Years of research have shown us that addiction to any drug, illicit or prescribed, is a brain disease that can, like other chronic diseases, be effectively treated. But no single type of treatment is appropriate for all individuals addicted to prescription drugs. Treatment must take into account the type of drug used and the needs of the individual. To be successful, treatment may need to incorporate several components, such as counseling in conjunction with a prescribed medication, and multiple courses of treatment may be needed for the patient to make a full recovery.
The two main categories of drug addiction treatment are behavioral and pharmacological. Behavioral treatments teach people how to function without drugs, how to handle cravings, how to avoid drugs and situations that could lead to drug use, how to prevent relapse, and how to handle relapse should it occur. When delivered effectively, behavioral treatments – such as individual counseling, group or family counseling, contingency management, and cognitive-behavioral therapies – also can help patients improve their personal relationships and ability to function at work and in the community.
Some addictions, such as opioid addiction, can also be treated with medications. These pharmacological treatments counter the effects of the drug on the brain and behavior. Medications also can be used to relieve the symptoms of withdrawal, to treat an overdose, or to help overcome drug cravings. Although a behavioral or pharmacological approach alone may be effective for treating drug addiction, research shows that a combination of both, when available, is most effective.
Treating addiction to prescription opioids
Several options are available for effectively treating addiction to prescription opioids. These options are drawn from experience and research regarding the treatment of heroin addiction. They include medications, such as methadone and LAAM (levo-alpha-acetyl-methadol), and behavioral counseling approaches.
A useful precursor to long-term treatment of opioid addiction is detoxification. Detoxification in itself is not a treatment for opioid addiction. Rather, its primary objective is to relieve withdrawal symptoms while the patient adjusts to being drug free. To be effective, detoxification must precede long-term treatment that either requires complete abstinence or incorporates a medication, such as methadone, into the treatment plan.
Methadone is a synthetic opioid that blocks the effects of heroin and other opioids, eliminates withdrawal symptoms, and relieves drug craving. It has been used successfully for more than 30 years to treat people addicted to opioids. Other medications include LAAM, an alternative to methadone that blocks the effects of opioids for up to 72 hours, and naltrexone, an opioid blocker that is often employed for highly motivated individuals in treatment programs promoting complete abstinence. Buprenorphine, another effective medication, is awaiting Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval for treatment of opioid addiction. Finally, naloxone, which counteracts the effects of opioids, is used to treat overdoses.
Treating addiction to CNS depressants
Patients addicted to barbiturates and benzodiazepines should not attempt to stop taking them on their own, as withdrawal from these drugs can be problematic, and in the case of certain CNS depressants, potentially life-threatening. Although no extensive body of research regarding the treatment of barbiturate and benzodiazepine addiction exists, patients addicted to these medications should undergo medically supervised detoxification because the dose must be gradually tapered off. Inpatient or outpatient counseling can help the individual during this process. Cognitive-behavioral therapy also has been used successfully to help individuals adapt to the removal from benzodiazepines.
Often the abuse of barbiturates and benzodiazepines occurs in conjunction with the abuse of another substance or drug, such as alcohol or cocaine. In these cases of polydrug abuse, the treatment approach must address the multiple addictions.
Treating addiction to prescription stimulants
Treatment of addiction to prescription stimulants, such as Ritalin, is often based on behavioral therapies proven effective for treating cocaine or methamphetamine addiction. At this time, there are no proven medications for the treatment of stimulant addiction. However, antidepressants may help manage the symptoms of depression that can accompany the early days of abstinence from stimulants.
Depending on the patient’s situation, the first steps in treating prescription stimulant addiction may be tapering off the drug’s dose and attempting to treat withdrawal symptoms. The detoxification process could then be followed by one of many behavioral therapies. Contingency management, for example, uses a system that enables patients to earn vouchers for drug-free urine tests. The vouchers can be exchanged for items that promote healthy living.
Another behavioral approach is cognitive-behavioral intervention, which focuses on modifying the patient’s thinking, expectations, and behaviors while at the same time increasing skills for coping with various life stressors. Recovery support groups may also be effective in conjunction with behavioral therapy.
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