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Heroin and other opioid addicts sometimes seek the medication methadone — a cheap, digestible opioid that relieves cravings. By attempting to replace one addiction, though, they can create an entirely new one if they use the medication without professional supervision.

  • Drug Name Methadone
  • Addiction Liability High
  • Street Names Dolophine, Methadose, Dollies, Fizzies, Mixture, Water, Linctus
  • How It's Used Swallowed
  • Side Effects Nausea, Slowed Breathing, Restlessness, Muscle Pain, Sweating, Sexual Dysfunction
  • Psychological Dependence Very High
  • Physical Dependence Very High

Methadone as a Treatment for Opioid Addiction

A debate rages on regarding methadone’s place in treating addiction. Governments around the world spend billions of dollars funding methadone clinics for heroin addicts. The drug, which blocks the euphoric effects of heroin and other opiates, can prevent cravings for these so-called “harder drugs.” But research shows that you are just as likely to develop a serious, sometimes fatal, addiction to methadone.

Methadone icon

306,000 patients treated for heroin received Methadone in 2011.

Source: 2013 National Survey of Substance Abuse Treatment Services

This research makes the “methadone for everyone” approach of opiate clinics outdated, and, according to many, it does more harm than good.

And though it helps some manage their drug habits, methadone now causes new addictions in droves, both from prescribed doses and hits off the street. Some former heroin addicts even claim to prefer the high from methadone.

Many specialists are now adopting an abstinence-based approach to treat heroin addiction.

How Patients Can Become Addicted to a Medication to Cure Addiction

Whether people got the drug from clinics or scored it on the black market, the truth remains: Methadone can cause addiction and death if it is misused.

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Methadone typically comes in liquid form or tablets, but when used illicitly, it is also injected. The effects last 24–36 hours, far longer than the short lifespan of a heroin dose. Patients may develop a tolerance to methadone that leads them to increase the size and frequency of dosage. However, tolerance is less common when the drug is used under doctor supervision.

Large amounts of methadone can cause side effects similar to those caused by harder drugs. When the drug is misused or used in combination with other opioids, it can worsen the severity of addiction.

Methadone is now the drug of choice for a number of addicts whether or not they have a history of abusing other opiates. Many of these people will take the drug nonstop until they are forced to deal with its serious side effects.

Side Effects of Methadone Use vs. Risks of Abuse

From 1999 to 2004, fatal overdoses of methadone rose at a higher rate than any other narcotic: 13 percent of all overdose deaths in 2004 involved the drug.
Taken in higher amounts, or combined with other substances, methadone can cause death. Clinics that administer the medication do their best to regulate the dosage, but many patients will leave the clinic in pursuit of more. Despite the best efforts of these facilities to monitor methadone intake, the drug kills thousands of people each year. An excessive dose of methadone can also cause coma and seizures.

Methadone presents a number of side effects. In the long term, users may experience lung and respiration problems. Women who abuse methadone may experience abnormalities in their menstrual cycle. Pregnant women who use the drug put their baby at risk of being born with complications. Short-term side effects of methadone use include:

Choosing to inject methadone can lead to the transfer of HIV and AIDS. As with many drugs, addicts of methadone will often lower their standards over time as to the source and quality of their fix. When the amount provided by a clinic doesn’t do the trick, addicts may find themselves on the street in search of more.

Detox, Buprenorphine and Other Treatments for Methadone Addiction

If you find yourself struggling with methadone use, or know someone who is, it may be time to reach out to a rehab facility or substance abuse counselor. Some addicts are able to quit cold turkey, but to ensure a full recovery it’s usually better to put your care in the hands of professionals.

Compared to other opiates, such as heroin, withdrawal symptoms when quitting methadone are usually less severe. Both psychological and physical withdrawal are possible and vary from case to case. Irritability, fatigue, loss of appetite, and fever symptoms are common during methadone withdrawal. In addition, cravings for the drug may present a sizable challenge when attempting to flush it from your system.

Because methadone is a slow-acting opioid, withdrawal side effects usually begin within 1 to 3 days following the last dose. They tend to peak around the sixth day. Addicts stand the best odds of a smooth detoxification under a doctor’s supervision.

Treatment centers introduced buprenorphine, another federally approved opioid, in 2002. Considered a safer and less addictive alternative to methadone, buprenorphine saw a surge in popularity for helping opiate addicts manage their cravings. It may be offered during treatment for methadone addiction, though experts warn it does have the potential to create a gradual dependency.

Other medications, such as LAAM and gabapentin, are occasionally used in treating opiate addiction. Your doctor will determine if any of these medications are right for you.

The final stage of treatment often involves behavioral therapy, either in group or individual settings. It may also take the form of one-on-one meetings with a substance abuse counselor.

People who receive methadone maintenance therapy created a 12-step program called Methadone Anonymous that has slowly grown in popularity. Peer support and accountability can increase the effectiveness of treatment and the chances of long-term recovery.

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