Medical Treatment for Addiction

Learn more about medical treatments for specific addictions

The biochemical nature of addiction provides a reason to look for drugs that will help combat the addiction process. After all, if one chemical can make someone become an addict, then another chemical might be found that would keep them from the behavior.

Medicines used to treat addiction fall under three main types:

Medications that help with withdrawal symptoms
These treat the effects of withdrawal and are usually only given for short periods of time. Anti-anxiety medications find use in cocaine and stimulant withdrawal, anti-seizure medications are used to help with alcohol withdrawal, and for many drugs (opiates and benzodiazepines) medications may be given as sleep aids.
In some cases, the drug being abused is administered in a controlled fashion to lessen withdrawal, although this is not thought to be the best choice. However, it may be the only safe way to wean someone from a benzodiazepine or alcohol addiction.
Medications that treat underlying problems
In many types of addiction, therapists will look for causes other than the substance being abused. For example, treating depression may help someone who uses drugs to lift their mood and make it less likely they will abuse. Medications are then directed at treating the deeper problem.
Prescription medications are available for many common triggers – anxiety and stress, depression, bipolar disorder, and even compulsions can be treated. Sometimes, a patient is shifted from a more addictive choice to a less addictive, as when pain medication must be used. In these cases, monitoring is useful because a history of addiction is predictive of future addiction.
Medications that treat addiction directly
These come in two general types. The first is replacement. A heroin addict may be put on methadone therapy for instance. While methadone is also addictive, it is considered to be less harmful than the heroin it replaces.
The second type meets the goal of a biochemical answer, at least partially. By selectively blocking opioid receptors, the drug Buprenorphine has shown promise in addiction to morphine and derivatives (hydrocodone, oxycodone) without causing further addiction. This is sometimes given in combination with Naltrexone, a drug that blocks the effects of opiates, so that even if an addict uses, they won’t get high.
Alcoholism can be treated with Naltrexone as well. An older drug, Disulfiram, was used because it blocked the metabolism of alcohol. Alcoholics who drank while on Disulfiram would get violently ill and this was thought to help them remain sober. Unfortunately, many either wouldn’t take the drug or would drink anyway – sometimes leading to fatalities.

Patient compliance

The problem of compliance is another target of research. It is not always possible to force patients who aren’t being supervised to take the medications that may help them abstain. For this reason, Naltrexone has been made into a once-a-month injectable form that delivers a low, but steady dose over the course of a month.

Research continues to find other drugs to help with addiction. Some medications are used “off-label” which means it is marketed for one purpose and a doctor prescribes it to help with addiction. Clonidine is one such. It is a blood pressure medication that seems to lessen cravings in some patients addicted to cocaine or methamphetamine.

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