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MAT for Alcohol

Alcohol use disorder is a type of substance use disorder that is characterized by periods of heavy and binge drinking, along with physical dependence on alcohol.

Navigation: Medically-Assisted Treatment for Alcohol: How Does it Work?, Medications Used in MAT for Alcohol Addiction, Benefits of MAT for Alcohol Use Disorder, Who Needs Medication-Assisted Treatment for Alcoholism?, Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Abuse and Addiction, What Are the Types of Treatment for Substance Use Disorders?, Rehab Is Your Best Chance


According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIH), nearly 16 million adults and adolescents develop an alcohol use disorder (AUD). This can partly be attributed to the fact that most adults in the US drink alcohol at least once in their lives. Social drinking can unfortunately lead to substance abuse, and substance abuse can lead to alcohol abuse disorder.

According to the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 28.6 million adults ages 18 and older had AUD that year.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines excessive drinking as heavy drinking or binge drinking. Heavy drinking means drinking one to two servings of alcohol per day or between seven and 14 servings per week. Meanwhile, binge drinking refers to the act of consuming four to five servings of alcohol in two hours or less.

Alcohol use disorder is a type of substance use disorder that is characterized by periods of heavy and binge drinking, along with physical dependence on alcohol. It is also associated with intense cravings and developing tolerance for alcohol. When a person who is dependent on alcohol quits drinking, they may experience uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms.

Take note that alcohol withdrawal symptoms can sometimes prove to be life-threatening. It is much safer to go through a proper detox process if you or someone you love is struggling with alcohol dependence. Quitting cold turkey may be dangerous.

AUD is a medical condition that is characterized by an impaired ability to control one’s alcohol intake, despite its adverse health consequences. Alcohol addiction, alcohol abuse, alcohol dependence, and alcoholism all fall under the umbrella of AUD. It can be considered a brain disorder, and can also range from mild to severe. [1]

Alcohol use disorder can make lasting changes in the brain, which makes people more susceptible to relapse.

Those who struggle with AUD may benefit from various evidence-based treatment services such as individualized behavioral therapy and detoxification. But because of the risk of alcohol withdrawal symptoms, medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is often used to help keep patients stable while recovering from their alcohol addiction.

Here we will discuss what MAT is, how it works, and how it can benefit those who have AUD. Let’s take a closer look.


Medically-Assisted Treatment for Alcohol: How Does it Work?

Medically-assisted treatment for alcohol use disorder is a treatment program that involves the use of medications to help patients overcome their dependence on alcohol.

MAT can be an effective approach for many people struggling with AUD, especially when used in combination with counseling and therapy. This treatment approach can reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms, making it easier to achieve and maintain sobriety.

There are several medications approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of alcohol use disorder. These medications work in different ways to reduce alcohol cravings and the desire to drink.

Later on we will discuss these medications more in detail, but some of the most commonly used medications in MAT are naltrexone, Acamprosate, and Disulfiram.

MAT is more commonly used for the treatment of opioid use disorder, but it can also be used for other types of substance use disorders such as alcoholism.

So how exactly does this treatment work? Before starting MAT, patients undergo a thorough assessment by a healthcare professional to determine the most appropriate medication and treatment plan based on their specific needs and circumstances.

During treatment, medications may be administered under the supervision of a healthcare provider or addiction specialist. Regular monitoring and adjustments to the treatment plan may be necessary to ensure its effectiveness. While MAT medications are generally safe and well-tolerated, they can have side effects, and their use should be closely monitored by a healthcare provider.

Keep in mind that medication alone is not enough for long-term recovery. Counseling and therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), motivational enhancement therapy (MET), and 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), are essential components of MAT.

These therapies help individuals address the psychological and behavioral aspects of their addiction to make sure patients don’t relapse after completing treatment.

One of the main goals of MAT is relapse prevention. This treatment focuses on teaching patients in recovery how to manage their triggers, stressors, and cravings using healthy coping mechanisms.

MAT is considered a harm reduction approach because it focuses on reducing the negative consequences of alcohol use while working towards abstinence. Some facilities may use medication-assisted treatment as part of a harm reduction strategy to minimize the health risks associated with heavy drinking.

It works best as a long-term treatment option. That said, the duration may vary from person to person. Some people may continue taking medications for several months or even years, depending on their progress and goals.

