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Types of Addiction Medicine Provided at Rehab Centers

Addiction functions as disease of the brain, creating a self-perpetuating cycle of chemical imbalance. Addiction also includes a mental component that works in much the same way as a psychological disorder, such as depression or bipolar disorder. These combined effects make addiction treatment a sometimes-lengthy process leaving many addicts susceptible to repeated relapse episodes.

Addiction medicines provide a layer of needed physical support for damaged brain chemical pathways, especially in cases of chronic, long-term drug abuse. More often than not, addiction medicines become the only means for maintaining abstinence for any length of time for people with long histories of drug abuse. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, addiction medicine treatment combined with ongoing psychosocial interventions provides the best of chance of ongoing success in recovery.

The Role of Addiction Medicines

Addiction’s aftereffects essentially “rewire” the brain’s circuitry, changing how the different areas transmit and receive information. These changes revolve around the effects of drugs and/or alcohol, which have become an integral part of the brain’s chemical make-up and functioning.

In effect, psychoactive or addictive substances force the release of massive amounts of neurotransmitter chemicals with each drug dose. These interactions breed increasing tolerance levels, physical dependence and the eventual psychological dependence that most defines addiction.

Over time, these effects alter brain reward functions, motivation as well as learning and memory processes. Without some form of physical support, the brain’s diseased state makes it all but impossible for a person to abstain from drug use. In this respect, addiction medicine acts as a type of replacement therapy enabling those in recovery to wean off the effects of addictive substances.

Addiction Medicines Used in Detox Treatment

addiction medicine

Addiction medicine can help ease withdrawal effects.

Detox, the first stage of recovery, often brings on severe withdrawal effects that can easily drive a person back to using again. Withdrawal effects develop out of the brain’s inability to function in the absence of the drug’s effects. For people coming off chronic addictions, withdrawal can be unbearable and even life threatening in some cases.

In the case of detox treatment, addiction medicines may be used to alleviate certain symptoms of withdrawal, such as headaches, diarrhea and nausea. While technically not considered “replacement therapies,” these medications can provide considerable relief for specific withdrawal symptoms.

To date, addiction medicines used as replacement therapies exist to treat three types of drug addiction: opiate, alcohol and stimulant.


As one of the fastest growing addictions of the 21st century, opiates encompass a wide spectrum of both legal and illegal drug varieties, including:

  • Heroin
  • Demerol
  • Opium
  • OxyContin
  • Dilaudid
  • Codeine
  • Morphine

According to the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration, medications used to treat opiate addiction work to mimic opiate effects and thereby reduce the severity of withdrawal effects experienced. Another line of addiction medicines produces aversive effects, such as vomiting and headaches whenever a person uses addictive opiates.

Some of the more commonly used opiate addiction medicines include:

  • Methadone
  • Suboxone
  • Subutex
  • LAMM
  • Naloxone
  • Naltrexone


Alcohol continues to rank first as the most abused substance of all time. Alcohol’s withdrawal effects can be life threatening, especially for chronic drinkers. Withdrawal effects may take the form of:

  • Tremors
  • Headaches
  • Depression
  • Seizures
  • Delirium tremens
  • Profuse sweating

In the absence of alcohol, the brain’s attempts at restore balance create a state of hyperactivity that greatly disrupts most every bodily system. Addiction medicines used in alcohol detox don’t actually mimic the effects of alcohol, but rather help stabilize the brain’s electrical activity and chemical processes.

Medications commonly used in alcohol detox include:

  • Valium
  • Ativan
  • Librium
  • Diazepam
  • Lorazepam


The feelings of elation and energy level surges that come with a stimulant high quickly turn into states of fatigue and severe depression during the detox stage. Like most all types of withdrawal, the symptoms experienced with stimulants are the exact opposite of the drug’s “high” effects.

Addiction medicines used to counteract stimulant-based withdrawal effects include:

  • Diazepam for mild to moderate withdrawal symptoms
  • Desipramine for severe withdrawal symptoms
  • Diazepam for moderate withdrawal
  • Tranquilizer drugs, such as Etrafon, Haldon and Thorazine

Addiction Medicines Used for Maintenance Purposes

While addiction medicines offer a range of benefits in detox treatment, they can be especially effective when as long-term maintenance treatments. Maintenance-based uses provide ongoing physical support to damaged brain chemical functions, enabling recovering addicts to feel “normal” or more like themselves. These effects also improve a person’s ability to take an active role in his or her recovery process.


Many of the addiction medicines used in opiate detox treatment can also be used as long-term maintenance treatments, some of which include methadone, Suboxone and Subutex. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, these three drugs act as agonists, mimicking the effects of addictive opiates while naltrexone and naloxone produce adverse or antagonist effects, such as headaches and vomiting. In some cases, a person may be prescribed both types of drugs if he or she has a history of multiple of relapse episodes.


A number of addiction medicines exist to curtail alcohol abuse, producing uncomfortable effects whenever a person takes a drink. According to the New York State Office of Alcoholism & Substance Abuse Services, two commonly used drugs include Antabuse and Nalmefene. Antabuse is one of the very first alcohol addiction medicines, while Nalmefene, an opiate antagonist, works in much the same way as naltrexone.

Ondansetron, another medication, helps to stabilize the brain’s dopamine levels, a neurotransmitter that plays a central role in regulating a person’s sense of well-being and contentment. Overall, ondansetron’s effects work to reduce alcohol cravings on an ongoing basis.


Chronic stimulant eventually depletes the brain’s supplies of GABA and glutamate, which reduce neuronal activity and regulate brain electrical activity respectively. Low levels of these chemicals account for the severe depression recovering addicts experience well into the recovery process. Addiction medicines used for long-term maintenance purposes include Modafinil, Gamma-vinyl GABA and Topiramate.


While addiction medicines go a long way towards helping relieve uncomfortable symptoms, they’re no substitute for ongoing psychosocial treatment help, such as group therapy, 12 Step support group work and drug education and counseling. Without this line of treatment, the psychological underpinnings of addiction remain intact and continue to compromise a person’s recovery efforts.

Combining these two treatment approaches offers the best chance of maintaining abstinence on a long-term basis. For people who’ve had little to no success with traditional drug treatment programs, addiction medicines may well provide that extra level of support needed to maintain abstinence on an ongoing basis.

If you or someone you know struggles with a chronic addiction problem, call our helpline at 888-646-0635Who Answers? to speak with one of our substance abuse counselors.

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