For decades, people struggling with heroin and other opioid addictions have come to rely on methadone to ease the symptoms of detoxification. This controversial substance is lauded for its ability to dampen drug cravings. It’s even included on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines, an inventory of the most effective and safest drugs.
However, this narcotic pain reliever is habit-forming, even when used as prescribed. In addition, methadone use poses life-threatening problems, especially when it’s recreationally abused.
Though the number of methadone overdoses has recently declined, thousands still die each year. Since the effects of methadone are more subdued than stronger opioids, it may be a minor actor in the ongoing opioid crisis, but it still remains a part of the narrative.
Methadone is a synthetic opioid. It was first produced by German scientists in the 1930s. They wanted to create a pain medicine that was less addictive than morphine. In 1947, methadone was introduced to the U.S., and it was used as a pain reliever before being utilized as a treatment for narcotic addictions.
When heroin addiction reached epidemic proportions in the 1960s and 70s, segments of the medical community saw methadone as an effective remedy. A 1964 pilot project established methadone maintenance treatment as an answer to heroin addiction. The medicine replaces the more harmful and intoxicating opioid, so it becomes a stepping stone toward sobriety.
Because methadone maintenance therapy advocated harm reduction over abstinence, the drug was viewed as controversial. Nevertheless, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration officially approved this treatment for heroin addiction in 1972.
Methadone can be taken as a tablet or solution, or it can be dissolved in a liquid. Like heroin,
it activates opioid receptors in the brain. When employed in maintenance treatment, methadone eliminates uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms and satiates drug cravings. Because it acts more slowly than other drugs in its class, a dependent person will not experience the euphoria other opioids produce.
Methadone also has a long half-life (between 15 and 55 hours). Therefore, it lends itself to weaning off more severe drugs. Its pain-relieving effects may last for eight hours, but it can prevent a user from experiencing withdrawal symptoms for up to two days. However, methadone use can be dangerous when users become dependent on it.
Due to safer prescribing and the use of buprenorphine, there have been sharp declines in methadone overdoses. However, methadone still remains a dangerous, highly addictive drug that produces severe withdrawal symptoms that require professional treatment.
Recreational users abuse methadone to achieve its euphoric effects. Slang terms for methadone include dollies, dolls, mud, phy amps, red rocks, tootsie rolls, amidone, fizzies, balloons, breeze, burdock, buzz bomb, cartridges, jungle juice, and junk.
Methadone works by binding to opioid receptors in the brain. It works in a similar fashion to other opioids like oxycodone or heroin. As we mentioned above, the drug remains in the system for an extended period, and it helps to block the euphoric effects of other opioids. It also reduces painful symptoms of withdrawal from illicit opiate drugs.
Due to its long-acting properties, it is meant to reduce the symptoms of those addicted to heroin for one or two days. Unfortunately, it builds up quickly in the body and remains in the bloodstream for a while. It’s imperative for individuals with a prescription to use the medicine as prescribed. Those who use methadone must not adjust their dosage without a physicians advice and oversight. It is easier to overdose on methadone because of its strength.
As we mentioned above, an overdose on methadone is more likely than other opioids due to its strength. If you suspect someone has overdosed on methadone, you must look for these symptoms:
When you use methadone in conjunction with other prescription or illicit drugs, it can lead to severe heart issues. The heart problems can range from heart attacks to arrhythmia.
The first sign of any substance abuse disorder (SUD) is a buildup of tolerance. Whether you use methadone for therapeutic or recreational purposes, you’ve developed a tolerance if a larger dose is required to achieve the same effect.
When you come to rely on methadone and continue using it at higher doses, your risk of developing a chemical dependency increases. Dependence occurs when your brain and body require a substance to maintain a healthy brain chemistry. At this stage, your nervous system may cease to produce certain chemicals, since it prefers the ones that are present in methadone.
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If you cease or decrease your methadone use, you may start feeling cravings and experience the flu-like withdrawal symptoms that accompany opioid use. Individuals who struggle with methadone addiction exhibit compulsive behaviors.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) defines addiction as “an inability to stop using a drug; failure to meet work, social, or family obligations; and, sometimes (depending on the drug), tolerance and withdrawal.”
Methadone withdrawal symptoms are similar to the flu, but they’re much more severe, which is why it’s hard to quit. It’s especially difficult and dangerous to quit “cold turkey” on your own.
The safest, most comfortable path to recovery starts with medical detoxification. In detox, you’ll be given medications to manage those withdrawal symptoms and stave off medical emergencies. Medical professionals will continually monitor your health 24/7 throughout your stay.
After detox, the most effective option is to stay at a treatment facility. In residential treatment, you’ll receive counseling that explores the psychological roots of your methadone addiction. Clients typically stay in residential treatment from 30 to 60 days, and they have access to a range of therapies.
Because methadone is a carefully controlled prescription drug, doctors and clinics have to be certified to dispense it. So in all likelihood, it will never be harmful. However, it still carries the potential for abuse and poses dangerous consequences.
Studies show that people who abuse prescription opioids are more likely to use heroin. Though the percentage of people who turn to heroin after having a prescription for opioids is small, the percentage of heroin users who started with prescriptions is as high as 80 percent. Moreover, it’s common for methadone users to graduate to heroin.
Like other opioids, methadone overdoses can be life-threatening. High doses can produce respiratory depression, and they lead to hypoxia, oxygen deprivation, brain damage, coma, and death.
Center for Substance Abuse Research. (n.d.). Methadone. Retrieved from http://www.cesar.umd.edu/cesar/drugs/methadone.asp#10
Medline Plus. (n.d.). Methadone: Drug Information. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/druginfo/meds/a682134.html
Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). (2017, August 01). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/66/wr/mm6612a2.htm
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (n.d.). Heroin. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/heroin
(n.d.). Substance use disorder: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/001522.htm