Methadone Addiction – Methadone is a long-acting synthetic opioid commonly used for the treatment of heroin addiction or dependence on more powerful, potentially more dangerous opioids. When used as directed, methadone can be very effective at treating opiate addiction, but as an opioid itself, still has the potential for addiction.
When used to wean patients off other narcotics, methadone doses are closely supervised by medical and addiction professionals. However, due to methadone’s relatively low cost when compared to other traditional prescription opioids, doctors have also been commonly prescribing methadone for the treatment of chronic pain for some time.
This trend appears to be helpful for some but has also allowed more people access to methadone than before, including a number of people who might not have used opioids in the past. These additional exposures have contributed to increasing addictions to methadone, as well as making methadone more readily available as a recreationally used substance.
Methadone acts on the brain by attaching to the same receptors as other opioids like heroin or oxycodone. Because methadone remains in the system for an extended period—from one to three days—it works to block the euphoric effects of other opioids as well as mitigate painful symptoms of withdrawal associated with these drugs.
Who Becomes Dependent on Methadone?
Since the 1970s, methadone clinics and methadone maintenance programs in the U.S. have been touted as ways for people with heroin addiction to avoid the worst symptoms of withdrawal while preventing relapse. Today, methadone is still used for this purpose under close medical supervision.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, there were as many as 3,400 overdose deaths related to methadone in the U.S. As noted above, doctors sometimes prescribe this drug to treat chronic pain due to conditions such as multiple sclerosis, cancer, or injuries. Legitimate prescription drug use can turn into abuse as tolerance develops, however, and once abuse begins, dependence and addiction may shortly follow.
Importantly, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved methadone for the treatment of these types of pain, yet physicians wrote more than four million prescriptions for methadone in 2009. The increase in methadone prescriptions for use as a painkiller is due to methadone’s lower cost when compared to other popular opioids such as hydrocodone and oxycodone.
Fortunately, however, according to a 2018 report from The Pew Charitable Trusts, methadone prescriptions intended to manage pain were found to have declined by 26% nationwide between 2013-2016 following efforts by U.S. states to reduce the use of the drug.
Recreational Methadone Use
As methadone has increasingly been prescribed to treat pain and not just opioid addiction, more of this opioid has become accessible to people who engage in drug abuse. Much like the wide availability of hydrocodone, people who abuse opioid drugs can more easily obtain methadone by pilfering it from friends or family, or by purchasing it illicitly.
The illegal selling of prescription medication is called drug diversion, and it is considered to be the leading cause of the opioid drug epidemic in the U.S. When a person uses methadone for non-medical purposes, the person faces a much higher risk of developing an addiction or experiencing an overdose.
Methadone Side Effects
Methadone’s side effects are comparable to those associated with other opioid drugs. These include the following:
- Sleepiness or drowsiness
- Nausea and vomiting
- Impaired cognition
- Impaired memory
- Impaired coordination
Methadone was originally devised for the treatment of heroin addiction because its symptoms of withdrawal are less intense and do not onset as quickly as with many other opioids. This difference is because methadone remains in the body in some form for up to three days. Though less severe, withdrawal symptoms related to methadone are comparable to withdrawal symptoms from other opioid drugs.
Methadone withdrawal symptoms may include the following:
- Watery eyes
- Runny nose
- Fever and chills
- Tremors or shaking
- Muscle aches and pains
- Loss of appetite
- Anxiety or irritability
- Sleep disturbances
- Rapid heart rate
Because methadone is a long-acting drug intended to relieve symptoms in those addicted to heroin, it can accumulate rapidly in the body and stay in the bloodstream for some time. It is critical that people with methadone prescriptions use this medication precisely as directed and do not modify their dose without a doctor’s recommendation and oversight. It is relatively easy to overdose on methadone due to the potency of a single dose.
Methadone’s half-life ranges anywhere from eight to 59 hours, depending on the dose while the painkilling effects last only up to eight hours. The long half-life is beneficial for those in recovery from addiction to other narcotics, as it remains in the body for an extended period to ease withdrawal symptoms and reduce cravings.
However, this also means it is less useful for the treatment of chronic pain related to diseases such as cancer because the analgesic effects do not persist as long as the drug remains in the system. As a result, people who use methadone as a painkiller can place themselves in danger of an overdose if their pain returns and they decide to take another dose before it is safe to do so.
Symptoms of overdose include:
- Respiratory depression
- Clammy, cold skin
- Bluish lips and fingertips
- Extreme drowsiness
- Nausea and vomiting
Combining methadone with other prescription or illicit drugs or alcohol—especially other central nervous system depressants—can increase the risk of overdose, and lead to serious heart problems as well. These complications range from arrhythmia (irregular heart rate) to heart attack.
Many people who struggle with methadone addiction also suffer from co-occurring disorders such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, etc. People who experience mental health conditions may attempt to self-medicate to relieve their symptoms, often with substances such as alcohol, painkillers, marijuana, or cocaine. For these people, methadone addiction may also develop following attempts to overcome other opioid addictions.
Psychiatric and medical professionals who treat drug addiction work to identify underlying mental health conditions that might have compelled the person to self-medicate away symptoms in an effort to feel better. Comprehensive care that addresses co-occurring disorders is needed for the patient to achieve a full recovery from methadone addiction.
Treatment for Methadone Addiction
Whether a person starts misusing methadone against a doctor’s orders or as part of an opioid addiction treatment program, treatment for addiction usually requires both medical detox and comprehensive therapy. In some cases, patients may be gradually tapered off methadone, and others may be switched to another opioid medication, such as Suboxone, that has an even lower potential for abuse and addiction.
Recovery By The Sea offers medication-assisted therapy to help persons addicted to methadone recover while reducing cravings and relieving the worst symptoms of withdrawal. In addition, we employ other evidence-based services essential to the recovery process, including psychotherapy, counseling, group support, health and wellness programs, and aftercare planning.
If you or someone you love is addicted to methadone, please contact us today. We are dedicated to helping people free themselves from the shackles of addiction so they can begin to experience the healthy and satisfying lives they deserve!
Related: Types of Addiction