What You Need to Know About Medication-Assisted Treatment

There is an urgent need for expanded substance abuse treatment. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from 2000 to 2015 more than half a million people died from drug overdoses.1 Ninety-one people in the U.S. die each day from an opioid overdose.

What Can Help Bring Down These Numbers?

Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) helps bring down these alarming numbers. MAT uses prescription medications to effectively treat opioid dependence. Combining MAT with counseling and behavioral therapies provides a whole-patient approach to substance abuse treatment.

MAT works well with addiction treatment for both opioid prescription painkillers and illicit drugs like heroin. MAT medications work by interacting with the same brain receptors triggered by substance abuse.

What Types of Drugs Are Used in Medication-Assisted Treatment?

There are three types of medications used for treating opioid dependence: agonists, partial agonists and antagonists. Generally, these FDA-approved pharmacological treatments relieve withdrawal symptoms and help to prevent relapse in opioid-dependent people.

Let’s take a look at how each type works. We’ll also explore examples for each type: methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone.2


Opioids cause quick and short bursts of euphoria by stimulating brain receptors. These short-lasting effects lead to compulsive and escalating drug use. Agonists act on the same brain receptors, but are less intense, come on more slowly and are longer-lasting.

Agonists trick the brain into thinking it has received opioid painkillers or heroin. The person taking the agonist feels normal and doesn’t have withdrawal symptoms and cravings.

Methadone is a synthetic opioid agonist. It’s been used successfully in rehab programs for more than 40 years. As an addiction maintenance drug, it’s taken at low doses to keep withdrawal symptoms at bay. This withdrawal relief helps people in recovery to maintain sobriety.2

Partial Agonists

Partial agonists produce effects that are similar to full agonists, but somewhat weaker.

Buprenorphine is a partial opioid agonist which prevents withdrawal symptoms. Buprenorphine can have side effects, such as euphoria and decreased breathing, but its greatest effects are milder than full agonists. Buprenorphine is used by itself or combined with naloxone, a combination that is known by the brand name Suboxone.


What You Need to Know About Medication-Assisted TreatmentAntagonists block brain receptors. If a person taking an antagonist were to relapse, the would not be able to get “high” due to the blocking action of the medication. Consequently, substance use loses its appeal.

Naltrexone is an antagonist that binds to brain receptors even when other opioids are present. The medicine’s binding action prevents the receptors from being activated. Since illicit drug use can’t “turn on” the receptors, naltrexone takes away the feeling of getting high when substances are used.

Is MAT Effective?

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, medication-assisted treatment:

– Improves the survival rates of people who are addicted to opioids
– Increases retention rates in treatment
– Decreases illicit opiate use among people with substance abuse disorders
– Increases people’s ability to find jobs and stay employed
– Improves birth outcomes for pregnant women who have opioid dependence problems3

The ultimate goal of MAT is full recovery from opioid dependence, helping people to build sober and rewarding lives. If you believe MAT may help you or a loved one, talk to an addiction specialist.


  1. https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/epidemic/index.html
  2. https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/ondcp/recovery/medication_assisted_treatment_9-21-20121.pdf
  3. https://www.samhsa.gov/medication-assisted-treatment/treatment#counseling-behavioral-therapies