Medications For Drug Addiction: Helping People Beat Substance Abuse

Last Updated: July 2, 2021

Authored by Dr. Ahmed Zayed

Reviewed by Michael Espelin APRN

Chemical dependency treatment is a common way to help people to fight the addiction and stay sober. Addicts who are dependent on opioids or illicit drugs such as cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines, morphine as well as addicted to alcohol often need all the help they can get to overcome their addiction. Although taking drugs is initially a voluntary activity, over time, a person’s ability to control intake becomes compromised, and the habit becomes a compulsive one. During drug addiction treatment, some people respond well to drug counseling, but for many, a treatment approach without applying treatments for drug abuse is not sufficient. Behavioral therapy addresses the emotional conflicts and hurdles faced by people in recovery, but it does not break the chain of physical dependency cultivated by years of abuse.
Fortunately, a number of effective chemical dependency treatments are available to treat drug addiction and help recovering addicts get clean. Some of these treatments for addicts work by blocking the drug euphoria, which drives the addiction. Other chemical dependency treatments work by reducing cravings and act as a relapse prevention measure. Read on to find out more about medications for drug addiction treatment.

Treatments For Drug Abuse

Addiction treatment has two angles – a behavioral and a pharmaceutical one. Both attempt to restore normal brain function and behavior in recovering addicts. Research has shown that although these treatments are extremely useful in their own right, for some addicts, a combination of both modalities is more successful.

Doctor with patient in medical office

Treatments for drug abuse are effective in helping addicts overcome the unpleasant effects of withdrawal. This makes it more likely that a recovering addict will stay in rehab.
A number of chemical dependency treatments are used during the rehab process:

  • They work in conjunction with behavioral counseling to address all the addict’s needs.
  • Some addiction medications help patients stay in treatment longer.
  • Others are used to manage unpleasant withdrawal symptoms effectively.
  • Yet others treat coexisting mental disorders that influence substance abuse.
  • Some supplements for addiction are also available to assist with detoxification in the initial stage of treatment.

Addicts must make a lifelong commitment to recovery from addiction. For long-term success and relapse prevention, it is critical to tailor the addiction treatment program to address the unique needs of each addict. Treatment should ideally include a mix of chemical dependency treatments and mental health services as well as family-based and community support systems.

Mechanism Of Action Of Addiction Medication

No single treatment works for everyone. The most common forms of drug treatment are counseling and behavioral therapies, but medications for drug addiction are an equally important part of the rehab process.
Illicit drugs are addictive because they manipulate the pleasure centers in the human brain. Addicts come to rely on illegal substances as a source of comfort, excitement, or euphoria. Medications for drug addiction work in the following ways:

Withdrawal Symptom Management

Some addiction medication helps to suppress unpleasant withdrawal symptoms during detoxification. Detox, which is a medically managed withdrawal from drugs, is usually the first step in the recovery process. In fact, medications are used in about 80 percent of detox programs.

Pill box and a glass of water

Relapse Prevention

Certain medications for drug addiction help decrease cravings and normalize brain function. These medicines are used to treat tobacco, alcohol, and opioid addiction. Medicines to prevent relapse to cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana addiction are under development. Poly-drug abusers often need to be treated for all the illicit substances they use.

Coexisting Conditions

Some addiction medication is also used to treat co-occurring mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression, that frequently influence a person’s dependence on drugs.

Non-Pharmacologic Addiction Treatment

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 800,000 Americans are addicted to cocaine. So, one form of treatment or the other is a necessity. However, for many people, fighting drugs with drugs seems counterintuitive. Is it possible to use natural remedies for drug addiction to treat the withdrawal symptoms?

Orthomolecular medicine is a natural addiction treatment that does not use medicines and has shown some promise. Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling conceptualize it.

Alternative health care for addiction treatment

It restores an optimum environment in the body by correcting imbalances and deficiencies based on the individual’s biochemistry. It uses natural substances which are neutral to the body, such as:

  • vitamins
  • minerals
  • amino acids
  • essential fatty acids.

There are case reports of massive amounts of vitamin C helping addicts reduce or eliminate withdrawal symptoms after going cold turkey on drugs.

Addiction Medications For Drug Withdrawal

Medications for addiction are one of the treatments for substance abuse disorders. In fact, in combination with behavioral therapies and counseling, medication-assisted treatment offers a holistic approach to recovery from substance abuse. Substance abuse medications are primarily used to treat addiction to opioids, such as heroin and opiate-containing prescription pain pills.

In fact, medicine-assisted drug abuse treatment offers a comprehensive, customized drug rehabilitation. It is proven to be effective in reducing the need for repeat inpatient detoxification. When used at the proper dose under medical supervision, these treatments for drug abuse have no adverse effects on the individual’s physical or mental health. Medicines help addicts achieve full recovery by:

  • Ensuring survival
  • Increasing compliance with treatment
  • Decreasing illicit drug use
  • Improving outcomes in pregnant substance abusers
  • Lowering the risk of contracting HIV and hepatitis C
  • Treating comorbid mental health issues
  • Reducing the risk of relapse
  • Increasing the ability to become and remain employed

Medications Used During Drug Rehabilitation

A number of medicines are used to treat opioid addiction. These include:

  • Acamprosate (Campral)
  • Disulfiram (Antabuse)
  • Naltrexone (Vivitrol)
  • Baclofen (Lioresal)
  • Buprenorphine (Probuphine, Suboxone)
  • Methadone (Dolophine)
  • Ritalin (Methylphenidate)
  • Modafinil (Provigil)
  • Mirtazapine (Remeron)
  • Gabapentin (Neurontin).
  • Vigabatrin (Sabril)
  • Topiramate (Topamax)
  • Bupropion (Wellbutrin, Zyban)
  • Topiramate

