Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)

Medically Reviewed by Johnelle Smith, M.D. on October 26, 2020

Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is an evidence-based treatment developed for treating severe addictions and dependencies. This form of treatment is especially useful and effective at treating opioid use disorders, such as heroin addiction. Yet MAT can prove to have advantages in many inpatient addiction treatment programs.

Medication Assisted Treatment Programs

The Benefits Of Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)

Combining both medication for managing cravings and withdrawal symptoms and various therapies, medication-assisted treatment comprises a comprehensive approach to addiction recovery.

People in recovery for addiction to highly addictive drugs will benefit most from medication-assisted treatment. For these individuals, MAT affords them a chance to better respond to treatment, lending to a longer-lasting recovery.

What Types Of Addiction Does MAT Treat?

Certain drugs are more powerful than others and cause a higher risk of addiction and dependence.

While MAT could be utilized for helping individuals quit use of most drugs, it is commonly used to treat addictions to and dependencies on:

  • alcohol
  • barbiturate prescriptions, such asAmytal (amobarbital) and Seconal (secobarbital)
  • benzodiazepine prescriptions, such as Xanax (alprazolam) and Valium (diazepam)
  • opioids, both prescription and illicit, like OxyContin (oxycodone) and heroin

These drugs can lead quickly to a physical dependence, which means the person’s body comes to rely on the drug to produce normal functions, such as feelings of pleasure. Because of this, physical dependence leads to the uncomfortable, at times painful, withdrawal symptoms which often keep a person going back to drug use again and again.

Medications used in medication-assisted treatment programs prevent or alleviate these symptoms so a person can avoid substance abuse and focus on healing.

How Does MAT Work For Addiction Treatment?

Medication-assisted treatment works for treating addiction in two important ways. First, a person is prescribed a medication based on the severity of their addiction, withdrawal symptoms, and drug of abuse. The medication helps them through the worst of withdrawal symptoms during detoxification, the process which allows the person to flush the drug out of their body.

After detoxification, the person will be assessed by a team of clinicians within their inpatient program to determine which medication will be needed, how often, and the amount of the dose during treatment. Medications used in MAT help a person manage the long-term (post-acute) withdrawal symptoms which occur even after the drug has left the body, such as strong cravings, anxiety, depression, insomnia, and sensory issues.

While often misunderstood as a treatment, medication-assisted treatment helps a person manage these symptoms so they can participate in their treatment program to the fullest extent. Fully accepting and participating in treatment principles gives individuals a better chance to achieve the growth and healing necessary for a lasting recovery.

During an inpatient program which uses MAT as its primary approach, a person will have their ongoing medication coupled with a number of therapies and other treatments for a well-rounded recovery.

Medications Used In Medication-Assisted Treatment

Some medications provide effects similar to the drug of abuse without the rush of euphoric feelings (the “high”) which lend to addiction. Others block the effects of substances altogether so a person cannot experience the euphoric effects, while still others produce adverse effects if a person takes their substance of abuse.

Which medication a person will use will largely be determined by the drug of abuse, but can also depend on the severity and duration of addiction. The following are medications currently approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration for use in medication-assisted treatment programs and the addictions they treat:

Buprenorphine (Suboxone, Subutex, Zubsolv)

Buprenorphine is a partial opioid agonist. This means it works like opioid drugs of abuse, in that it provides euphoric effects, but at a much weaker rate. This process allows a person to experience the effects their body has come to rely on so they can concentrate during treatment.

However, buprenorphine has a ceiling effect, meaning a person can only experience these effects to a certain extent before they level off, preventing risk of developing a replacement addiction to the medication.

Buprenorphine is also the first medication for medication-assisted treatment of opioid addictions which can be prescribed for use without medical supervision. For these reasons, buprenorphine-based MAT programs are the fastest growing treatments for opioid use disorders.

Read more about using buprenorphine in addiction treatment

Naltrexone (Revia, Vivitrol)

Naltrexone works differently than many medications used in MAT. Instead of providing effects similar to the drug of abuse without the rush of euphoria, naltrexone works to block these feelings altogether.

This way, if a person relapses and uses their drug of abuse, they will not get the pleasurable feelings from it, reducing the chance of continued abuse and addiction. Naltrexone can be used in MAT programs for opioid and alcohol use disorders.

