Medication-Assisted Treatment for Opioid Use Disorder – Infographic

Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) with methadone and buprenorphine is the only known treatment – not abstinence, not counseling, not 12-step approaches – to cut death rates from opioid use disorder by 50-70% or more.

“The principle behind MAT is this: Because opioid addiction permanently alters the brain receptors, taking the drug completely out of someone’s system can leave them less able to naturally cope with physical or emotional stress…”
– Maia Szalavitz

U.S. federal officials decry opioid misuse as a public health crisis, yet federal rules limit access to the only known effective treatment. Due to federal restrictions, few health care professionals are approved to dispense methadone or prescribe buprenorphine. Further, laws dictate how many patients those few can prescribe and, increasingly to whom, in what form, and how much medication can be prescribed. People suffer, even die, on wait lists to receive medication. In contrast, countries that effectively address their overdose crises, loosen, not tighten restrictions. Indeed, Stefan G. Kertesz, M.D. states, “The dominant priority should be the assurance of subsidized access to evidence-based medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder.”

In the event that lack of understanding of MAT may be contributing to restricting access to it, we offer this simple infographic explaining medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for opioid use disorder (OUD).

Medication-Assisted Treatment for Opioid Use Disorder

Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) does not replace one addiction with another. It creates stability by treating the medical condition of addiction. Currently, effective medications for addiction create dependence – negative symptoms from withdrawal if doses are discontinued – but not addiction, which, per its definition, involves continued use despite negative consequences.

Tolerance occurs when people’s bodies adapt to a drug over time, responding less and less to the same dose. In order to have an effect, doses must keep increasing for people to continue to get high, or to keep from getting sick. When people use opioids regularly, therefore, they tend to use more and more of the drug over time. Even if they stop using, then return to use, they are at risk for overdose because illegal drugs are not monitored, and so they may be cut with much more powerful drugs, such as heroin with fentanyl.

(Recent increased rates in drug overdose are due to heroin and illicit fentanyl, not prescription pain medications. Reported deaths in 2015 from opioids by prescription account for under 15%. Of those addicted to prescription pain medications, 75% received them from a family member, friend or dealer, not through medication prescribed to them.)

When people with OUDs enter abstinence-based treatment, or otherwise stop using, their tolerance drops. They may not know their tolerance is diminished, or they may not know how much it has decreased, and if they take an opioid at the high dose they were once used to, they are likely to overdose and die.

People who are given MAT for OUD take an opioid (buprenorphine or methadone) at a consistent dose, which effectively stabilizes them. Once stabilized on an effective dose, they do not experience withdrawals, cravings, or highs. They can provide child or dependent care, hold a job, adhere to treatment, and comply with the law.

In contrast, people who are not on MAT will experience withdrawal symptoms and strong cravings, especially when under stress. People with OUDs permitted only abstinence-based treatment are at high risk for all of the same problems people with untreated addiction are at risk for: recidivism and crime, unemployment, contracting and transmitting diseases, overdose and hospitalization, and fatal overdose. Up to 90% of people with opioid use disorder relapse when not on medication-assisted treatment.

Maintenance may need to be long-term, or even life-long, because while addiction lasts, people who terminate maintenance treatments are at elevated risk for fatal overdose.

The US opioid epidemic has changed profoundly in the last 3 years, in ways that require substantial recalibration of the US policy response…Heroin and fentanyl have come to dominate an escalating epidemic of lethal opioid overdose, whereas opioids commonly obtained by prescription play a minor role, accounting for no more than 15% of reported deaths in 2015…The observed changes in the opioid epidemic are particularly remarkable because they have emerged despite sustained reductions in opioid prescribing and sustained reductions in prescription opioid misuse. Among US adults, past-year prescription opioid misuse is at its lowest level since 2002. Among 12th graders it is at its lowest level in 20 years. A credible epidemiologic account of the opioid epidemic is as follows: although opioid prescribing by physicians appears to have unleashed the epidemic prior to 2012, physician prescribing no longer plays a major role in sustaining it. The accelerating pace of the opioid epidemic in 2015–2016 requires a serious reconsideration of governmental policy initiatives that continue to focus on reductions in opioid prescribing. The dominant priority should be the assurance of subsidized access to evidence-based medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder. Such treatment is lacking across much of the United States at this time. Further aggressive focus on prescription reduction is likely to obtain diminishing returns while creating significant risks for patients.
– Stefan G. Kertesz, M.D.

People with opioid addiction can live full lives as family members and citizens. MAT benefits the general public health, employers, law enforcement, taxpayers, and the human beings who need our help.

Infographic by Laurel Sindewald. A printable .pdf version is here.

Laurel Sindewald contributed to this article.

Related reports on addictions treatment, addictions recovery, and addictions policy from Handshake Media, Incorporated:

This post was last updated 5/4/17.

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