It’s important to note that MAT is not suitable for everyone with an alcohol use disorder. The choice of treatment should be made on an individual basis, taking into account factors such as the severity of the addiction, medical history, and personal preferences.

Consulting with a healthcare professional or addiction specialist is crucial for determining the most appropriate treatment plan for someone struggling with alcohol use disorder.


Medications Used in MAT for Alcohol Addiction

Medication-assisted treatment is often used in opioid treatment programs to keep cravings and withdrawal symptoms at bay. It is used for this same purpose in AUD treatment.

The most commonly used drugs in medication-assisted treatment are Acamprosate, disulfiram, and naltrexone. While they do not cure the disorder itself, they are effective for keeping the patient stable so that they can focus on their recovery.

For example, naltrexone is an opioid receptor antagonist that can reduce the rewarding effects of alcohol and decrease alcohol cravings. Naltrexone treatment works by blocking the euphoric effects of alcohol. One of the reasons why many people get addicted to alcohol is because of the intoxicating feeling it provides. With naltrexone, the motivation to drink is reduced, allowing patients to stay in treatment and avoid relapses. [2]

Naltrexone should only be used after a person has gone through alcohol detoxification to avoid precipitating withdrawal.

People with alcohol use disorders may also benefit from taking Acamprosate (Campral) in a treatment setting. Acamprosate is usually given on the fifth day of abstinence. This medication helps reduce alcohol cravings and withdrawal symptoms by affecting the brain’s neurotransmitter systems.

It is often used to support abstinence from alcohol after detoxification. The typical dosage is 666 mg (two 333 mg tablets) taken three times a day.

Meanwhile, disulfiram (Antabuse) works by causing unpleasant reactions when alcohol is consumed, acting as a deterrent to drinking. Unpleasant effects caused by this drug include nausea, headache, chest pains, breathing difficulties, vomiting, and palpitations.

It is typically prescribed to patients who are highly motivated to abstain from alcohol and can resist the temptation to drink despite the adverse effects. Patients must be carefully monitored while taking Disulfiram because of its potential for severe reactions if alcohol is consumed.

Disulfiram is often taken in a tablet form once a day. It should not be taken for at least 12 hours after drinking alcohol. [2]

There are other medications that may be used in the treatment of AUD such as topiramate, baclofen, and gabapentin.

While not FDA-approved specifically for AUD, topiramate has been found to be effective in reducing alcohol cravings and consumption in some patients. It is an anticonvulsant medication that may be prescribed off-label for this purpose.

Baclofen is a muscle relaxant that has shown promise in reducing alcohol cravings and promoting abstinence in some studies. Just like topiramate, it is not FDA-approved for alcohol use disorder, but some doctors may prescribe it off-label.

Finally, gabapentin is an anticonvulsant medication that has been used off-label to treat alcohol withdrawal symptoms and reduce alcohol cravings.

It’s essential to note that a comprehensive assessment by a healthcare professional is necessary to determine the most suitable medication and treatment plan for patients with AUD.

MAT is typically most effective when combined with counseling, therapy, and support groups as part of a holistic approach to recovery from alcohol addiction.

The use of these medications should always be supervised by a qualified healthcare provider to monitor their effectiveness and manage any potential side effects or interactions.

Benefits of MAT for Alcohol Use Disorder

Medication-assisted treatment, when used as part of a comprehensive treatment plan, can provide several benefits for those in recovery for alcohol use disorder. With counseling and therapy, MAT can help patients reduce their alcohol consumption and achieve abstinence.

MAT medications can help reduce the intense cravings that people with AUD often experience. Cravings are part of the reason why most people can’t simply quit alcohol without proper treatment. Medications control or limit these cravings, making it easier for patients to resist the urge to drink.

Aside from cravings, medication-assisted treatment also helps alleviate the discomfort and potentially dangerous symptoms of withdrawal that occur when someone attempts to reduce or cease their alcohol intake. This is especially dangerous for those who have been drinking alcohol for a long time.

With AUD, withdrawal symptoms can be managed, allowing the patient to recover safely. This can make the early stages of recovery more manageable and comfortable.

Medication-assisted treatment is often used in combination with counseling and therapy. This is important because substance abuse and mental health disorders often co-occur. It is important to address both the mental illness and the alcohol use disorder simultaneously or else the problem may persist.

The combination of counseling and MAT can address both the physical and psychological aspects of addiction, providing a more comprehensive approach to recovery. By addressing the root causes of addictive behavior, patients can recognize their triggers and learn healthy coping skills that will ultimately help reduce their relapse risk.

