Medication-assisted treatment for addiction prevents overdoses and sustains recovery. People using medications can work, drive, and care for their loved ones. And that's what recovery is all about.

Addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease that changes the brain.1  Just like with other chronic diseases, medication works to treat some addictions.Harm reduction recognizes that medication-assisted treatments can be both beneficial and necessary for the treatment of some substance use disorders.3

When appropriately prescribed and monitored, medications have been proven to prevent overdoses and help people sustain recovery. Medications can help with many difference kinds of addictions. Tobacco users can wean themselves slowly off of tobacco by using nicotine replacement, and medications like Acamprosate have proven beneficial for helping people with alcohol use disorders.

For those addicted to opioids, including heroin and prescription painkillers, medication-assisted treatment (MAT) in the form of opioid maintenance has been proven by research to be beneficial.4 

  • Opioids change the structure of the brain, interfering with natural chemicals, and over time can affect the physiology of the brain.5
  • Opioid use disorder goes beyond physical dependence, becoming a chronic, relapsing condition that cannot be overcome through willpower alone.6 
  • Medications like methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone have been proven to be effective in helping to reduce cravings for opioids and to minimize the symptoms of withdrawal.7 
  • People with opioid addictions have been shown to stay in recovery for years or even decades with the help of medication.8

Medication-assisted treatments are also important for pregnant women who misuse opioids. Both buprenorphine and methadone and have been proven to result in better birth outcomes for pregnant women who use opioids,9 and Buprenorphine specifically is shown to reduce withdrawal symptoms in newborns.10 When used to treat Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, a group of symptoms exhibited by infants who were exposed to opioids in the womb, buprenorphine resulted in the use of less morphine, shorter treatment periods, and earlier hospital release dates.11

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Medication can also be lifesaving in the case of overdose. Naloxone is approved by the FDA to prevent opioid overdose12 and has been proven to be safe13 and cost-effective.14 Naloxone kits are distributed by more than 644 programs in America,15 and nearly 26,500 overdoses have been reversed between 1996 and 2014.16

Given these facts, it’s clear that MAT is a fundamental part of any harm reduction program. Learn more about MAT here.

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1. Kreek, M.J., Levran, O., Reed, B., Schlussman, S.D., Zhou, Y., & Buteleman, E.R. (2012). Opiate addiction and cocaine addiction: Underlying molecular neurobiology and genetics. The Journal of Clinical Investigations, 2012 October; 122(1), 3387-3393.
2. Kreek, M.J., Levran, O., Reed, B., Schlussman, S.D., Zhou, Y., & Buteleman, E.R. (2012). Opiate addiction and cocaine addiction: Underlying molecular neurobiology and genetics. The Journal of Clinical Investigations, 2012 October; 122(1), 3387-3393.
3. Stimmel B, Kreek MJ. Mt Sinai J Med. 2000 Oct-Nov; 67(5-6):375-80.
4. Stimmel B, Kreek MJ. Mt Sinai J Med. 2000 Oct-Nov; 67(5-6):375-80.
5. Kreek, M.J., Levran, O., Reed, B., Schlussman, S.D., Zhou, Y., & Buteleman, E.R. (2012). Opiate addiction and cocaine addiction: Underlying molecular neurobiology and genetics. The Journal of Clinical Investigations, 2012 October; 122(1), 3387-3393.
6. Kreek, M.J., Levran, O., Reed, B., Schlussman, S.D., Zhou, Y., & Buteleman, E.R. (2012). Opiate addiction and cocaine addiction: Underlying molecular neurobiology and genetics. The Journal of Clinical Investigations, 2012 October; 122(1), 3387-3393.
7. Joseph H, Stancliff S, Langrod J. “Methadone maintenance treatment (MMT): a review of historical and clinical issues.” Mt. Sinai J Med. 2000 Oct-Nov;67(5-6):347-64.
8. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “Medication Assisted Treatment for Opioid Addiction: Facts for Friends and Family.” HHS Publication No. (SMA) 09-4443. 2011
9. Beth A. Logan , M.A.,1 Mark S. Brown , M.D.,2 and Marie J. Hayes , Ph.D.1,3 “Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome: Treatment and Pediatric Outcomes” Clin Obstet Gynecol. 2013 Mar; 56(1): 186–192.
10. National Institutes of Health “ Buprenorphine treatment in pregnancy: less distress to babies” December 9, 2010: https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/buprenorphine-treatment-pregnancy-less-distress-babies
11. Jones HE, Kaltenbach K, Heil SH, et al. Neonatal abstinence syndrome after methadone or buprenorphine exposure. N Engl J Med. 2010;363(24):2320–2331.
12. https://www.samhsa.gov/medication-assisted-treatment/treatment/naloxone
13. Doyon S, Aks SE, Schaeffer S. Expanding access to naloxone in the United States. Clin Toxicol (Phila) 2014;52:989–92.
14. Coffin PO, Sullivan SD. Cost-effectiveness of distributing naloxone to heroin users for lay overdose reversal. Ann Intern Med 2013;158:1–9.
15. CDC, MMWR, https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6423a2.htm?s_cid=mm6423a2_w
16. CDC, MMWR, https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6423a2.htm?s_cid=mm6423a2_w