Pharmacotherapy involves the use of medication to treat diseases. In the case of substance dependence, pharmacotherapy may be used during the detoxification process in order to ease withdrawal symptoms, after detoxification in order to prevent relapse, or in the case of opioid addictions, as a method of maintaining opioids in the body. The different goals of pharmacotherapy are described in further detail below.
Medications may be prescribed during detoxification in order to ease the intensity of withdrawal symptoms, which can be highly severe and even life-threatening in some cases, leading to heart attack or stroke. Substance dependent individuals are usually detoxified as hospital or rehabilitation center inpatients, but they may also undergo detoxification as outpatients. However, it should be noted that outpatient detoxification is more risky as it does not include round-the-clock medical supervision.
Detoxification is only a first step in the recovery process following drug dependence. It is not a definitive, long-term solution. Even with the addition of other forms of treatment over time, including rehabilitation, counseling, and support groups, relapse is a common occurrence among recovering addicts, regardless of the type of drug they abuse. As a result, it is becoming more and more common that doctors prescribe medication to recovering addicts and alcoholics that helps to reduce the possibility that they will relapse. These drugs may directly target the patient’s substance abuse. Alternatively, they may target the patient’s co-occurring mental health issues, such as depression, bipolar disorder, or anxiety, since symptoms of these illnesses can make an individual more likely to relapse.
Opioid maintenance is a type of pharmacotherapy used primarily to target heroin and opium abusers. Methadone is a heroin substitute that is long-lasting, medically safe, and non-addictive. It can be administered orally. This type of treatment is usually used as a last resort in situations where a patient has had little to no success with abstinence-based treatments. This type of treatment is currently highly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and opioid-maintaining drugs such as methadone may only be administered in special clinics with an operating license.
Pharmacotherapy is only used to treat certain types of addictions, since applicable, non-addictive medications do not exist in the case of certain drugs. Alcohol withdrawal syndrome is usually treated with benzodiazepines, which decrease the likelihood that symptoms of withdrawal will be severe. Naltrexone is a drug that is used to maintain sobriety in the case of alcohol addiction. And in the case of opioids, methadone is used in helping the patient to maintain sobriety, as mentioned above.
Outcomes of Pharmacotherapy
Many people are quick to criticize the use of drugs to treat drug addiction and rightly so. However, the truth is that drug addiction has a lasting impact on brain structure and chemistry. When applied correctly, pharmacotherapy can have a meaningful impact in treating addiction, by giving the patient a chance to start fresh. However, where long-term recovery is concerned, pharmacotherapy is only one aspect of treatment. Alone, it will not inspire the lifestyle changes required for recovery in the long-term.