Resources & Education

March 5th, 2018

What is Medically Assisted Treatment?

doctor patientBoth doctors and healthcare advocates agree that the opioid crisis in the United States has become an epidemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 42,000 people died from an opioid overdose in 2016 alone, more than any year on record. Forty percent of the deaths involved a prescription opioid, proving that the crisis is complicated by both the popularity of illegal street drugs like heroin and an increasing reliance upon prescription pain relievers like oxycodone.

For the over two million Americans who are addicted to prescription or illicit opioids, the idea of breaking the habit and becoming sober means overcoming what many feel is an insurmountable hurdle. Quitting opioids altogether is not an option for many whose bodies are so reliant upon the drugs that the withdrawal symptoms, even if managed in a treatment facility, can feel like death itself. In the most severe cases, unassisted opioid withdrawal can be fatal.

As a way to help ease addicts along the road to recovery and help to manage their withdrawal symptoms safely and effectively, many experts are recommending the use of medically assisted treatments for opioid addiction recovery. When appropriately administered by a professional, this recovery treatment option can be successful in helping former addicts learn the coping skills and lifestyle changes they need to become sober while allowing their bodies to adapt to a life without opioid dependence.

What is Medically Assisted Treatment for Opioid Recovery?

Medically assisted treatments for opioid recovery include the use of FDA-approved medications in conjunction with counseling and behavioral therapy to aid in the addiction recovery process. By incorporating clinically-safe opioid use into the treatment, and gradually reducing the patient’s dose of the drug, their bodies have time to break their addiction, while a counselor helps them to understand and overcome the underlying issues that led to their addiction. Studies have shown that patients who are exposed to medically assisted treatments are less likely to overdose or relapse and are more likely to maintain their treatment plan and counseling sessions long-term.

Medications Used in Medically Assisted Treatment

There are three drugs that are primarily used in the addiction recovery treatment of both short-acting opioids such as heroin, morphine, and codeine, and semi-synthetic opioids such as hydrocodone and oxycodone. Clinical research has proven that when properly regulated the drugs used in medically assisted treatment programs do not cause any adverse effects on a patient’s physical or mental functions. The three FDA-approved drugs commonly used in medically assisted treatment for opioid addiction recovery include:

  • Buprenorphine – An opioid agonist/antagonist that blocks other narcotics while reducing the symptoms of withdrawal. It is typically taken daily as a dissolving tablet and is dispensed in a clinical office setting.
  • Methadone – An opioid agonist that does not block other narcotics but prevents feelings of withdrawal. It is typically dispensed daily in liquid form only from specialty regulated clinics. Methadone is the only drug used in medically assisted treatment approved for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. However, women should disclose to their doctor if they are pregnant or breastfeeding before beginning any form of recovery treatment.
  • Naltrexone – A non-addictive opioid antagonist that blocks the effects of other narcotics. In this way, if a patient relapses and uses an opioid, the Naltrexone will block its euphoric, sedative effects. It is typically dispensed daily in pill form, or monthly as an injection, and is given in a clinical office setting.

Depending on the treatment plan, a patient may be prescribed the supervised use of these drugs for days, weeks, or years.


In addition to the drugs listed above, some clinicians and treatment facilities recommend the use of suboxone, a combination of buprenorphine and naloxone, the drug that blocks opiate receptors in the nervous system. By combining the two, suboxone is intended to function as a type of abuse-deterrent. It is necessary to understand, however, that some street drug use sufferers may still attempt to abuse suboxone by acquiring it illegally and using it more frequently than recommended to keep withdrawal symptoms from escalating.

Common Misperceptions

While the use of medically assisted treatment has increased among the substance use recovery community, and with great success, some argue that the treatment simply substitutes one drug for another, thus delaying the time it takes for a patient to transition to a drug-free lifestyle. In reality, the drugs used in medically assisted treatments are critical in allowing patients to feel the relief of withdrawal symptoms and psychological cravings, which mitigates the chances of a relapse, and gives them the clarity needed to work with their counselor on the lifestyle changes required to commit to an opioid-free existence.

If you or a loved one are addicted to opioids and are ready to begin the road to recovery, talk to a doctor, counselor, or trusted friend or family member about addiction recovery treatment options. Horizon Health Services offers help for substance use disorder in Western New York. Please call 716-831-1800 today and speak with one of our knowledgeable team members.

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