, and relapsing. Progressive means that without adequate treatment, an addiction will grow worse over time. Chronic means that it can’t be cured, but it can be sent into remission with proper treatment. Relapsing means that if someone uses again after a period of recovery, the addiction can relapse, once again causing brain changes that lead to compulsive use despite negative consequences.
A large body of research points to addiction as a medical disorder rather than a moral failing or a character weakness. Many researchers compare addiction to other chronic, relapsing diseases like diabetes and heart disease. These, like addiction, have a range of underlying factors and causes, including:
- Genetic predisposition.
- Unhealthy lifestyle choices.
- Environmental factors.
- Biological factors.
Dependence is also the result of changes in brain function. Dependence is characterized by withdrawal symptoms that set in when you stop using.
Heavy, chronic drug and alcohol abuse causes the brain to change its chemical operation in an attempt to maintain normal function. For example, alcohol stimulates the activity of GABA, the calmness neurotransmitter, and suppresses the activity of glutamate, the excitability chemical. Heavy, prolonged alcohol use causes the brain to reduce GABA activity and increase glutamate activity to compensate.
These changes in chemical function lead to tolerance. This means that you need increasingly larger amounts of alcohol to get the desired effects. But as you continue to drink more, the brain continues to change its chemical function to compensate. At some point, the brain may begin to operate more comfortably when alcohol is present. Then, when you suddenly stop using, normal neurotransmitter function rebounds, and this causes physical withdrawal symptoms.
Traditionally, dependence is treated with medical detox. During medical detox, the substance of abuse is withheld so that all traces of drugs or alcohol leave the body and brain function can begin to return to normal.
During medical detox, a variety of medications are used as needed to treat the severity of withdrawal symptoms and reduce the time it takes to detox. Medication also helps prevent dangerous or fatal symptoms associated with withdrawal from alcohol and benzodiazepine sedatives, such as Klonopin and Valium.
Dependence and Withdrawal
While withdrawal from opioids isn’t particularly dangerous, it can be excruciating. Withdrawal symptoms include intense cravings, which don’t normally resolve along with the other symptoms of withdrawal, such as vomiting, diarrhea, muscle cramps and chills.
Partly due to long-term cravings and the intensity of brain changes associated with opioid addiction and dependence, treating opioid use disorders with medication-assisted treatment is the gold standard, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
MAT for Opioid Addiction
More than two million Americans are addicted to opioid painkillers like OxyContin and Vicodin, and another half-million are addicted to heroin, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
With the opioid epidemic claiming more than 115 lives every day to heroin and prescription painkiller overdose, the medical and mental health professions largely agree that medication-assisted treatment is the best way to help individuals achieve sobriety once and for all.
MAT for Alcohol Addiction
Six percent of Americans over the age of 18 -nearly 15 million people- have an alcohol use disorder. Medication-assisted treatment can help people overcome an alcohol addiction in several ways, depending on the medication used.
The protocol for MAT is the same for both opioid addiction and alcohol addiction: It involves both medication and counseling. Three medications have been approved by the FDA for alcohol addiction: disulfiram, acamprosate, and naltrexone.
Medications for Alcohol Treatment
When alcohol enters the body, it’s first converted into acetaldehyde, which is toxic, and then to acetic acid. Disulfiram prevents the acetaldehyde from converting to acetic acid, and the result is a buildup of acetaldehyde that causes nausea and vomiting, headache, weakness and tachycardia, or an abnormal heartbeat.
Disulfiram doesn’t reduce cravings. Rather, it acts as a deterrent to drinking. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration stresses that disulfiram is most effective in those who are intrinsically motivated to stop drinking.
Disulfiram can be an effective short-term solution for people in recovery who expect to be in a high-risk situation, such as a family wedding or a holiday party and want an added incentive to abstain from drinking. Disulfiram is administered at least 12 hours after the last drink or after detox is complete.
The Counseling Component of MAT
Medication-assisted treatment is a two-pronged approach to addiction recovery. The first prong -medication- reduces cravings, helps to restore brain function and prevents or reduces the psychoactive effects of opioids or alcohol if you use them while on the medication.
The other prong of MAT is counseling, which is essential for long-term recovery.
Address Underlying Causes of Addiction
The underlying causes of an addiction – stress, trauma, mental illness – must be addressed for a successful recovery. The addiction itself causes a range of problems in your life, including relationship, legal, financial, and physical and mental health problems. Effectively treating an addiction requires addressing and resolving these and other problems. And since the brain changes related to addiction cause dysfunctional thought and behavior patterns, learning to think and behave in new, healthier ways is central to successful recovery.
A comprehensive drug and alcohol assessment will help addiction professionals place you in the treatment setting that’s best for you, based on your unique needs and issues.
How Long Does MAT Last?
The medications used in MAT can be taken as long as they’re needed. Some people will take the medication for a few months. Others may take it for a few years. For some, medication will be an important part of recovery for the rest of their lives.
How long a person stays on medication depends on a number of factors, including personal preference, the severity of their addiction and how well they’re able to cope with relapse triggers.
The counseling component of MAT should last at least 90 days, whether it’s through an inpatient or outpatient treatment program. Anything less than that, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, is of limited effectiveness. That’s because just as it takes time to develop an addiction and the dysfunctional thought and behavior patterns that come with it, it takes time to re-wire the brain and learn to think and behave in healthier ways. It takes time to develop healthy lifestyle changes that stick, and it takes time to undo the damage the addiction does to many areas of your life.
If Medication-Assisted Treatment is So Effective, Why Isn’t It More Widely Available?
Despite research showing its effectiveness, medication-assisted treatment isn’t as widely available as it should be. There are far more people who need it than there are programs that offer it. Less than half of all private treatment programs offer MAT, according to Pew Charitable Trusts, and only 23 percent of publicly funded treatment programs utilize it.
Many high-quality treatment programs offer MAT, but for some people -particularly those who live in sparsely populated areas- travel is necessary to receive MAT.
A study published in the journal Evaluation and Program Planning, administrators of treatment programs cite a number of reasons why the medication-assisted treatment isn’t more widely available:
- The prevalent misconception among the general population and some medical providers that MAT simply replaces one addiction for another.
- A lack of medical personnel on staff who are authorized to administer MAT.
- A lack of access to medical personnel who are trained to deliver MAT.
- Barriers to funding for MAT.
- Cultural barriers, including staff and clients who are reluctant to rely on medications to treat an addiction.
These barriers are increasingly being addressed by government and healthcare agencies, and it’s expected that MAT will be more widely available in the coming years.
Is MAT Right for You?
Multiple pathways to addiction recovery include medication-assisted treatment. While it’s not the only effective pathway, it’s one that shows a great deal of promise for long-term recovery, particularly from an opioid addiction.
Whether MAT is right for you depends on your personal preferences, your ability to access MAT and the recommendations of your treatment team. MAT helps numerous people live drug and alcohol free more easily while they develop the essential skills they need to sustain the recovery on their own, without medication. For many, MAT is the primary factor in successful recovery. MAT works to restore function and joy to people’s lives, and it can work for you, too.