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Both domestic and international media outlets have branded America as having a pill culture, and many would argue rightly so. According to the Washington Post, as of 2015, almost 60 percent of Americans take a prescription pill, and this is the highest proportion of the population ever to do so. On the one hand, Americans may be benefitting from exceptional pharmaceutical advancements. On the other hand, Americans may be using prescription medications as a shortcut to making important lifestyle changes. Arguments about the pros and cons of taking medications abound, but one thing is clear: For some, prescription medications may be instrumental to the addiction recovery process.
At present, there are three drugs of abuse for which addiction medication is used in treatment: opioids and opiates, alcohol, and benzodiazepines. It is important to note that one of the strongest arguments in favor of using medication for addiction to these drugs is that they are associated with potentially severe withdrawal symptoms. Medication can serve as a bridge from addiction to stabilization to eventual full detoxification, if desired; some individuals opt to use addiction treatment medications for months, years, or a lifetime.
The key is to know that there are research-based pharmacological options available. The best practice is to know about these medications and to speak with a doctor about whether they’re potentially a good fit for one’s recovery program. In addition to these addiction treatment medications, other medications may be used to address specific symptoms during withdrawal and for co-occurring medical or mental health issues.
Medication for Alcohol Addiction Recovery
As WebMD discusses, there are different prescription medication options for the treatment of alcohol addiction, such as:
In an interview with WebMD, Dr. Roger D. Weiss, MD, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School points out that alcohol addiction medications can curb the desire to drink, weaken the response a person has to alcohol, reduce the severity of withdrawal symptoms, and serve as a chemical safeguard against relapse. As a general recommendation, anyone who is taking an alcohol addiction recovery medication should also be in a therapy program and engage in supportive or self-help groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous. As a general rule, alcohol addiction recovery medications tend to be most effective when used in combination with other recovery methodologies.
Medication for Benzo Addiction Recovery
As the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains, it is always advisable to taper off benzodiazepines when dependence or addiction is present. NIDA describes research in this area as sparse, but it is clear that a cold-turkey detoxification includes significant risks. In some instances, benzodiazepine withdrawal can lead to seizures, coma, and even fatality.
To achieve a benzodiazepine taper, a doctor will initiate a patient into the process with a dose of a prescription benzodiazepine. The benzodiazepine may be the same one that was abused but in a lesser amount and at different intervals. In other instances, the attending doctor may use a different benzodiazepine. An effective taper may involve some (safe) trial and error on the part of the doctor and patient. The doctor’s goal will be to avoid the onset of severe withdrawal symptoms and ensure the process is comfortable for the patient.
The taper is, of course, a critical part of the treatment plan, but it’s still only a component of the overall process. A client’s response to the taper can also depend on environmental and psychological factors. For this reason, psychological support should be made available, such as therapy. In addition, the treating rehab center (whether inpatient or outpatient) should make efforts to help the recovering person to minimize any stress (e.g., providing case management services as necessary).
Drug addiction results in certain biological realities, including that of withdrawal. It may come as a surprise, but recovery is not always synonymous with a full detoxification, at least not right away. The body’s natural and gradual process of physical dependence is part of its effort to maintain survival. It makes good sense, therefore, that the body may need time to adjust to the absence of drugs. Prescription medications can be seen as safely supporting the body’s transition from drug dependence to freedom from drugs.
Any use of prescription medication while in addiction treatment should be determined on a case-by-case basis by supervising physicians. Those in recovery should never take any medications or other substance without direct oversight from their doctor.
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