Prescribed Medications Can Help People Recover from Addiction

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  • For decades, doctors have sometimes prescribed medications to treat certain addictions.
  • Researchers have developed new medications that can be used to help overcome addiction to opiates and alcohol.
  • These medicines can especially help people when they first begin a treatment regimen.

With the remarkable progress in scientific understanding of the brain and of the underlying causes of addiction, pharmaceutical manufacturers have made new treatments available. In the last decade, thousands of people have traveled the road to recovery while taking newly developed prescription medications.

"Recent research has made a great deal of progress in understanding what's going on in the brain with addiction," says prominent addiction research scientist Dr. Charles O'Brien. This knowledge, he says, "has helped us to develop new medications for nicotine, alcohol, and opiates." (Doctors have also been prescribing existing medications to treat alcoholism and heroin addiction since at least the 1950s.)

Taken as either tablets, drinkable liquids or through injection, medications are not magic bullets for solving the misery of addiction. Experts say that they must be used as part of a comprehensive treatment plan that includes behavioral therapy as well as services to address the individual medical, psychological, social, vocational and legal needs of the patient. The federal National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found in 2006 that effective treatment for alcohol dependence included 16 weeks of the prescribed medication naltrexone along with what's called medical management - nine or more brief outpatient alcohol counseling sessions with a healthcare professional.

Many of the medications are especially important in the early stages of recovery. They help to mute cravings enough to allow people to think more clearly. This way, the addicted person can begin to establish the critically important recovery plan. After taking buprenorphine, a medication for the treatment of opiate addiction, Justin, undergoing treatment in Maine, said "my personality and my state of mind six months ago was totally different than my state of mind right now....It's exactly what I was looking for - just taking my life and turning it upside down and going the other way with it." However, medications don't work for everyone. For some, they produce serious side effects which is why medication should always be taken under the supervision of a physician.

Some Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) members do not support the use of prescribed medications. They hold that such therapies amount to the exchange of one addiction for another. But increasingly people in recovery and addiction experts believe that prescription medications can significantly reduce relapse and that they complement mutual help efforts, providing significant new hope for many addicted people. Medications approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for treating addiction:

For alcohol addiction:

  • acamprosate (Campral)
  • disulfiram (Antabuse)
  • naltrexone (Revia, Vivitrol, Depade)

For opioid addiction:

  • methadone
  • buprenorphine, or "bupe" (Suboxone, Subutex)
  • naltrexone (Revia)

Two medications highlighted by the ADDICTION Project that are being tested for treating addiction but have not yet been approved by the FDA:

  • baclofen (Kemstro, Lioresal)
  • topiramate (Topamax)