Learn / What Is Biomedical Therapy and How Can It Help With Recovery?

What Is Biomedical Therapy and How Can It Help With Recovery?

Hannah Friedman
 April 11th, 2023|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Rajnandini Rathod

Healing your mental health is a lot like adding tools to a toolbox, especially when you attend residential rehab where you can try different kinds of therapy. As you experience different treatment options, you’re able to keep what works best for you. A common and effective tool in many people’s toolbox is biomedical therapy, which includes medications and some medical procedures. 

At rehabs that offer biomedical therapy, you can see these options for yourself while under the supervision of a medical professional for your safety. 

What Is Biomedical Therapy?

Biomedical therapy is the use of medications or medical procedures1 to reduce the symptoms of a range of mental health and addiction issues. From a biomedical perspective, mental health conditions are brain diseases2 with chemical and biological causes. 

Biomedical therapy is very similar to how doctors treat physical diseases, using medicine to both reduce your symptoms and correct the cause of the disease. Biomedical therapy differs from psychotherapy because it focuses on the biological causes of conditions. Psychotherapy, on the other hand, weighs how your environment, relationships, childhood, and more have influenced your mental health. 

It’s common for your treatment plan to include biomedical therapies3 in addition to other types of therapy. So you may take certain medications while also regularly going to one-on-one therapy sessions. 

Types of Biomedical Therapy

How Pharmacotherapy Helps Treatment

The use of medications, or pharmacotherapy, treats the symptoms of mental health conditions.4 Some conditions like bipolar disorder may require continuous medication to control your symptoms long-term. But it’s also common for your doctor to prescribe them for a short period to ease your symptoms so you can focus on the rest of your therapies while in treatment.

Studies show that medications can help enhance psychotherapy5 by reducing distracting symptoms. Dr. Thomas Gazda, Medical Director at Soberman’s Estate, explains: 

Medications can work with psychotherapy. In fact, patients whose depression has lifted or have their severe anxiety under control can do better in psychotherapy. They’re able to focus, concentrate and delve into their psyche much better when they’re stable.”

There are 5 types of medications6 that are common in mental health treatment:

  • Antidepressants, including serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), can treat depression, anxiety, chronic pain, or insomnia.
  • Anti-anxiety medications, like SSRIs or benzodiazepines, can help people with generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, or social anxiety disorder.
  • Stimulants are common in treating attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or narcolepsy.
  • Antipsychotics can help people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, severe depression, or other conditions that cause delusions or hallucinations, including some addictions.
  • Mood stabilizers, like lithium, reduce the symptoms of depression, bipolar disorder, or schizoaffective disorder, usually in addition to antidepressants.

It’s common for people to try a few different medications before finding one that works7 best for them. But it’s important to do these trials with a medical professional. They’ll be able to give guidance and address any concerns about side effects. 

Medical Procedures for Mental Health Conditions

While pharmacotherapy is the most popular form of biomedical therapy, doctors also use certain medical procedures to address mental health conditions like depression. 

In the past, invasive and life-altering surgeries like lobotomies were more common. Now, the practice of psychosurgery is much safer8 thanks to improvements in technique. Still, these surgeries are not very common. Doctors will typically only consider them an option after exhausting all other treatment options. 

Beyond surgery, treatment centers use other types of medical procedures to treat mental health conditions. Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT)9 is one example. In ECT, a doctor passes electric currents through your brain, causing a small seizure while you’re under general anesthesia. This stimulates your brain and can quickly change chemical imbalances that may be causing your mental health issues. It’s one of the most effective treatment options for people with treatment-resistant depression, but people with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder may also benefit. 

Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is a biomedical therapy method that’s becoming more popular. While ECT uses an electric current, TMS uses magnetic waves sent into targeted areas of the brain. It’s non-invasive and can help treat treatment-resistant depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and even some addictions. Jerry Vaccaro, president of All Points North Lodge, says TMS is a beneficial supplementary therapy for many because “people find that it’s easy to do, it takes very little time, side effects are minimal and the results are quite good.” 

Like pharmacotherapy treatment options, your treatment team, therapist, or primary care physician can help you determine if any of these medical procedures are right for you. 

How Does Biomedical Therapy Work?

Some biomedical therapies require a medical doctor to supervise. For example, in some states like California, only a psychiatrist or physician can prescribe mental health medications,10 not therapists. In others, a technician or nurse practitioner can perform the therapy. However, they all require a trained medical professional to ensure your safety. And in rehab, your entire treatment team will be involved in deciding which therapies make the most sense for you and evaluating if they’re effective. 

In most cases, biomedical therapies are available in both inpatient and outpatient settings. A psychiatrist can prescribe you antidepressants to take both during residential treatment and for afterwards if necessary. ECT and TMS are also both available as outpatient procedures, but you can also receive them in rehabs that have the necessary staff and equipment. The only type of biomedical therapy that typically requires hospitalization is psychosurgery. 

The length of biomedical treatment also depends on the specific therapy and the severity of your condition. For instance, people with moderate depression who respond well to medication will usually only take antidepressants for 4-9 months.11 But many people with schizophrenia may have to take medications for the rest of their lives12 to manage symptoms. 

What Disorders Does Biomedical Therapy Treat?

In the last 30 years in the U.S., the biomedical treatment model has been the dominant approach13 to mental health. This means a large body of research has been focused on biomedical therapy options for some of the most prevalent mental health conditions. 


