Since the advent of methadone, medication-assisted treatment has been the subject of much scrutiny. Although progress continues to be made with the use of medication to treat alcohol and opioid dependence, many questions still remain. Research has confirmed the effectiveness of such medications in combination with a comprehensive treatment program, but many people in recovery and the field of substance abuse continue to be wary.

How Does Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) Work?

Medications used to treat alcohol and opioid dependence essentially satisfy the brain’s desire for a drug. In doing this, they eliminate the physical withdrawal symptoms associated with detoxing and recovery. The elimination of the physical symptoms can help facilitate recovery for those impeded by the unpleasant, even dangerous symptoms of withdrawal.

Although the physical desire is quelled, the mental compulsion may still remain. This dispels the idea that MAT is a cure for addiction. The absence of withdrawal symptoms can make the transition to recovery easier, but no medication can effectively cure addiction.

The “Cure vs. Crutch” Debate

The belief that MAT is simply a “crutch” is also commonly held. This viewpoint considers the use of medication for addiction treatment as taking the easy way out, as simply relying on yet another substance. It is common for some individuals using medication-assisted treatment to take the medication instead of their drug of choice and never really embrace recovery. In this situation, the individual is using the medication as a crutch because they are not making the necessary changes in their life to address the root causes of their drug dependency.

Additionally, many people in the recovery community view medication-assisted treatment as “using.” Because complete abstinence is often viewed as the only way to recover from addiction, people utilizing MAT may not be considered to be truly in recovery.

Perception is everything in this debate. Medication-assisted treatment shouldn’t be considered a cure or crutch, but rather a tool. Medication is not the solution, but it can be an integral part of someone’s treatment plan while they detox from the physical symptoms of withdrawal.

The decision to utilize MAT beyond withdrawal and detox is left to the individual and their doctors; what some people view as a crutch may be a life-changing gift for others. At the end of the day, each person is on their own path to recovery, and their journey may look very different from someone else’s.


SAMHSA: Pharmacotherapy for Substance Use Disorders