Years ago, when I was working for a local family treatment court, we had a potential client who wished to join the program. Some people on the treatment team were concerned that she would not be a good fit for drug court because she was using medication-assisted treatment (MAT). There was a lot of stigma around MAT, even among some people who were active in the recovery community in our area. Much has been learned about MAT since then, however, and it is far more widely accepted that medication can be a good addition to a person’s overall recovery plan.
What Is Medication-Assisted Treatment?
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), MAT is the use of specific FDA approved medications, in conjunction with other approved therapies, to treat a person who is struggling with addiction. The idea behind MAT is not for the person to rely on the medication alone for their recovery journey. Medication-assisted treatment is meant to be part of a whole-person approach. The medication may address specific parts of the addiction, such as reducing cravings or blocking the euphoria of the drug, but other interventions are needed to treat the underlying issues that led to the addiction and to replace the voids that can be left when a person stops using substances. Without other forms of treatment in place, medication alone is unlikely to provide sustained long-term recovery.
How MAT Is Used
Medication-assisted treatment is not used in every case. At this time, MAT is primarily used to treat opioid and alcohol addictions. There are a number of MAT options on the market, and they each have different ways of helping the brain to fight addiction. Two of the most common medications are:
- Suboxone – this medication is used to treat opiate addiction by blocking the euphoric effects of opiates and decreasing cravings.
- Naltrexone – this medication is used to treat addiction to alcohol and opiates by blocking the euphoric effects of the drug and decreasing cravings.
Common Misconceptions About MAT
There are several myths that have persisted around MAT over the years. These include:
- People utilizing MAT aren’t really in recovery. It is hard to get and stay in recovery, whether you use MAT or not. You’re still going to be doing a lot of work; the medication is just making one aspect of addiction more manageable. When we see addiction as a chronic disease, it is usually easier to accept MAT as a form of treatment rather than a replacement drug.
- MAT is frequently abused. In reality, there is very little euphoric effect from MAT drugs, so they are not the best way to get high. Even in cases where someone has acquired a MAT drug illegally, they have often used it to stop using opioids.
- It’s as easy to overdose on Suboxone as opiates. Illicit drugs are obviously not regulated by the FDA. There are no quality controls, and a lot of overdoses result from drug users receiving a substance that has been tampered with, such as fentanyl being added to or substituted for heroin. When a person is taking suboxone, they know precisely what they are ingesting and how much. This alone decreases the risk of overdose.
- You can only use MAT for a short period of time. While there is a perception that MAT should be used only briefly, much of the medical community agrees that there are cases where it is safer and more appropriate for the person in recovery to stay on the MAT regiment long-term. This change in thought is largely attributed to the wide acceptance of the idea that addiction is a chronic disease and that it makes no more sense to take away a treatment that prevents relapse than it would to take albuterol from an asthmatic or insulin from a diabetic.
Risks Associated with MAT
As with any other medications, MAT has potential side effects. These largely stem from misuse. For example, a person who uses after ingesting MAT prescriptions can overdose. For this reason, it is important to never mix illicit substances or unprescribed opiates with MAT, and it is important to tell your primary care doctor if you are utilizing MAT.