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Drug Addiction Medications: Do They Actually Work?


Recently, the Obama Administration announced the spending of an additional $100 million to fight drug addiction in the United States. According to The Hill, about one-third of that funding will be devoted to addiction-fighting medications, a key part of the federal government’s approach to fighting opioid drug use.

Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Sylvia Matthews Burwell says the funding will go to community health centers in 11 states where opioid drug addiction is particularly high. She is recommending medications like buprenorphine (e.g. Suboxone, Subutex, and other Bup/Nx drugs) that are proven to help addicts deal with withdrawal symptoms and cravings.

While there may be good intentions with the new funding, there are also serious questions as to whether or not addiction-fighting medications are actually effective in treating drug addiction. To fully understand this issue, it’s important to look at the recent trend of drug addiction and drug-addiction related deaths, the addiction-fighting medications that are currently available, as well as the benefits and dangers of these medications.

Number of Drug Addicts and Deaths Rising

Drug addiction and deaths from addiction are on the rise in the United States. According to a July 2015 HHS study, heroin (an opioid) overdose deaths have quadrupled from 2002 to 2013, and doubled between 2011 and 2013 alone. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also reports that excessive alcohol use leads to approximately 88,000 deaths each year.

Too often, drug addiction goes untreated. According to the 2013 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services’ (SAMHSA) National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 20.2 million people needed treatment for an illicit drug or alcohol problem, but did not receive professional help.

Addiction Fighting Medications

There are several medications that are currently being used to fight drug addiction, including:

  • Methadone: Helps to offset cravings and withdrawal symptoms of opiate drugs.
  • Suboxone: Newer mediation, which includes buprenorphine, used to treat opioid abuse and addiction and can be taken as tablets.
  • Disulfiram (Antabuse): Designed to give users an aversive and unpleasant effect when drinking alcohol.
  • Naltrexone (ReVia): Blocks the effects of opioid drugs and also reduces the behavioral response to alcohol. May also have other positive affects for other behavioral disorders.
  • Acamprosate (Campral): Used for treating alcohol cravings and to prevent relapse.

Benefits of Addiction Fighting Medications

According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), medication may be used to either minimize withdrawal symptoms during detox or to help recovering addicts avoid the compulsive behavior that drives them to seek out drugs or alcohol. The NIDA notes that drug addiction-fighting medications also have several other benefits, such as:

  • Increasing patient retention in addiction treatment programs
  • Decreasing the rate of relapse among addicts in recovery
  • Lowering the rate of drug-related criminal activity
  • Reducing the rate of drug-related disease transmission

Risks of Addiction Fighting Medications

While there are several benefits, people should also know about some of the risks associated with addiction-fighting medications. Research has shown some of these medications may not be 100 percent effective and can even cause side effects. For example, Suboxone, a newer form of medication being prescribed for drug addicts, can have side effects, including nausea, vomiting, and constipation, muscle aches and cramps, cravings, inability to sleep, distress and irritability, and fever. There is also the possibility of overdose with Suboxone and some other addiction-fighting medications. Overdose of these medications can be fatal, especially if the patient injects one of these drugs during illicit use while sharing needles. While an overdose risk is possible with Suboxone, research has shown that Antabuse, Naltrexone, and Naloxone do not have any identified risk of overdose.

Deciding Whether Addiction-Fighting Medications Are Right for You

As with any medication, it is important to consult your doctor or therapist to learn more about the pros and cons of the most commonly prescribed medications for alcohol or drug addiction. No matter which prescription drug you and your doctor choose, it is also important to participate in individual counseling, group therapy, and to create a behavioral modification plan, which are just as important to your recovery. There are even natural and holistic approaches to curbing drug addiction such as aromatherapy and yoga that you may want to consider.