Methadone Addiction, Symptoms and Treatment Information

Methadone is an opiate pain reliever and one of just a few drugs approved to treat heroin dependence and other types of opiate addiction. While it can be beneficial in managing opiate dependence, methadone itself can be addictive.

What Is Methadone?

Methadone is a synthetic opiod used for severe pain and the treatment of opiate addiction. This drug acts on the same opioid receptors in the brain as heroin and morphine to reduce withdrawal symptoms. Methadone is a Schedule II drug, which means the government recognizes its legitimate legal use, although it has a high chance of dependence.

Heroin has a half-life of just 30 minutes. This causes rapid cycles of highs and lows. Methadone, meanwhile, has a half life of 22 hours for less potency. Methadone is effective at treating heroin addiction because it can be taken orally, works for a long time, and keeps working even when it’s used for a long time period. Methadone is used to treat the severe withdrawal symptoms associated with opioids like heroin as part of methadone maintenance therapy (MMT).

The use of methadone to treat heroin addiction has become controversial as methadone use still results in the same physical dependency as heroin. Detoxifying from methadone can also be more difficult than the detox process from heroin. Withdrawal symptoms from methadone are similar to those with heroin and may be more serious. Methadone overdose fatalities are even increasing in many parts of the country.

Methadone Use Symptoms

Use of methadone can lead to numerous physical symptoms:

  • Cramps and muscle pain
  • Constipation
  • Sweating
  • Constricted pupils
  • Vomiting and nausea
  • Slowed rate of breathing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Insomnia
  • Confusion
  • Blurred vision
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue

Methadone use and abuse can lead to long-term health effects, depending on the individual. Some people develop sexual dysfunction, respiratory problems, and impaired judgement. These problems tend to increase over time.

Overdose is also a concern with methadone abuse. The risk of overdose increases when methadone is combined with other substances like alcohol and benzodiazepines.

Signs of Methadone Dependency

Family members, friends, and physicians should watch for signs of methadone dependency and addiction. Most people who have become dependent on methadone display numerous red flags:

Methadone Overdose

  • Withdrawal symptoms. Someone who is showing signs of withdrawal may be physically dependent on the drug.
  • Increased tolerance to methadone. When a user develops and tolerance and needs higher doses for the same effects, it’s an indicator of dependency. This is often the first sign of dependency. Even someone who is not seeking a high from methadone may take more than necessary to achieve pain relief due to tolerance.
  • Prioritizing methadone use. Individuals who are addicted to the drug may prioritize it over family, friends, and responsibilities.
  • Changes in behavior and mood. Someone dependent on methadone may seem confused, drowsy, or experience mood swings. There may also be changes in coordination, sleep, appetite, and weight.

Many people think of methadone as a medication that helps heroin and opioid addicts, but methadone can also be dangerous. Despite accounting for just 2% of opiate painkillers prescribed in the United States, methadone is involved in 1 out of every 3 accidental overdose fatalities, according to the CDC. Every year, about 5,000 people are killed in methadone overdoses. This is about 6x as many methadone deaths as during the 1990s when the medication was prescribed almost entirely for use in controlled addiction clinics and hospitals. Methadone is twice as likely to be involved in an overdose death as morphine and four times as likely to cause overdose than oxycodone.

It can be far easier to overdose on methadone than other similar drugs. The risk of overdose is higher among people using other drugs or alcohol. Signs of a methodone overdose can include:

Methadone Withdrawal and Detox

  • Bluish or clammy skin
  • Respiratory depression. This refers to shallow and slow breathing
  • Extreme fatigue and difficulty staying awake
  • Blue-tinged fingertips and lips
  • Convulsions
  • Vomiting
  • Stupor
  • Coma
  • Death

Methadone is widely considered the most difficult drug to detox from with a detox process that can be harder and more painful than heroin. Withdrawal symptoms from physical methadone dependency are usually the opposite of the side effects produced by the drug. These symptoms include:

Treatment for Methadone Addiction

  • Insomnia
  • Muscle aches, physical cramps, and pain
  • Anxiety
  • Diarrhea
  • Cravings

The standard treatment for methadone addiction is a supervised detox program followed by outpatient rehab or residential rehab treatment. Detox is a process to reduce levels of the drug in the body until it’s fully removed. Supervision during this time ensures a safe detox that’s as comfortable as possible.

Because methadone detoxification is very uncomfortable, a drug called buprenorphine is used. This drug is approved to treat opiate addiction and it dramatically reduces the time it takes to detox from methadone. It’s also less addictive than methadone or heroin and easier to discontinue. Unlike methadone, which requires daily trips to a methadone clinic, buprenorphine can be prescribed for take-home use. Because it’s a partial angonist, buprenorphine does not produce the euphoria of full agonists like heroin and methadone.

This process involving buprenorphine usually begins by administering a drug like Subutex for the first 12-24 hours after methadone use is discontinued. After 24 hours, a different drug like Suboxone is administered. This drug contains naloxone, which prevents opiate overdose and prevents the drug from being abused. The final phase of treatment lasts for up to 30 days to eliminate cravings and pain.

After detox, a rehab program can help users focus on recovery while avoiding triggers and other problematic situations. Rehab typically involves cognitive behavioral therapy, motivational interviewing, group therapy, and other techniques to get at the heart of the addiction.

Further Reading:

Methadone Effects
Physical Effects of Methadone
Methadone Addiction Signs
Methadone Addiction Treatment