If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol—either alcohol abuse or alcohol dependency/alcoholism—Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) may be the “game-changer” to consider. MAT is, in essence, the use of medications combined with behavioral therapies to help people recover from any substance use disorder (in this case, alcohol use disorder). Numerous research studies have shown MAT—an evidence-based form of treatment supervised by a medical doctor specially trained in addiction medicine—is one of the most effective methods to treat certain addictions (including alcohol and opioid dependencies), compared to more traditional non-drug approaches.
It should be noted up front, MAT doesn’t rely solely upon specially prescribed medicines to help a person caught in the throes of addiction: it also uses psychotherapeutic counseling, as well as in-depth education about both addiction and recovery to help those struggling with chemical dependency issues.
What prepares a medical doctor to use MAT with those struggling with alcohol use disorders? According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), the “advanced training (of MAT physicians) helps them conceptualize and understand the genetic and biopsychosocial and spiritual manifestations of addiction and tailor treatments for patients. Addiction medicine physicians also have advanced training in medication treatment for substance use disorders, such as opioid use disorder, alcohol use disorder, and tobacco use disorder.”
Basically, an MAT patient is evaluated and then prescribed specific medications that help normalize brain chemistry and block dopamine receptors… meaning, if one were to drink while on these types of medications, they would not feel the same euphoric effects they’d normally get when taking a drink.
Equally as important, the prescribed drugs used in MAT help manage withdrawal symptoms and physical cravings, thereby significantly lowering the likelihood of a relapse and contributing to an improved sense of well-being of the person seeking recovery.
It’s good to point out in MAT there is no set timeline – while the person is actively involved in psychotherapeutic counseling and under the supervision of an MAT-trained doctor, his or her treatment can be continued as long as it’s deemed necessary. (Note: MAT can be conducted both in outpatient and in-patient settings.)
Studies of MAT show possible benefits include
- Help in creating long-term recovery
- Reducing the risks of relapse
- Assisting those with alcohol use disorders manage their depression, anxiety and/or substance abuse
- Improvement of their quality of life and sense of well-being
In the U.S., there are two specialized medications that can be prescribed to treat alcohol use disorders. (Each is briefly covered below.) Other medicines may be used in MAT, which can help decrease the severity of withdrawal symptoms a person can experience – these include benzodiazepines and/or anti-epileptic medications used to calm any severe withdrawal symptoms that may arise.
Below is a short description of the most commonly used prescribed medications for medically-assisted treatment of alcohol use disorders.
Disulfiram: Antabuse (the most commonly used brand name) blocks dopamine receptors and interferes with the metabolic process of alcohol in the body. As mentioned earlier, this drug stops a person from experiencing the euphoric effects typically brought on by drinking alcohol. Instead, a person drinking while on disulfiram will typically experience potentially severely discomforting and adverse side effects.
Acamprosate: Campral (the most commonly used brand name) is taken two to three times a day once a person has finished detox from alcohol. Studies have shown this drug assists in reestablishing the brain’s functioning that may have been detrimentally affected when one was actively drinking, as well as diminishing and helping to manage one’s cravings. In conjunction with therapeutic counseling and treatment, this prescribed medicine also inhibits the brain’s neurotransmitters, similar to Antabuse, such that one does not experience the euphoric effects of alcohol, if one takes a drink while on it.
When looking at the question of whether or not you should consider MAT yourself, it should be emphasized Medication Assisted Treatment is not a cure for substance use disorder, but rather an evidence-based avenue to recover from its wide-ranging deleterious effects. As was said, MAT has been shown to significantly reduce the likelihood of relapse and improve the person’s ability to stay abstinent from alcohol longer. Contact a local addiction treatment center or medical facility if you are considering MAT for yourself or someone you know with an alcohol use disorder.
 What is Addiction Medicine? | NYSAM (nysam-asam.org)
Treatment outcome of alcohol use disorder outpatients with or without medically assisted detoxification – PubMed (nih.gov)