The Use of Medication Assisted Treatment for Opiate Addiction

Author - JD Meints | December 31, 2014

Today, a large number of Americans are addicted to heroin and painkillers. And fortunately, for them, when they go through drug treatment, there are medications available that assist in the withdrawal treatment process. When physicians treat those addicted to heroin or painkillers, they can prescribe methadone, naltrexone, and suboxone. These federally approved treatment drugs help reduce the side effects of withdrawal and curb cravings, which can lead to relapse. These drugs are sometimes referred to as maintenance drugs because they maintain a certain level of opiates in a person's body while he or she slowly weans off the drug.

Opioids are synthesized from morphine, a naturally occurring substance extracted from the seedpod of the Asian poppy plant. It is the main activating drug found in painkillers, including oxycodone, hydrocodone, diphenoxylate, morphine, codeine, and methadone. The abuse of prescription painkillers has reached epidemic proportions in America. Close to half of the nation's 38,329 drug overdose deaths in 2010 involved painkillers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These narcotics now kill more adults than heroin and cocaine combined.

Because addictions to opiates have reached large numbers in the United States and worldwide, there has been significant research in the ways to treat this type of addiction. Most people who are addicted to opiates cannot simply walk away from that addiction. The psychological and physical dependence is so strong that it requires a transitional drug to slowly facilitate sobriety. In fact, less than 25% of people who quit the use of opiates (painkillers and/or heroin) can remain sober for a full year. For this reason, physicians and substance abuse treatment centers have used medication assisted treatment options such as methadone, naltrexone, and suboxone to treat opiate addiction. These federally approved treatment drugs help reduce the side effects of withdrawal and curb cravings, which can otherwise lead to relapse.


Methadone has been the standard form of sober living treatment for opioid addiction for over 30 years. It is legally only available from federally regulated clinics for regular use in order to slowly wean an individual off the opiate addiction. When taken properly, medication-assisted treatment with methadone suppresses opioid withdrawal, blocks the effects of other problem opioids and reduces cravings.


Naltrexone is an opioid blocker that is also used as a way to medically treat opiate addiction. There are some advantages and disadvantages to using Naltrexone. It does not have any addictive properties and there's no addiction to Naltrexone that develops. However, it has several disadvantages. It does not stop cravings making it difficult to continue to use Naltrexone as a regular treatment method. The use of this treatment drug cannot begin until an individual has stopped using painkillers/heroin for at least two weeks, which is difficult for most addicts to do. Lastly, if an individual relapses while using Naltrexone, there is a high risk of overdose and death.


Suboxone, the synthetic opiate buprenorphine is used to treat heroin addicts during their drug detox and even for some time after detox to facilitate sober living. The drug was approved in 2002 and has many advantages over methadone and Naltrexone. For instance, it suppresses withdrawal symptoms, curbs cravings, and blocks the effects of other opioids in an individual's system for 24 hours. Sober living rates are much higher (up to 40-60%) with the use of Suboxone than with methadone or Naltrexone. Furthermore, treatment does not require daily participation in a highly regulated program, as with methadone treatment. Lastly, the potential for abusing Suboxone is substantially lower than the other two treatment medications discussed here.

Naloxone - An Emergency Drug

Naloxone is a treatment drug to be used in emergencies and not a long-term treatment drug. It is potentially lifesaving treatment to use on someone who is in the middle of a heroin overdose. When used on someone experiencing an overdose, this medicine temporarily blocks the opiate effects, allowing a person to breathe again long enough for help to arrive. In fact, the drug has been used for decades among paramedics as well as within the drug community, and it has saved thousands of lives.

Research has shown that the best combination of treatment include not only the medications described above but also therapy to address the behavioral and psychological issues that contributed to the addiction in the first place.

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