Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction

Effective Treatment Can Sometimes Seem Elusive

Finding effective treatment for drug addiction is often elusive for addicts and their family members. Some individuals attempt to find the right treatment for years, moving from one program to another while frequently relapsing. What began as a choice to first take an illicit drug or use a prescription drug for non-medical purposes becomes an uncontrollable craving for the individual and treatment may only be sought after the person experiences consequences stemming from the drug abuse and subsequent behavior related to that abuse.

Addicts attempting to manage their drug use alone face innumerable challenges to overcome the compulsion. Abuse of certain drugs can cause the untreated addict to suffer permanent physical damage to the brain and other organs and even death. But awareness of these consequences may not be enough to alter the compulsive behavior due to the impact of addiction on brain function, especially in areas involving learning and memory, the pleasure center, and inhibitory control over behavior.

The complex nature of drug addiction and the multiple variables involved in each individual disallow one treatment approach as a means to recovery for all drug addicts. Instead, effective treatment programs carefully consider individual traits and needs of each drug addict. Following the evaluation of the type of drug addiction and level of severity, a treatment plan aims to help an individual stop drug use, remain drug-free following treatment, function at a high level in both personal and professional settings.

Chronic Relapse & Long-Term Drug Treatment

The chronic aspect of drug addiction increases the threat of its return, even if an addict is able to stop using drugs for a few days due to voluntarily quitting, entering detox or being incarcerated. Failure to treat the addiction is a common occurrence in American society, based on figures made available by the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration. SAMHSA’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) shows more than 9 percent of the U.S. population age 12 and up required treatment for an illicit drug or alcohol problem in 2007. Of that roughly of just over 23 million people, a mere fraction (10.4%) received treatment at a hospital, mental health center or drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility while nearly 21 million did not receive treatment.

More than 30 years have passed since research began showing a direct link of treatment to ending drug use, avoiding relapse and helping addicts recover. During that time, researchers have developed a better understanding of how addiction affects the brain, and treatment programs have been created to more effectively respond to addiction.

Integrated Treatment Programs

An integrated treatment program, which may combine medication and behavior modification, is best applied as part of a long-term plan to achieve recovery. Individuals may opt to receive treatment in a long-term residential setting that provides time for easing withdrawal, learning and employing relapse prevention strategies, and selecting follow-up options for continued care, including community programs that support and encourage an individual to live a drug-free lifestyle.

Medications for Drug Detox & Treatment

Medications can play one of two roles during detox and treatment: as a tool to help suppress withdrawal symptoms and as a means of preventing relapse and reducing drug cravings. For example, effective medications for treating opioids, such as heroin, include methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone, although the latter option is less accepted. These medications suppress withdrawal symptoms and reduce cravings by targeting the same area of the brain affected by the drugs. Individuals with a severe addiction to multiple drugs will require treatment for all drugs abused.

Among the FDA–approved medications for treating alcohol dependence are naltrexone, acamprosate, and disulfiram. Naltrexone blocks brain receptors related to pleasure and cravings and reduces relapse to heavy drinking. Acamprosate may be used to reduce symptoms of long-lasting withdrawal, including insomnia, and anxiety. Disulfiram is used to treat chronic alcoholism and creates highly unpleasant effects, ranging from nausea and vomiting to headaches and blurred vision.

One primary purpose of medications is to help patients cease drug-seeking behavior and more willingly accept behavioral treatments. Once actively participating in these treatments, individuals can learn how to manage their own behavior, change their attitude towards drug use, and make healthier choices. Treatment options include outpatient programs comprised of individual or group drug counseling, as well as residential treatment programs.


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