MAT can lower the risk of relapse, especially during the early stages of recovery when relapse is most common.

Medication-assisted treatment can even be tailored to the individual patient’s specific needs and progress in treatment. Different medications may work better for some individuals than others.

Due to these benefits, MAT has been shown to increase treatment retention rates. When recovering individuals stay engaged in treatment for longer periods, they have a better chance of regaining and maintaining their sobriety.

Overall, MAT can help patients achieve abstinence, reduce the risk of alcohol-related health problems, and improve their overall quality of life. It can provide a safety net for individuals at risk of returning to problematic drinking.

Just keep in mind that medication-assisted treatment is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Everybody experiences addiction differently. The best treatment services will take into consideration what is best for the specific patient.

Who Needs Medication-Assisted Treatment for Alcoholism?

Medication-assisted treatment is typically recommended for people who are struggling with alcohol use disorder and have a high likelihood of benefiting from medications to support their recovery.

Of course, those who have certain risk factors are more likely to develop an AUD later in life. A person’s risk for developing alcoholism depends on these factors. Generally speaking, the more risk factors you have, the greater the chances of developing this kind of condition. But keep in mind that this does not apply to everyone. You are not guaranteed to develop alcoholism just because you have several risk factors, the same way someone who doesn’t have risk factors can still have this problem.

For starters, the risk of developing AUD is influenced by how much, how often, and how quickly you consume alcohol. Alcohol misuse, including heavy drinking and binge drinking may increase a person’s risk of AUD. [1]

However, there are other factors at play that influence a person’s decision to abuse alcohol in the first place. For example, early exposure can lead to AUD. Drinking at an early age may increase a person’s risk of alcoholism.

According to a national survey, among people ages 26 and older, those who started drinking before age 15 were over three times as likely to develop AUD as those who waited until age 21 or later. [1]

There are genetic and environmental risk factors that also factor into the equation. Heritability accounts for 60% of the risk for AUD. However, just like with other health conditions, the risk of AUD involves interplay between a person’s genetics and their environment. Watching your parents struggle with alcoholism may influence your decisions surrounding alcohol consumption.

Mental health conditions and trauma, as well as a wide range of psychiatric conditions, can also increase a person’s risk of alcohol use disorder.

Remember that just because you have an AUD doesn’t mean you are recommended to receive MAT. It still depends on the severity of your condition. Those who experience frequent cravings, physical dependence, and difficulty abstaining from alcohol are often good candidates.

People who have tried and failed to quit drinking on their own or through other forms of treatment may also benefit from MAT. It can be particularly helpful for people with a history of relapse.

If a person is at risk of experiencing severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms such as delirium tremens or seizures, MAT can be a crucial component of their treatment plan. Medications can help manage and prevent dangerous withdrawal symptoms.

Additionally, this treatment may be recommended for individuals with medical conditions or complications related to alcohol use. Chronic heavy drinking can lead to various health problems, including liver disease, cardiovascular issues, and cognitive impairment. Medications can help reduce the risk of further harm.

People with a strong motivation and willingness to engage in medication-assisted treatment and all its associated therapies may find greater success with this approach. A person must be committed to their recovery and willing to follow the prescribed treatment plan.

It also helps to have a solid support system in place, such as family or friends who are supportive of their recovery. This can significantly enhance the effectiveness of medication-assisted treatment.

Finally, MAT may also be considered for patients with co-occurring mental health disorders alongside alcohol addiction. Medications can be used during dual diagnosis treatment to help address both conditions simultaneously.

Ultimately, the decision to pursue MAT for alcoholism should be made in consultation with a healthcare provider who can assess the individual’s situation and recommend an appropriate treatment plan. MAT, when used as part of a comprehensive treatment approach, can significantly improve the chances of long-term recovery from alcoholism.

Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Abuse and Addiction

Prevention is still better than cure, so you should try to be on the lookout for the signs and symptoms of alcohol abuse and addiction.

Healthcare professionals use the criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), to assess whether or not a person has an alcohol use disorder. It can also help determine the severity of the patient’s AUD based on the number of criteria they meet. [1]

Mild AUD is when you meet two to three criteria; moderate is when you have four to five; and severe is for patients who meet six or more criteria. A healthcare provider may ask a series of questions to assess the person’s symptoms. They may ask about the person’s drinking habits, their cravings, their withdrawal symptoms, and their attempts to cut back. [1]

Withdrawal symptoms and cravings are pretty clear indicators of a drinking problem. But you can also watch out for other signs such as increased alcohol tolerance or loss of control over their intake.

