The opioid crisis has been making headlines in recent years. It’s an especially tangled web for many people, as opioids help to manage pain. Opioid addiction may start with a prescription, but over time, use can escalate as people build a tolerance. A recent Medscape article highlighted a new study that provides strong support for using opioid agonists to help treat opioid use disorder. Let’s take a closer look at what opioid agonists are and how they can help those recovering from opioid addiction.

What Are Opioid Agonists?

Opioid agonists are medications that are used to help ease the cravings and withdrawal symptoms people experience when recovering from opioid use disorder. Opioids trigger the release of endorphins, which are chemicals in your brain that make you feel pleasure and dull pain. Opioid agonists bind to the same receptors in the brain that were activated by opioids, but in a safer, more controlled way.

Opioid agonists are used to ease withdrawal symptoms and manage cravings. Opioid cravings can be very intense, and withdrawal symptoms can be challenging to manage. Early opioid withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Anxiety
  • Muscle aches
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Sweating
  • Runny nose
  • Feeling agitated

Later withdrawal symptoms can include:

  • Cramping
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting

Medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder helps people manage their withdrawal symptoms and learn the skills they need to live a life without opioids. It takes time to learn to live in a new way, and opioid agonists help give people that time.

Some people view medication-assisted treatment as just substituting one addiction for another. That’s not true. Opioid agonists like methadone, suboxone, and buprenorphine are safer and longer acting. They’re used to help manage symptoms so people don’t seek out risky opioids like heroin to fulfill their cravings. Heroin is dangerous on its own, but fentanyl is being cut into or substituted more and more frequently for heroin. People are buying what they think is heroin, but is actually fentanyl. Fentanyl is much more potent than heroin, and people are overdosing.

What Does the New Data Say?

The new study found that patients treated with an opioid agonist like methadone or buprenorphine had an 80% lower risk of dying while in treatment than their peers who weren’t receiving medication-assisted treatment. The study reviewed data on more than 48,000 people receiving outpatient treatment for opioid use disorder in Maryland.

Medscape reached out to experts to comment on the results. One expert, Marc Larochelle, a primary care physician specializing in addiction, noted that, “While acceptance and access to medication for opioid use disorder is increasing, there are still many who believe they should be used only as a bridge or short-term treatment.”

This study shows the importance of opioid agonists, even in long-term treatment. One important note, though, is that opioid agonists only lowered the risk of overdose deaths during treatment. Once people were no longer in treatment, their overdose risk increased. This shows the importance of long-term, continued care.

Effective Opioid Use Disorder Treatment

If you or a loved one is experiencing opioid use disorder, finding effective treatment is essential. For many, effective treatment means medically-assisted treatment using methadone, naltrexone, or buprenorphine. While it might be worrying to use a medication for treatment, opioid agonists and opiate antagonists are both proven treatment options. When used under the supervision of a medical professional, these medications help ease withdrawal symptoms and cravings and allow you or your loved one to focus on recovery.

At New Life Addiction Counseling and Mental Health Services, we offer outpatient treatment for opioid use disorder. One of our treatment options is medicated assisted treatment (MAT).  New Life offers Suboxone and Vivitrol (naltrexone in our MAT program). We have over 35 years of experience helping thousands of people recover with MAT. We work closely with our patients to determine which treatment options are best, and we’re with you every step of the way. Our outpatient programs mean you or your loved one living at home can home to our Pasadena, Maryland, office for treatment and support on a schedule that works for you.

We know paying for treatment is a barrier for many, which is why we accept most commercial insurance and Maryland Medicaid. There are effective treatments for opioid use disorder, and we’re here to help. Contact us today to learn more about our treatment options.