Blog | Alcoholism Treatment

Medication-Assisted Treatment: Is It a Secret Weapon Against Alcohol Dependency?

Alcohol use disorder affects more than 15 million adults in the United States, according to the most recent stats from the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.1

An even harsher reality: Approximately 88,000 people die from alcohol-related causes each year.2 That’s even higher than the estimated 64,000 drug-related deaths in 2016.3 And while medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is a well-known and well-utilized form of treatment for people struggling with opioid addiction, it’s much less common when it comes to alcoholism.4

What Is Medication-Assisted Treatment?

Man holding liquor and pillsMedication-assisted treatment is often called a “whole patient approach” to recovery. In addition to receiving medications that help reduce cravings and prevent relapse, patients undergo counseling and behavioral therapy to support their recovery.5 It can be a safe, proven and effective option to help some people fight addiction.

A 2015 SAMHSA report described it by saying, “MAT is primarily used for the treatment of addiction to opioids such as heroin and prescription pain relievers that contain opiates. The prescribed medication operates to normalize brain chemistry, block the euphoric effects of alcohol and opioids, relieve physiological cravings, and normalize body functions without the negative effects of the abused drug.”5

So why aren’t more people who are addicted to alcohol benefiting from medication-assisted treatment?

The Ongoing Stigma of Alcohol Addiction

Someone struggling with alcoholism may feel ashamed to report their addiction in the first place. Maybe drinking is so much a part of their lifestyle, abstinence would be a huge blow for them socially. Or maybe they’re motivated to stop drinking but feel too ashamed to ask for help — so they go it alone by attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting every now and then. Still others may try to quit cold turkey without any medical, therapeutic or group intervention.

But when it comes to alcohol addiction, recovery can be an extremely challenging psychological and physiological battle. Going it alone may work in some instances, but if a person is having relapse after relapse, it’s best to seek medical treatment and support from experts who can greatly improve their chances of lasting recovery.

Addiction is addiction. And alcohol is no exception. People shouldn’t be embarrassed to ask for medical help — that’s what it’s there for. And it could save your life or your loved one’s life.

Three Medications That Can Help Alcohol Addiction

Over the years, scientists have developed several drugs to help heavy drinkers curb their alcohol consumption.6 Here are the three most commonly used:

1. Disulfiram. This was the first FDA-approved medication to treat alcohol use disorder. It’s taken once a day and works by causing uncomfortable, stomach-flu like reactions when a patient consumes alcohol. It’s best for patients who:

  • Want to achieve complete abstinence
  • Have a support person, as it must be taken daily
  • Need help fighting cravings in situations where alcohol will be present
  • Would suffer extreme consequences from consuming alcohol

2. Naltrexone. This drug comes in two forms — a daily tablet or an injectable form taken every four weeks. Naltrexone is commonly prescribed for opioid users as well, as it reduces the pleasurable effects of drinking alcohol or using opioid drugs. It’s best for patients who:

  • Have a history of drinking relapses
  • Have a history of opioid use
  • Have intense alcohol cravings during treatment
  • Have a family history of alcohol use disorder

3. Acamprosate. Taken three times a day, acamprosate works by restoring brain equilibrium disrupted by heavy alcohol use.7 It’s best for patients who:

  • Have other serious medical conditions they’re taking medications for, as acamprosate doesn’t typically interact with other drugs
  • Do not want the adverse side effects of disulfiram, should they drink

Finding the Right Treatment Plan

While each of these medications works differently, the idea is the same: to give patients a leg-up in an already difficult recovery process. Your doctor can help you or your loved one decide which drug is a good fit for your individual situation.

The beauty of medication-assisted treatment is that it’s a holistic approach to treatment. Think of it like a chair, says the NAADAC, the Association for Addiction Professionals.4 You need all four legs to hold you up: psychological, social, spiritual and biological. Medical providers know that the stronger the chair, the better a patient’s chance for a successful, ongoing recovery.

By Jenni Deming


1 Ahrnsbrak, Rebecca, et al. Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, September 2017.

2Alcohol Facts and Statistics.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Updated June 2017.

3Overdose Death Rates.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Revised September 2017.

4 Storie, Misti. “Medication-Assisted Treatment for Alcohol Dependence.” NAADC, The Association for Addiction Professionals, Accessed November 2017.

5Medication and Counseling Treatment.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Updated September 28, 2015.

6 “Medication for the Treatment of Alcohol Use Disorder: A Brief Guide.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2015.

7 “Acamprosate: A New Medication for Alcohol Use Disorders.” Substance Abuse Treatment Advisory, Fall 2015.