May 16, 2019 Felicia Durling

How Can Medication Help Treat Opioid Use Disorder?

In 2016, 2.1 million people in the United States struggled with an opioid use disorder. America has been in the throes of a horrific epidemic. Over 100 people die every day from opioid-related overdoses.

Unfortunately, the problem appears to be getting worse. When left untreated, opioid use is progressive. It can devastate both individuals and their families. Furthermore, it can be fatal.

There are proven strategies for recovery. Medication can play a powerful part in supporting sobriety from opioids. Let’s get into what you need to know.

Understanding How Opioids Work

Opioids impact the areas of the brain associated with pain and emotions. When people take opioids, they experience a sense of sedation. They may also experience tremendous pleasure and euphoria.

However, opioids can become habit-forming very quickly. As the user continues to take these substances, he or she will develop a tolerance. When this happens, the user needs to take more opioids to achieve the desired outcome.

Criteria For Opioid Use Disorder

Dependence causes serious problems, as it can evolve into a full-blown addiction. Other symptoms of opioid use disorder include:

  • more time and energy spent attempting to buy, use, or recover from the effects of the substance
  • increased consequences (i.e., problems at work or relationship issues)
  • inability to quit or cut back
  • intense cravings to use
  • using in hazardous or risky settings
  • neglecting important responsibilities due to using
  • experiencing withdrawal symptoms when abstaining from opioids

The symptoms can vary in intensity. However, with prolonged use, they tend to get worse over time.

Medication-Assisted Treatment Options

Medication can be a life-changing tool for individuals wishing to recover from the trenches of their addictions. The FDA has approved three medications for treatment.


Methadone has been used for nearly a century. In its first prescribed use, physicians administered it as an alternative to morphine.

Methadone is a full opioid agonist. It helps reduce the intense, uncomfortable symptoms of opioid withdrawal. Individuals can only receive methadone in approved and supervised clinics.

It should be noted that methadone itself is an opioid. There is a potential for developing an addiction. Dependence can happen, and when an individual stops taking methadone, he or she will enter withdrawal.


The FDA approved buprenorphine in 2002 as an alternative to methadone. Unlike methadone, doctors can prescribe buprenorphine as part of general practice.

Buprenorphine is a partial opioid agonist. While it does mimic some of the highs associated with other opioids, the effects are significantly weaker. At its appropriate doses, buprenorphine reduces cravings.

Suboxone contains both buprenorphine and naloxone. Naloxone is an opioid agonist that deters abuse. If someone on suboxone takes other opioids, the naloxone blocks the potential for getting high.

There is also a potential for misuse and addiction. Chronic buprenorphine use can lead to tolerance. Furthermore, stopping use suddenly will cause withdrawal.


Naltrexone works to block the effects of opioids. The medication binds and blocks opioid receptors. This means that individuals cannot get high if they take opioids while on naltrexone.

Naltrexone is currently available in two forms: as a daily pill (taken at 40 mg) or as an injectable, extended-release shot (known as Vivitrol).

Naltrexone is not addictive. It cannot be abused because it does not contain opioid properties. There is no risk of tolerance or withdrawal associated with this medication.

Medication For Co-Occurring Disorders

In addition to medication prescribed for opioid use disorder, many people benefit from pharmacological treatment for co-occurring disorders.

Many people struggling with substance addiction also have mental health issues like depression or anxiety.

There is a misconception that getting sober makes other problems “disappear.” In fact, untreated mental illness can actually increase the chance for a debilitating relapse.

Medication may include:

  • antidepressants (Prozac, Lexapro, Zoloft)
  • antipsychotics (Abilify, Risperdal, Zyprexa)
  • medication for other physical ailments

People should not take medication without ongoing medical supervision. Clients should always consult with their healthcare provider before making changes to their medication routine.

Who Should Consider Medication-Assisted Treatment?

Medication-assisted treatment can be beneficial for many people. If an individual has tried abstinence-only sobriety but has struggled with continuous relapse, medication can reduce the risk for relapse and overdose.

That said, medication is not a quick fix. Most experts agree that it’s a part of a comprehensive treatment plan. In other words, medication alone does not substitute for a healthy recovery.

Many people benefit from medication in conjunction with other counseling and behavioral therapies. These therapies may include group or individual treatment. It may also include participation in 12-Step meetings like Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous.

Because addiction is different for everyone, treatment is also different for everyone. A one-size-fits-all approach to recovery does not work. Sometimes, people need to try a variety of different approaches to determine what works best.

Finally, it should be noted that medication is not always permanent. Some people take it for a few months and eventually taper themselves off it. That said, many others live happy and fulfilling lives while taking their medication.

Final Thoughts On Treatment For Opioid Use Disorder

There is no doubt that treating opioid use disorder is challenging and even frustrating. However, the decision to choose recovery is one of the most rewarding paths you can take for your future. You owe it to yourself- and your loved ones- to pursue the journey towards health and wellness.

At The Center For Life Change, we are here for you during every step of your process. Contact us to speak with one of our treatment professionals today.


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