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How Successful Is Medication-Assisted Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder?

Medication-Assisted Treatment has been found to be a very effective way of helping people wean off their alcohol use and curb their cravings for more alcohol. In combination with therapy and counseling, MAT has great long-term potential for alcohol use disorder treatment.

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What Is Alcohol Use Disorder?

Alcohol use disorder is a chronic brain disorder, with symptoms of an inability to stop drinking (compulsive drinking), loss of control over using alcohol, and negative emotions when not drinking (when not drinking, the person becomes preoccupied with drinking again).

There are different degrees of alcohol use disorder. It can be mild, moderate, or severe. No matter how serious it is, there is treatment available. Many people who are diagnosed with alcohol use disorder learn how they can control the urge to drink.

In 2019, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 14.5 million people over the age of 12 met the criteria for having alcohol use disorder. Of this 14.5 million, 9 million were men, and 5.5 million were women.

The numbers are stark, but treatment (if maintained over the long term) has been very successful in helping many people live healthier lives. As many as 89 percent of people who go through the entire rehabilitation process remain sober in the first month after they are discharged. Upward of 76 percent of people who go to treatment for alcohol use disorder report maintaining their sobriety at the three-month mark; 69 percent are still sober six months after being discharged; and 70 percent are still sober nine months after they are discharged.

What Is Medication-Assisted Treatment?

One reason the success rate of treating alcohol use disorder is so high is because of Medication-Assisted Treatment, or MAT for alcohol use disorder. This refers to the use of medications, in collaboration with counseling and behavioral therapy, to offer a holistic approach to treating the psychological and emotional causes and fallout of alcohol use disorder. Medication-Assisted Treatment also takes into consideration other health conditions and factors that every person brings with them into treatment.

There is much research to suggest that Medication-Assisted Treatment is among the most beneficial and effective methods available today to treat alcohol use disorder. Addiction specialists have found that using MAT for alcohol use disorder successfully minimizes the withdrawal symptoms of discontinuing alcohol use, reduces cravings for more alcohol, and significantly increases a person’s chances of maintaining their sobriety.

How MAT Helps Recovery

Other research has also spoken to the effectiveness of using Medication-Assisted Treatment for alcohol use disorder. A study of over 5,700 adults with alcohol dependence showed that those who received MAT “were less likely to require mental health hospitalization” and visits to the emergency department than study participants who didn’t use MAT. Additionally, they were also found to be more likely to stay with their medication plans than adults who didn’t receive Medication-Assisted Treatment.

Researchers in the Biological Psychiatry journal wrote that treating individuals who have substance use disorders with Medication-Assisted Treatment “is more likely to improve their mental health, quality of life, employability, and family relations.” Furthermore, this kind of engagement has a good chance of reducing the likelihood that they will return to alcohol abuse or other forms of substance abuse, and reduces the risk of them participating in criminal activity.

MAT & Other Treatments

Medication-Assisted Treatment does not exist in isolation. The “assisted” part of the term speaks to the role that medication plays in conjunction with other treatment modalities to help someone who has alcohol use disorder.

A number of studies have found that while MAT is intended to work in conjunction with cognitive behavioral therapy and counseling (like family counseling and group counseling, among others), MAT nonetheless offers benefits even without therapy components. Reviews published in the Psychiatric Services journal noted that for people going through opioid abuse disorder treatment, adding therapy “had no effect on the outcomes” of Medication-Assisted Treatment. Nonetheless, therapy and counseling are still established parts of addiction treatment (both for opioids and addiction in general), in addition to the medications that are prescribed to assist in the treatment process.

What Else Can You Do to Promote Recovery?

Medication-Assisted Treatment for alcohol use disorder does not exist in a vacuum, and there is a lot that someone can do on top of MAT to help their chances of recovery. First and foremost, stick with the program. Recovering from alcohol use disorder can be a gradual journey, and the temptation to relapse is never far. Developing an accountability network through friends, family, and medical staff is invaluable to maximizing the effectiveness of the MAT part of the treatment. A person who takes their benzodiazepines as prescribed but who doesn’t attend meetings or follow the other guidelines laid out by their program will likely struggle to maintain their recovery.

It can also help to move away — literally, if necessary — from the lifestyle that encouraged alcohol use disorder. This might entail ending relationships that directly or indirectly triggered unhealthy thought processes that led to drinking. It might entail cultivating healthy new habits and hobbies, which offer more productive outlets for stress, boredom, or other emotions.

Even as Medication-Assisted Treatment addresses some of the physical and psychological stresses of leaving alcohol use behind, cultivating a healthy and rich life addresses the long-term implications of building a new life without the dependence on alcohol.

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Medically Reviewed By Dr. Alison Tarlow

Dr. Alison Tarlow is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in the States of Florida and Pennsylvania, and a Certified Addictions Professional (CAP). She has been a practicing psychologist for over 15 years. Sh... Read More

Updated May 1, 2023
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  2. Treatment and Recovery. (July 2020). National Institute on Drug Abuse.
  3. MAT Medications, Counseling, and Related Conditions. (August 2020). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
  4. Maintenance Medication for Opiate Addiction: The Foundation of Recovery. (July 2012). Journal of Addictive Diseases.
  5. An Overview of Medication-Assisted Treatment for Opioid and Alcohol Use Disorders. (October 2020). The American Journal of Managed Care.
  6. Medication-Assisted Treatment for Alcohol-Dependent Adults With Serious Mental Illness and Criminal Justice Involvement: Effects on Treatment Utilization and Outcomes. (July 2018). American Journal of Psychiatry.
  7. Medication Treatment of Opioid Use Disorder. (July 2019). Biological Psychiatry.
  8. How Effective Is Medication-Assisted Treatment for Addiction? Here’s the Science. (May 2017). STAT News.
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