Methadone is a medication that’s used for pain management and may also be prescribed as a means to overcome heroin addiction. However, methadone’s usefulness in addiction treatment doesn’t make it a safe medication. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one-third of all prescription painkiller deaths involve methadone1. However, methadone represents only 2 percent of all painkiller prescriptions in the United States.
Like all pain management medications, methadone must be taken carefully and exactly according to a doctor’s instructions.
How Methadone Works
Methadone is an opioid, which means it attaches to opioid receptors in the brain to reduce a person’s feelings of pain. The medicine can have the side effect of making a person feel high or extremely relaxed. However, this is much less pronounced than when using heroin. It also depresses the central nervous system, which means it slows breathing.
Doctors prescribe methadone to relieve moderate to severe pain2. They also use it as a maintenance medication to help a person to stop abusing heroin.
Methadone is an opioid like morphine, hydrocodone and fentanyl. It has some properties that make it a better fit for detoxification but that can also increase overdose risks. These features include:
- Long-acting: Methadone stays in a person’s system longer than most opioid medications. A person has to take less of it at less-frequent dosages for the medication to be effective.
- Reduces opiate withdrawal symptoms: Heroin is not only an addictive drug, it’s also associated with severe withdrawal symptoms. By taking methadone, a person can reduce their use of an illegal drug with fewer withdrawal symptoms.
Methadone for Heroin Detoxification
When methadone is used for detoxification, doctors typically have two goals: first, have a person stop using heroin, and second, have a person eventually stop taking all narcotic pain medications.
Methadone for detoxification must be administered at a methadone clinic. Doctors and medical staff are trained in addiction management and methadone dosing.
A person will typically go to a methadone clinic and receive an initial dose, which could be anywhere from 15 to 40 milligrams. A person will return to the methadone clinic at regular intervals. With time, the dosage can be slowly tapered to reduce methadone dependence entirely.
Methadone treatments aren’t a fast fix for detox. The National Institute on Drug Abuse recommends methadone treatments last as least one year. Some people may have to take methadone for years before fully stopping the medication.
Benefits and Concerns for Taking Methadone
If you’re thinking of taking methadone as an addiction treatment medication, it’s important to talk with your doctor(s) and family to ensure methadone is the best approach for you. You must have the right mindset about taking methadone: that the drug can help you, but it can hurt you as well.
Benefits of methadone maintenance include:
- No longer relying on illegal drugs, which could lead to arrest
- Reducing health risks associated with using intravenous drugs, such as contracting hepatitis, HIV or life-threatening bacterial infections.
- Having a pathway to help you beat a heroin addiction without severe withdrawal symptoms and pain.
Concerns and potential drawbacks for methadone include:
- Taking methadone comes with increased risks for overdose because it easily builds up in the body.
- You must still come to terms with the mental aspects of addiction. Addiction goes beyond physical cravings. You have to learn how to live without drugs and/or medications.