Last updated: 04/12/2019
Author: Addictions.com Medical Review
Reading Time: 5 minutes
Some addiction treatments involve the use of medications that help you safely overcome drug and alcohol dependence. Some medications help you manage withdrawal symptoms or can help you stay sober and avoid relapse. Knowing more about your options when it comes to medications offered at rehab can help you choose the right treatment and prepare for a successful recovery.
Why Are Medications a Part of Addiction Treatment?
Medications can be used to eliminate withdrawal symptoms, lower your risk for relapse, and treat co-occurring mental health disorders. Medications may also be used to treat certain withdrawal symptoms you experience as part of drug or alcohol detox, along with post-acute withdrawal symptoms that may linger after detox, such as psychosis or depression. For instance, those going through marijuana withdrawal may use medications to manage lingering symptoms of anxiety and insomnia.
Addiction to substances including alcohol, heroin, painkillers, and other opiates should always be treated using medications to prevent and lower the risk for dangerous, life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. Detox treatments for these substances often involve the use of medications that reduce opioid and alcohol cravings and that block the euphoric effects of these substances to promote abstinence. Sometimes cravings can be severe enough to trigger a relapse, which increases the risk for poisoning and overdose.
Medications used as part of addiction treatment have been shown to improve patient retention and survival rates and restore a healthy balance to the body and brain. Medications may be combined with counseling behavioral therapies to treat your substance use disorder in full, prevent overdose, and help you stay sober long-term.
Why are Medications Important for Managing Withdrawal Symptoms?
Many drug and alcohol withdrawal symptoms cause pain and general discomfort and can range anywhere from mild to severe based on factors such as the amount being used and the length of time the person has been addicted. Some withdrawal symptoms can be life-threatening. For instance, those recovering from long-term alcohol addiction may experience a severe form of withdrawal called delirium tremens, which is considered a medical emergency and characterized by symptoms including rapid heart rate, fever, and seizures. But medications can reduce these symptoms and lower your risk for related complications including relapse.
Relapse rates for substance use disorders are between 40% and 60%. Relapse is common and normal among those recovering from drug and alcohol addiction, but can be highly dangerous and quickly lead to a fatal overdose. Some medications may be used as part of ongoing maintenance for weeks, months, and even years to help you avoid cravings and stay sober long-term.
Can Medications Be Used at Rehab to Treat Mental Illness?
Medications may also be used to treat symptoms of mental illness. The coexistence of a drug use disorder and mental illness is known as co-occurring disorders. Many times, co-occurring disorders are treated at the same time to prevent symptoms of one disorder from worsening the other disorder. For instance, someone recovering from alcohol addiction who also struggles with PTSD may be prescribed antidepressants to manage depression.
Treatment plans that involve the use of medications for co-occurring disorders are customized and carefully tailored to your existing addiction treatment since some drug combinations can be deadly and lead to complications including death. Medications used for opioid detox and maintenance therapy such as methadone should never be combined with sedatives like benzodiazepines since this drug interaction can trigger an overdose.
Which Medications Will Be Used During My Rehab?
New medications are continually being developed to treat substance use disorders. The type of medications you use at rehab depends on multiple factors, such as the substance you’re addicted to, the symptoms you’re experiencing, and whether you are also diagnosed with a mental health disorder.
Generally, medication is either for preventing withdrawal symptoms or tapering you off certain substances or for the treatment of new symptoms that occur as a result of your abstaining from drugs and alcohol. Anxiety, insomnia, and psychosis are just some new symptoms you may experience after overcoming drug or alcohol dependence, and that can be treated using medications.
Opioid use disorder may be treated using methadone, buprenorphine, or naltrexone. Methadone and buprenorphine can reduce drug cravings and the effects of withdrawal, while naltrexone blocks the euphoric effects of opioids.
Alcohol use disorder may be treated using disulfiram, acamprosate, and naltrexone. Disulfiram causes unpleasant reactions like nausea and vomiting when used with alcohol, while acamprosate reduces alcohol withdrawal and helps with abstinence. Naltrexone blocks the euphoric effects of alcohol just as it works to block euphoria caused by opioid use.
At present, there are no FDA-approved medications to treat cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana use disorders. However, many addiction treatment centers still use medications to treat specific withdrawal symptoms for each of these addiction types.
What Should I Know When Using Medications at Rehab?
Use your medications exactly as directed since doses and treatment regimens are tailored specifically to treat your unique symptoms and addiction type. Some medications used at rehab carry a high risk for abuse and can lead to worsened withdrawal symptoms or serious complications when misused. Avoid taking more or less medication than advised by your doctor, and do not share your medications with others.
If you’re using medications to treat certain withdrawal symptoms or as part of ongoing maintenance to control cravings, talk to your doctor immediately if symptoms persist or worsen, or if you feel that your treatment regimen needs to be changed. Your doctors will change your doses as or alter your treatment plan as needed to make sure you experience less discomfort and full, successful recovery.
Though medications are proven effective at treating substance use disorders, alternative therapies are available to reduce withdrawal symptoms and help you stay sober. Exercise therapy and acupuncture are just some evidence-based therapies that may help treat drug dependence. If you feel that medications may not be the right fit for you in terms of treatment, talk to your doctor about alternative treatments that can safely and effectively help you overcome addiction.
Medications can reduce withdrawal symptoms that generally cause pain and discomfort, and also work to prevent relapse and overdose. If cravings and withdrawal symptoms are interfering with your ability to overcome addiction, discuss your medication options with a nearby addiction treatment center so you can experience a safer, more comfortable recovery.