The severity of an opiate addiction often warrants long-term medical treatment even after a person stops using. The effects of opiates on the body’s chemical processes leave cell functions weakened and unable to function normally without opiates’ effects. For these reasons, treatment for opiate addiction, more oftentimes than not, requires ongoing medication therapy.
Medications used as treatment for opiate addiction help to reduce the withdrawal effects and cravings that normally drive a person back to using drugs. The types of medications used as treatment for opiate addiction vary in how they affect the body and whether they help reduce withdrawal effects, cravings or both.
Reasons for Medical Treatment
The overpowering effects of opiates on the body make it all but impossible for a person to stop using without help. Once addicted the brain and body all but demand ongoing doses of opiates to function normally. These demands turn into withdrawal effects when needed doses of the drug become unavailable. Treatment for opiate addiction uses medication therapies to help people stop using.
Medical treatment also plays an essential role in helping recovering addicts remain abstinent. Even after a person stops using, the potential for relapse remains high. As opiate residues lodge inside the body’s tissues and cells, drug effects can continue long after a person stops using. These effects cause ongoing cravings for more of the drug. Medical treatment for opiate addiction helps address drug aftereffects and relieve cravings.
According to a University of Utah report, opiates cause more deaths by overdose than any other class of drugs. Overdose is most likely to happen after a person has abstained from opiate use for a while. In effect, medical treatment for opiate addiction helps to prevent the risk of overdose and potentially save a person’s life.
Medication treatment for opiate addiction works in one of two ways:
- by mimicking opiate drug effects
- by nullifying opiate drug effects
While replacing one drug for another may seem like an exercise in futility, opiate replacement medications play a vital a role in helping the body readjust to functioning without the effects of opiates.
Once metabolized, opiates are converted into morphine throughout the body’s central nervous system. Morphine just so happens to be a natural and essential endorphin chemical that’s normally secreted throughout the brain and body. Natural morphine secretions help regulate pain signals and also help to maintain a certain “comfort” level throughout the body.
Once addicted, these functions become dependent on the presence of the drug in the system. Medication treatment for opiate addiction enables the body to function normally while gradually weaning the body off of opiate effects.
According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, three medications have received FDA approval as treatments for opiate addiction: methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone.
- Methadone works by mimicking the effects of opiates and thereby reducing cravings.
- Naltrexone works as a nullifying agent that cancels opiate drug effects in cases where a person attempts to use.
- Buprenorphine can work as an opiate replacement alone or as a nullifying agent and an opiate replacement.
The type of medication used depends on how far along a person is in recovery and how severe the addiction is. Nullifying agents like naltrexone can work well for people who continue to experience strong cravings while taking methadone or buprenorphine.