Antidepressants are very common in depression treatment. They’re most effective in treating moderate to severe depression. The goal of antidepressants is to alleviate your symptoms14 for long enough that you prevent relapse and find new coping skills. However, it’s important to note that the most effective treatment plan for depression15 is a combination of biomedical psychiatry and psychotherapy.  

ECT and TMS are also effective in treating depression.16 Most of the benefits of ECT and TMS occur in the short term with an almost immediate improvement in symptoms. However, there’s not enough research to establish that they can prevent relapses in the long term.


For people with a range of anxiety disorders, medication can be an effective tool in treatment.17 SSRIs and serotonin norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are usually the first options for anxiety treatment. You may take them for as little as 3 months or as long as multiple years, depending on how your anxiety reacts. There are also a few new pharmacological options for anxiety, including ketamine and psychedelics, that some studies have proven effective. However, these are less common and research is still quite new. 


Antipsychotic medications are a pillar in most treatment plans for schizophrenia. After a psychotic episode, your doctor will most likely prescribe an antipsychotic medication immediately to prevent major changes in your brain18 and help you return to your regular functioning. But it’s also common for mental health providers to continue to prescribe medications even months after an episode. This type of maintenance therapy can help prevent relapse and allow you to experience more stability in your mood and relationships.  

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Studies show that 70% of people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) experience reduced symptoms19 after taking appropriate medications. SSRIs are the most common prescription for people with OCD, but doctors may also prescribe other types depending on your symptoms. 

Initial research also shows that TMS may be effective in reducing OCD symptoms.20 TMS requires a psychiatrist’s referral and with such new research, it may not be widely available to people with OCD just yet. 

People with very severe and treatment-resistant OCD have also found success with psychosurgery.21 However, this is usually only an option for people who have exhausted all others. 

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

From the biomedical psychiatry perspective, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is caused by a biological change in how you perceive fear. And studies show that people with PTSD have a few key imbalances in the brain22 related to the “fight or flight” response. PTSD may also have physical symptoms like high blood pressure, which hints at the biological link. 

With these imbalances in mind, pharmacotherapy is an effective treatment method for PTSD.23 And psychiatrists will consider your symptoms when prescribing your specific medications. For example, you may take an SSRI to reduce symptoms like re-experiencing, avoidance, and hyperarousal, while other medications can help prevent PTSD-related nightmares. Your treatment team will be able to map out the most effective medications for your symptoms and lifestyle. 

Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder is another mental health condition where biomedical psychiatry can be beneficial. Doctors commonly prescribe medications like lithium or antidepressants like Prozac. These types of medications help stabilize your symptoms24 and mindset, which makes it easier to both attend and make the most of talk therapy. Researchers have also found TMS to be effective for reducing depressive symptoms25 in people with bipolar disorder. 

However, treating bipolar disorder can be a tricky balance because sometimes medications or TMS can trigger depressive or manic episodes, so it’s crucial to have open lines of communication with your mental health provider to prevent those swings. And because people with bipolar disorder are at higher risk for developing addiction,26 open communication with your psychiatrist is important to prevent becoming dependent on your prescription medications. 

Biomedical Therapy for Addiction

Dr. Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, explains that much like mental health issues, addiction is also “a brain disease27 because drugs change the brain — they change its structure and how it works.” And because of those brain changes, biomedical psychiatry can be beneficial for treating addiction. 

Medications for Addiction Recovery

Medications are a widely used treatment option for many different aspects of addiction recovery. During detox, many providers use medications to reduce the severity of symptoms and prevent serious complications. For example, if you’re detoxing from alcohol, your doctor may prescribe a benzodiazepine to manage withdrawal symptoms. 

Once you’ve detoxed and you’re in rehab, your treatment team may also suggest taking medications to ease both withdrawal and mental health symptoms28 to allow you to focus on other forms of therapy. They can also prevent cravings and help you relax more in treatment. 

Other pharmacotherapy treatments are longer term. If you’re recovering from opioid addiction, you may use medications like methadone or buprenorphine to prevent relapses29 and manage your symptoms. In fact, the National Institute on Drug Abuse advises that “medication should be the first line of treatment30 for opioid addiction.  

Plus, for people with co-occurring disorders like depression or anxiety in addition to addiction, medications can play an important role in treatment.31 Your doctor may prescribe medications that alleviate your mental health symptoms to make other forms of therapy easier. You might take antidepressants to reduce depressive fatigue, for example, so you have more energy for your group therapy sessions. 

However, it’s very important that a medical professional supervises the use of all medications, especially in the case of co-occurring disorders. Some medications commonly used for treating addiction can have dangerous interactions32 with anxiety medications. A rehab that specializes in treating co-occurring disorders will understand those risks and adjust your treatment plan accordingly. 

Biomedical Treatment Can Be an Effective Tool for Recovery

For most people seeking treatment for mental health issues or addiction, recovery doesn’t come from just one type of therapy. There’s no magic cure for these conditions. But research and years of practice have shown that there are effective and safe ways to approach recovery, including biomedical therapy. Taking medications or undergoing certain medical procedures can be an important aspect of your healing, especially when combined with other therapies like behavioral or holistic treatments. 
To learn more about the role that biomedical treatment can play in your recovery journey, see our list of rehabs that offer biomedical therapy.

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