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Medication Assisted Treatment – The Pros and Cons of MAT

By Linda Whiteside

Medically Reviewed by: Dr. Ryan Peterson

Table of Contents

Medication Assisted Treatment

The current opioid overdose crisis has forced local, state and federal government bodies to find solutions. One solution that has gained major traction over the past several years is medication assisted treatment (MAT). There has been an increasing number of studies showing the effectiveness of MAT programs in helping people get and stay sober. However, MAT programs are not without its shortcomings and controversies. This article will give you a better understanding of MAT programs and how they work.

What is Medication-Based Treatment?

Simply defined, MAT programs utilized FDA-approved medications in conjunction with counseling and behavioral-based therapies. Medications can be a tremendous help to patients, especially in the early recovery process. When drugs and alcohol leave the body, it can create physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms that are painful to uncomfortable to endure.

Along with nutritional support and other interventions, medication-assisted therapy can help make withdrawal symptoms more tolerable. Additionally, medications can help newly recovering achieve physical and mental stability. Once stable, addicts can transition into formal drug treatment. Along with easing withdrawal symptoms, MAT programs reduce cravings, reduce chances of overdose, and gives people struggling early in recovery additional confidence.

What Type of Medications are Used in MAT Programs?

While many people think that MAT programs are a recent phenomenon, medications have been used in drug treatment since the 1960’s. Created as a pain reliever by German scientists during World War II, methadone was first used in drug treatment in the 1950’s. When improved protocols, methadone was reintroduced into treatment in 1964. As of 2015, it is estimated that 350,000 people were administered methadone for opioid and opiate addiction.

While an effective medication, methadone is highly addictive-and users can become hooked on the medication even under strict medical supervision. Additionally, methadone programs are targets of drug dealers. Patients who become addicted to methadone often combine it with other benzodiazepine drugs. The combination of these drugs creates an intense high and an increased risk of health complications and death.

In the past decade, two new medications have been introduced to MAT programs that have been proven effective and with reduced addiction risk. These medications are Vivitrol and Suboxone. Vivitrol is an effective opiate blocker that attaches to opioid receptors in the brain but does not activate these receptors. As a result, patients will not feel the euphoric or sedative effects that are found in heroin and other narcotic drugs.

Suboxone is a hybrid medication. It contains the opiate blocker naloxone as well as the opiate buprenorphine. When administered, this medication blocks the ability for opioids drugs like heroin and prescription painkillers to attach to the opioid receptors in the brain. Naloxone-otherwise was known as Narcan-is a drug that can halt the effects of an overdose until professional help arrives.

Pros and Cons of Medication Assisted Treatment

There are pros and cons to medication-assisted treatment (MAT). Some people believe that MAT is a harm-reduction strategy that can help save lives. Others believe that MAT simply substitutes one addiction for another. Here are the pros and cons of MAT so that you can make an informed decision about whether or not it is right for you.

Pros:

  • Medication assisted treatment has been shown to be effective in reducing drug use and improving outcomes for people with substance use disorders.
  • MAT can help people to stabilize their lives and improve their overall health.
  • MAT can help to reduce the spread of infectious diseases, such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C, among people who inject drugs.
  • MAT can also help to reduce the risk of overdose and death.

Cons:

  • Some people may be reluctant to take medication for their substance use disorder, fearing that it will be addictive or will not be effective.
  • Others may be concerned about the potential side effects of the medication.
  • Some people may feel that taking medication for their substance use disorder is a sign of weakness or failure.
  • There is a risk that people who are taking medication for their substance use disorder may become dependent on the medication.
  • There is also a risk that people who are taking medication for their substance use disorder may abuse the medication.

What are the Benefits of MAT Programs?

When administered properly and within a reputable treatment program, Medication Assisted Treatment programs have several benefits. As already discussed, medications can help those early in recovery tolerate withdrawal symptoms and make weaning off of substances more comfortable. Secondly, it helps reduce cravings and thus reduces the response to triggers that can lead back to active drug use. Additionally, the use of medications can lead to successful treatment outcomes.

Understanding the Drawbacks

While MAT programs can be effective when paired with effective drug treatment programs, you must understand its limitations. First and foremost, MAT programs are not a cure and no magic pill exists that will cure substance abuse immediately.

While medication therapy has shown positive results, it may not work for everybody. Each person who enters treatment has unique and specific needs. While the push for medication therapy is strong, you and your treatment team need to weigh all your options carefully. One size fits all treatment works for some by may not offer the long-term benefits of a custom-tailored treatment program designed for an individual’s unique situation. Each individual has a unique biochemical makeup, and certain drugs that work well for some people may have adverse effects or no effect at all for others.

Medication assisted treatment requires the long-term use of substances that are foreign to the body and artificially alter brain chemistry. While this may offer a benefit in the short term, the side effects of the long-term use of these substances are unknown.

In the case of Suboxone, there is a risk of being addicted to the medication. Buprenorphine is a synthesized opioid, and people can experience the same euphoria and rush they felt when using opioid and opiate drugs. Both Suboxone and Vivitrol are only effective when substances have completely cleared one’s system. In many cases, newly recovering addicts would have to wait 3-10 days before taking these medications and using the medication too soon or while still using can have some very serious consequences, including the possibility of death. Patients who are not completely forthcoming about what substances they are currently taking can add to the risk of potential drug interactions.

There is also the matter of insurance. While an increasing number of insurance companies are covering medication assisted treatment programs, the cost of medications is expensive. A Vivitrol shot costs $1500 per shot, and there are still many insurance companies that either won’t cover the cost or only provide a small discount. If you are uninsured or underinsured, MAT programs can be out of reach.

Long-Term Recovery

While medication assisted therapy has been shown to be effective in many cases it is important to understand that there is no one single treatment option that will be effective for everyone. Effective treatment starts with a personalized in-depth assessment of the unique mental, physical, emotional, and biochemical uniqueness of each individual. Long-term recovery is best achieved by addressing the root level causes of addiction using a comprehensive whole person approach to treatment. Holistic treatment focuses on restoring proper brain chemistry, improving the health of the systems of the body combined with powerful mental and emotional therapy. When the body, brain, and spirit are healed and restored, you have a solid foundation on which lifelong recovery can be built.

Medication Assisted Treatment For Opioid Abuse

NuView Integrated Recovery Center offers a medication assisted treatment and comprehensive solution to substance abuse and co-occurring disorders. Our integrative treatment program offers a holistic framework and features a functional nutrient therapy program designed to provide a highly personalized approach to rebalancing brain chemistry using substances natural to your body. Our program is designed to provide whole person treatment to improve mental, physical, and emotional health.

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Author

Written By: Linda Whiteside
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Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor who has been providing mental health services for over 10 years.

Medically reviewed by: Dr. Ryan Peterson
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Went to medical school at The George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C.

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