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Methadone, known also as Dolophine and Methadose, is a prescription opiate medication. It is intended for the treatment of pain, and of opiate addiction. It works by changing how the central nervous system responds to pain so that those who take it experience pain relief. It also helps to lessen the symptoms of opiate withdrawal for patients in drug detoxification, and to reduce drug cravings.
According to the Center for Substance Abuse Research, methadone is different from other opiate or narcotic medications in that it has a mild and gradual onset of action which prevents the user from getting high or experiencing euphoric effects from it. This makes it an effective treatment for opiate addiction. However, it is possible to grow dependent on and tolerant to the medication, and methadone addiction is also possible.
How is Methadone Used?
Methadone is an opiate medication that has been used since the 1960s for the treatment of opiate addiction. It has been prescribed in more recent years as a pain reliever as well. As prescriptions for this purpose have risen, so have methadone overdose deaths according to the CDC.
People who take methadone for pain relief receive a prescription they can take home while those who are taking it for addiction treatment receive their doses at supervised clinics. It comes in a liquid, powder, or a tablet form. Methadone doses typically last up to 36 hours.
Risks of Taking Methadone
Methadone is prescribed very often despite several confirmed risks being associated with the medication. It is helpful when used as prescribed, but it is very volatile in the fact that using it in slightly the wrong way can be highly dangerous. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports the following risks of methadone:
- There is a small difference between prescribed doses and dangerous doses.
- Taking methadone more than three times a day can cause it to build up in a person’s body, leading to dangerously slow breathing.
- Methadone can disrupt a person’s heart rhythm.
- Methadone is very risky when used with tranquilizers or other painkillers.
- Methadone is associated with a significant number of overdose deaths.
Given all of these risks, it is clear that taking the medication exactly as prescribed is essential.
Another important risk of methadone is the risk of addiction. As an opiate, it does have its own risk of addiction although it is commonly used to treat addiction to other opiates such as heroin, morphine, and hydrocodone. When taken in a way other than as prescribed this risk is heightened.
Methadone Side Effects
Methadone has the potential to cause some very dangerous side effects, and it is important to take these seriously if you experience them. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration points out the following side effects that need immediate attention:
- Difficulty breathing or shallow breathing
- Feeling light-headed or faint
- Getting hives or a rash, swelling of the face, lips, tongue or throat
- Feeling chest pain
- Having a fast or pounding heartbeat
- Having hallucinations or experiencing confusion
If you experience any of these symptoms call your physician or emergency services immediately.
Other side effects of methadone that are less severe can include: persistent nausea, vomiting, constipation, loss of appetite, weight gain, stomach pain, sweating, mood changes, vision problems, flush or red skin, sleep difficulties, missed menstrual periods or decreased sexual desire. If you experience these side effects you should contact your doctor.
The properties of methadone make it relatively easy for a person to overdose on the medication. Its long-acting property and long half-life makes it stay in the system for a long time, which can lead to people taking extra doses and experiencing a toxic reaction. It can also be problematic if a person is prescribed too high of a dose initially.
According to a study in the US National Library of Medicine, methadone overdose can lead to:
- Respiratory failure
When treated at its onset, however, the methadone overdose effects will not be as severe.
Signs of methadone overdose may include but are not limited to:
- Severe drowsiness
- Small pupils
- Clammy skin
- Shallow breathing
- Difficulty breathing
- Bluish skin or lips
If you or someone you are with is experiencing a methadone overdose call emergency services (911 in the United States) right away.
Methadone Dependence and Withdrawal, and Addiction
While methadone is intended to treat narcotic addictions, it is addictive in its own right, although not in the same way as other opiates. According to the Center for Substance Abuse Research, addiction is less likely when it is taken under the supervision of a doctor, and the withdrawal associated with methadone is meant to be less intense than heroin withdrawal. In addition, methadone dependence has less of a chance of leading to compulsive, uncontrolled and criminal behavior.
Methadone users risk becoming tolerant to the drug, meaning they would need higher doses of it to feel the same effect as prior. They also risk becoming dependent on it, meaning that their bodies are used to having the drug and will experience a negative reaction when methadone use is stopped. This reaction is called withdrawal. According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, symptoms of methadone withdrawal include:
- Muscle tremors
- Abdominal cramps
It is possible for people on methadone to become psychologically dependent as well, meaning that they experience anxiety and/or depression when they attempt to stop using it. These symptoms can be overcome over time, and with tapering your methadone dosage when getting off of it.
Signs of Methadone Addiction
If someone who is taking methadone is becoming addicted they will likely show certain behavioral, physical and psychological signs. A methadone addiction can be very dangerous. The risk of overdose grows as an addiction takes hold, as does the risk of negative health consequences, criminal activity, professional and personal issues and more.
If you or someone you love is taking methadone and may be addicted, be on the lookout for these symptoms of methadone addiction:
- Tolerance. Needing more of the medication for the same effects is a warning sign addiction may be developing.
- Dependence and withdrawal. If you experience a sickness when you try to stop taking methadone you are dependent on it and may be developing an addiction.
- Loss of control over methadone use. If you are not keeping track of your doses and are taking more than you are prescribed, or are seeking it out from places other than your doctor’s office you may be addicted to methadone.
- Doctor shopping. If you are attempting to get methadone from several different doctors you are losing control over your use and likely becoming addicted.
- Choosing methadone over other important things in life. If you are letting your methadone use get in the way of your relationships, your professional life, or your health you may be addicted.
If you or someone you know is experiencing these methadone addiction symptoms seek help now. Addiction is a progressive disease, and it is important that treatment starts as early as possible.
Overcoming an Addiction to Methadone
Methadone addiction recovery is possible. According to Columbia University, the best way to recover from a methadone addiction is to consult a health care provider. They can provide you with a supervised dosage schedule to start slowly and safely reducing your methadone intake. This will help minimize withdrawal symptoms and the general shock to your body and mind.
Other drugs may be used to help you complete this process of tapering, which will eventually end in your stopping of methadone altogether. Counseling can help you overcome any psychological withdrawal symptoms or cravings for methadone that you are experiencing.
Treatment usually takes place in the following settings:
- Doctor’s office
- Outpatient rehab
- Residential rehab
- Support groups
Which treatment setting is best for you will depend on your level of dependence on or addiction to methadone, your support system at home or lack thereof, your past history of drug use, and whether or not you are affected by any co-existing conditions, among other things.
Tips for Taking Methadone Safely
As discussed throughout the present article, methadone has its fair share of serious risks. In order to prevent anything bad from happening it is important to follow some guidelines while taking methadone. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration provides the following steps:
- Take methadone exactly as prescribed.
- Know that other medications and substances such as alcohol, other opioids, central nervous system depressants, diuretics, antibiotics, blood pressure medication, MAO inhibitors, and HIV medications may react badly with methadone. Talk to your doctor about everything that you are taking or may need to take. Other medications may interact badly, too.
- Medications that may cause disruptions in your heartbeat are particularly risky with methadone.
- If you have any other physical or mental health conditions you should tell your doctor to be sure there are no potential complications.
- If you miss a dose or feel like it is not working do not take extra methadone.
- Be careful operating a car or heavy machinery while on methadone.
- Do not give your prescription to anyone else, even if they have the same symptoms as you.