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Harm Reduction vs. Abstinence Drug Treatment

When deciding to seek treatment for drug addiction—either for yourself or a loved one—one of the questions we often ask is, “which option should I choose?”

Knowing the differences between harm reduction and abstinence treatment options will help you make more informed decisions, especially when it comes to your finances, availability, effectiveness of the treatment, and safety.

In this article, you’ll learn that there are several types of therapies modelled after these treatments and the principles behind them. This will help you relay information to your doctor, so you can work on a treatment plan together.

Now, let’s dive in!

What is Harm Reduction?

Harm reduction is a set of policies and practices for reducing harmful consequences related to substance use.

Harm reduction is an essential part in treating drug addiction. It aims to prevent the patient from overdosing and contracting infectious diseases due to unsterile drug injections. It also helps improve the patient’s general well-being while they’re on the path to recovery.

paramedics pull a stretcher out of an ambulance

Unlike zero-tolerance approaches, harm reduction lessens the risks to a patient rather than reduce their substance use. This option supports behavioural changes that lead to abstinence, with the intention that the user transitions to moderate use (or moderation management) and achieves complete abstinence on their own.

This approach depends on the possibility that despite continued substance abuse, the outcome will result in a reduction of drug-related harm.

Harm reduction implements the following measures to reduce drug-related effects:

  • Distributing test kits and overdose reversal medication to patients, their caretakers and first responders, such as nurses and first aid providers;
  • Educating people about drug overdose, infectious disease transmission, and prevention;
  • Referring patients to get treated for infectious diseases, if they have any;
  • Promoting links to care;
  • Reducing the stigma associated with substance use disorders (SUD) and concurrent disorders; and
  • Promoting peer support and recovery support services.

In essence, harm reduction is based on respect for individual human rights. It induces positive change without discrimination, judgment, or coercion, and requires no conditions for an individual to receive support.

Therefore, this option makes it accessible and encouraging for anyone seeking treatment for SUD.

Naloxone nasal spray for reversing opioid overdose, a drug often used in harm reduction efforts

What is Abstinence Drug Treatment?

Abstinence drug treatment is intended to stop substance use. A patient undergoing this treatment will be prevented from taking any addictive substance and will have to make an effort to reduce exposure to addictive substances to maintain their sobriety.

By doing so, the patient can benefit from relief, comfort, and confidence—all of which they need to live a normal, healthy life.

Abstinence drug treatment also involves physical, psychological, social and sometimes, spiritual aspects. When combined, these aspects will enable the patient to learn essential skills which can help them cope properly during stressful situations. This also leads the patient to become independent and develop the skills they need to stay sober.

The impact of this addiction treatment is also profound, as it can quickly reverse the negative effects of drug use in many cases. It also helps reduce the probability of addiction substitution.

However, since addiction is a chronic disease, some patients might find total abstinence difficult to sustain. In these cases, the physician will modify the treatment plan to help maintain their sobriety and allow patients to continue on their path to recovery.

Do note though that in some instances, abstinence is completely necessary. This is usually the case of individuals whose exposure to addictive substances becomes severely life-threatening.

Harm Reduction vs Abstinence Statistics

In theory, abstinence is 100% effective at reducing drug-related harms, but it requires commitment to the program. For most people in recovery, prolonged abstinence after the initial treatment, combined with participation in aftercare or support groups, help promote lasting change.

Studies show approximately 90% of those who remain abstinent for two years are still sober at 10 years. Another study also revealed that abstinence is associated with a greater decrease in adverse consequences related to the use of psychoactive drugs.

The challenge lies in getting people to start treatment, which brings us to the benefits of harm reduction or moderation management.

A green stethoscope and different kinds of drugs on the table.

According to statistics, harm reduction treatment like supervised injection sites helped increase addiction treatment participation by about 4.5% and also decreased public syringe sharing by 5.5%. While the reason for participation was not stated, it showed that reaching out to the public had a positive impact on people with SUD.

This could be due to the links between the patients and health care services. Harm reduction bridges the gap between people needing treatment and people providing support, and allows users to get closer to receiving proper treatment.

However, a major concern associated with moderation management is relapse due to constant exposure to addictive substances. Although there is not enough data to support claims that moderation management is directly linked to increased use of illegal substances or promotes addiction.

The truth is, relapse still happens with any kind of therapy.

There is no single approach that tops all addiction treatment options. A physician may choose to apply one or more approaches or shift from one approach to another when treating a patient, depending on their condition.

Harm Reduction vs. Abstinence vs. Other Treatments: Know Your Options

Seeking treatment for substance use disorder can be intimidating since there’s no one-size-fits all when it comes to sobriety.

That’s why knowing what therapy would work best for you should be a part of your recovery.

Freedom From Addiction offers a range of treatment programs meant to address different forms of addiction and accommodate different needs.

Ready for change? Let’s work together on your therapy and make your journey to recovery a successful one. Talk to our consultants now to get professional advice from addiction treatment experts.

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