An inability to limit or control alcohol intake, often resulting in drinking more than intended or for a longer period than intended, may indicate an AUD. Similarly, the need to drink increasing amounts of alcohol to achieve the desired effect or a reduced effect when drinking the same amount is also a possible indicator.

A person with an alcohol use disorder may spend a significant amount of time obtaining, using, or recovering from the effects of alcohol. They may lose interest in things they used to enjoy. Instead, alcohol becomes their main priority. They may even neglect their responsibilities and social connections. This may lead to lost opportunities and strained relationships.

Because alcohol addiction is a chronic and relapsing disorder that involves the compulsive intake of alcohol, a person may keep drinking even when they are already suffering from its consequences. In the process, they may suffer from adverse physical and mental health effects.

Some addicted individuals even participate in risky or dangerous behaviors out of their desire to drink. This increases their risk of overdose or getting into fatal accidents.

Just keep in mind that not everyone with AUD will exhibit all of these signs and symptoms, and the severity of the disorder can vary widely. AUD is a progressive condition that can worsen over time if left untreated, potentially leading to serious health issues and social consequences.

If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol use disorder, seek help from a healthcare professional or addiction specialist.

What Are the Types of Treatment for Substance Use Disorders?

Several evidence-based treatment approaches are available for AUD. This means it’s not just medication-assisted treatment. In fact, MAT works best when used alongside other treatment methods that address the psychological and emotional aspects of addiction.

Treatment for substance use disorders (SUDs) can vary depending on the individual’s specific needs, the type and severity of the substance use, and other factors. Here are some common types of treatment for AUD:

Detoxification (Medical Detox): Detox is often the first step in the treatment process. It involves removing the substance from the body and managing withdrawal symptoms in a safe and medically supervised environment. Detox alone is not typically sufficient for long-term recovery but is a necessary step.

Counseling and Therapy: Individual and group therapy sessions are a core component of AUD treatment. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), motivational enhancement therapy (MET), and contingency management are common therapeutic approaches used to address the psychological aspects of alcohol addiction.

Inpatient Rehabilitation: Inpatient or residential rehabilitation programs provide 24/7 care and support in a controlled environment. These programs offer intensive therapy, counseling, and education on addiction and recovery. They are particularly helpful for individuals with severe addictions or those who require a highly structured environment.

Outpatient Treatment: Outpatient programs offer therapy and support on an outpatient basis. Individuals attend regular sessions while living at home. This type of treatment is often more flexible and allows patients to maintain their daily responsibilities.

Support Groups: Support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), and SMART Recovery offer peer support and a sense of community for individuals in recovery. These groups can be an essential part of maintaining sobriety.

Family Therapy: SUDs often have a significant impact on family dynamics. Family therapy helps address these issues, improve communication, and involve loved ones in the recovery process.

Aftercare and Continuing Care: Once the initial treatment is completed, aftercare and continuing care are crucial for maintaining recovery. This may include ongoing therapy, support group participation, and relapse prevention strategies.

Dual Diagnosis Treatment: For those with co-occurring mental health disorders (such as depression, anxiety, or PTSD) alongside substance use disorders, dual diagnosis treatment provides integrated care that addresses both conditions simultaneously.

If you or someone you love is struggling with an AUD, know that recovery is possible. It is possible to regain your sobriety and learn how to maintain it. Look for a rehab center near you today and get started on the journey towards long-term recovery.

Rehab is Your Best Chance

Treatment is an addicted individualʼs best option if they want to recover. Beating an addiction not only requires eliminating the physical dependence, but also addressing the behavioral factors that prevent them from wanting to get better. Simply quitting may not change the psychological aspect of addiction. Some people quit for a while, and then take drugs or alcohol again, only to overdose because they did not detox properly. Recovery involves changing the way the patient feels, thinks, and behaves.



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Fel Clinical Director of Content
Felisa Laboro has been working with addiction and substance abuse businesses since early 2014. She has authored and published over 1,000 articles in the space. As a result of her work, over 1,500 people have been able to find treatment. She is passionate about helping people break free from alcohol or drug addiction and living a healthy life.

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