Read more about taking Naltrexone during addiction treatment

Methadone (Methadose, Dolophine)

Methadone was one of the first medications used in medication-assisted treatment programs for opioid use disorders. Still used today, methadone works by tricking the brain into thinking it is getting the same effects the drug of abuse provided.

Instead, the brain is not getting these effects but learning to function without the drug of abuse once more. Unfortunately, a person in a methadone-based MAT program can in turn become addicted to methadone, so it’s important this medication be taken as prescribed.

Read more about using methadone for addiction treatment

Disulfiram (Antabuse)

Disulfiram is used to treat chronic alcohol use disorders (alcoholism). The medication creates highly unpleasant effects if a person drinks, such as nausea, vomiting, chest pain, difficulty breathing, and anxiety. Due to these effects, disulfiram works best for those who have completed inpatient treatment and are newly in recovery at home or who have made it through detox.

Acamprosate (Campral)

Acamprosate is a medication used to treat those who are in recovery from alcohol abuse and addiction. The drug does not prevent alcohol withdrawal symptoms, so it is most effective for those who have made it through detox and recovery and who are fully committed to a sober lifestyle.

This medication works by helping reverse the brain changes which occur from alcohol abuse, promoting positive thoughts and constructive behaviors for a higher opportunity of a long-term recovery. Continued drug or alcohol abuse will interrupt the effectiveness of acamprosate.

Therapies Used In Medication-Assisted Treatment

Inpatient treatment programs are nearly always individualized. Therapies and treatments used in a person’s medication-assisted inpatient treatment program will depend on their unique needs and the treatments offered by the rehab center.

In general, multiple evidence-based and alternative therapies alike have shown effective at treating severe addictions and dependencies.

The following treatments may be used alongside medication within medication-assisted treatment programs:

  • counseling: helps a person stay on track for reaching recovery goals.
  • individual and group therapy: helps a person achieve personal growth and healing and receive necessary support, an important recovery component.
  • behavioral therapy: especially useful for those with physical dependencies, this form of treatment helps individuals change destructive thought patterns, replace them with positive ones, and in turn implement new behaviors which promote a healthy lifestyle.
  • life skills training, stress management, and coping techniques: people in recovery need ways to deal with stress and triggers to help prevent relapse or aid in recovery. The better equipped a person is to deal with difficult stressors in life, the more successful they may be at living a substance-free life.

How Long Will A Medication-Assisted Treatment Program Last?

The length of any medication-assisted treatment program will depend on a number of factors, including:

  • drug of abuse: some drugs cause more severe protracted withdrawal symptoms which can require long-term management in MAT programs.
  • severity of abuse: how often a person abused a drug will affect the severity of their addiction, which helps determine the length of time they will need to be in treatment.
  • duration of abuse: people with addictions of six months to a year or longer often require more than the standard short-term inpatient program of 30 days or less.

Prior to entering an MAT program, the individual will meet with a team of clinicians and other treatment professionals who will help determine the appropriate length of treatment. Aftercare options, such as continuing treatment in an outpatient program like a partial hospitalization or intensive outpatient program, can help continue the recovery process when necessary.

Is Medication-Assisted Treatment A Complete Treatment For Addiction?

Because medication-assisted treatment programs combine medications, counseling, therapies, and various other treatments, these programs can be a complete form of initial care for addiction. MAT programs provide everything a person needs to jumpstart recovery, and the best programs will also help a person plan for what happens next: integrating back into daily life.

Addiction and physical dependencies are conditions which will require long-term, daily management. It’s important that any medication-assisted treatment program a person considers includes these components and sets up the person for continued care.

What Happens After Completing Medication-Assisted Treatment?

Recovery can be a complex process, but it doesn’t have to be managed alone. There are a number of resources which can aid individuals in addiction recovery, including continued care in medication management, such as methadone maintenance programs, counseling programs, and support groups.

What happens after completing medication-assisted treatment will be up to individual circumstances and what is best for each person in their recovery journey. To learn more about medication-assisted treatment programs for addiction, contact us today.

This page does not provide medical advice. See more

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Medically Reviewed by
Johnelle Smith, M.D. on October 26, 2020

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