Addiction Treatments For Cocaine Abuse


Studies have shown that methylphenidate (Ritalin) may be the answer to breaking free of cocaine addiction. Researchers have found that Ritalin, which is a stimulant drug prescribed to treat attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, is also useful in regulating the nerve pathways that are out of control in recovering addicts. Both substances increase dopamine levels in the brain. However, the uptake of Ritalin in the brain is much slower.

patient taking pills from doctor
Researchers have studied adults addicted to cocaine. The participants were given either Ritalin pills or a placebo. MRI scans of the study participants showed that brain activity had normalized in the individuals who received Ritalin.
However, since the study relied purely on brain imaging, it did not confirm the actual treatment of cocaine addiction. Despite extensive research, no substance abuse medication has been found to be consistently effective in treating cocaine addiction.

GABAergic Medicines

Some promising treatments for drug abuse for cocaine addicts include Baclofen, topiramate, tiagabine, and modafinil. These are known as GABAergic medicines and are administered as relapse prevention drugs. For people who have been sober from cocaine for a period of time, it is often the most challenging phase of rehabilitation.
GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter in the central nervous system in humans. When GABAergic neurons are activated, they decrease the activation of the dopamine reward system. GABAergic medicines foster this reaction and decrease the brain’s response to cocaine intake. These compounds also reduce the recollections of past cocaine use.

Drugs Used To Treat Addiction To Opiates


Buprenorphine is a cure for drug addiction that is used to treat opioid dependence, including heroin abuse, by reducing cravings and lowering the potential for abuse. This medicine triggers the same receptors as the addictive drug it treats but produces a safer reaction. Contrary to popular belief, buprenorphine is not an opioid antagonist which completely blocks receptors and interferes with the opiate response.
Among drugs used to treat addiction, buprenorphine is known as a partial opioid agonist, i.e., it activates opioid receptors but produces a smaller response. In this manner, it gradually weans off dependence. It is a very powerful trigger of opiate receptors, so it basically acts as a strong painkiller. It is more powerful than methadone or oxycodone in terms of its pain-relieving effect and is safe and effective for opioid dependence.

prescription medication for addiction treatment
Unlike methadone, which must be dispensed in a highly structured manner, buprenorphine can be prescribed by a physician’s office and is, therefore, much more accessible. Buprenorphine is available under brand names such as Subutex, Norspan, Temgesic, and Cizdol.


Naltrexone is another drug used to treat addiction to opiates. It is an FDA-approved opiate antagonist that completely blocks receptors and inhibits the brain’s response to these substances. Therefore, it works by a different mechanism of action than buprenorphine or methadone. Despite being in the list of chemical dependency treatments, Naltrexone makes it impossible for opiate drugs to provide an addictive high. If an individual relapse, Naltrexone is used to block the sedative and euphoric effects of the abused substance. By preventing feelings of euphoria, it discourages the addict from abusing opiates.
Naltrexone comes in pill or injectable form. It is not addictive or sedative. It can be easily administered and has minimal side effects. However, it is not particularly useful because addicts often have trouble sticking to treatment. Naltrexone is given after medically supervised detox has been completed. If it is administered while opiates are still in the system, it can lead to terrible withdrawal symptoms. Naltrexone is available under the brand name Vivitrol (injectable) and ReVia and Depade (pills).


In the United States, Suboxone is specifically indicated for the treatment of heroin and opioid addiction, among other treatments for drug abuse. It is a combination of Buprenorphine and Naltrexone. Suboxone is indicated for an opiate chemical dependency treatment. A starting dose of 2 mg once a day is prescribed, which is gradually increased to a maximum dose of 32 mg per day. Most addicts benefit from an 8-mg daily dose. In fact, this accounts for about 80 percent of opiate addiction treatments. Suboxone is given to recovering addicts after opiates are already out of their system. Typically, the last dose of opiate medicine should be at least 16-24 hours before suboxone is used.


Methadone is a powerful addiction medication that is used to alleviate severe pain. Addiction to this drug is a common problem because some people make the mistake of taking it without proper medical supervision. Interestingly, it has been found to be useful in treating opioid dependency. Essentially, methadone tricks the addict’s brain into believing it is getting the abused substance, and thereby, reduces cravings. In fact, methadone is a slow-acting agonist that cushions the high experienced with the abused drug. This prevents unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.

methadone at the laboratory
Methadone has long been the medicine of choice for individuals who do not respond well to other forms of addiction medications. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should consult their obstetrician before starting treatment with methadone. It is available through outpatient programs and is usually dispensed on a daily basis through a highly structured medicine program. Methadone is available under the brand names Methadose and Dolophine.

Page Sources

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Published on: August 12th, 2016

Updated on: July 2nd, 2021

About Author

Dr. Ahmed Zayed

Dr. Ahmed Zayed is a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery. He is graduated from the University of Alexandria, Egypt. Dr. Ahmed Zayed has a passion for writing medical and health care articles and focuses on providing engaging and trustworthy information to readers.

Medically Reviewed by

Michael Espelin APRN

8 years of nursing experience in wide variety of behavioral and addition settings that include adult inpatient and outpatient mental health services with substance use disorders, and geriatric long-term care and hospice care.  He has a particular interest in psychopharmacology, nutritional psychiatry, and alternative treatment options involving particular vitamins, dietary supplements, and administering auricular acupuncture.