Methadone: Risks and Benefits

The use of methadone as a treatment for addiction to heroin or other opiates has exploded since its introduction to the US in 1947. (1) Originally intended as a cheap way to make compounds similar to heroin and cocaine, methadone was originally (and still is) a powerful analgesic and antitussive. The drug is not closely related to powerful opiates like morphine but rather mimics their effects. This trait gives methadone the unique ability to ease the symptoms of Acute Withdrawal and Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome – the two most significant obstacles for people seeking treatment for opioid dependence. But while a great deal of evidence has shown that the practice of treating opioid addiction using methadone is extremely successful, there are a number of risks that should be considered when weighing the potential benefits.

According to the National Drug Intelligence Center;

“. . . Individuals who abuse methadone risk becoming tolerant of and physically dependent on the drug. When these individuals stop using the drug they may experience withdrawal symptoms including muscle tremors, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal cramps.” (2)
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This means that despite its primary purpose – to treat opioid dependence – methadone has just as much potential for abuse and dependence. However, the risks are considered acceptable for one primary reason: methadone does not produce the intense euphoric high that is associated with use of heroin, cocaine or morphine. This means that there is less incentive for users to abuse the drug – especially considering that high dosages of methadone actually block the ability of street opioids to get the user high. Therefore, methadone is generally used as an excellent step-down drug that curbs the majority of withdrawal syndrome and allows the patient to stop using illicit substances and then gradually wean themselves from methadone.

However, methadone’s ability to block the “high” of other drugs coupled with the fact that it does not really produce a “high” itself poses another risk to be considered: overdose. A recent publication by the National Drug Intelligence Center stated:

” Methadone, however, does not produce the euphoric rush associated with those other drugs; thus, these users often consume dangerously large quantities of methadone in a vain attempt to attain the desired effect. Methadone overdoses are associated with severe respiratory depression, decreases in heart rate and blood pressure, coma, and death.” (3)

While these problems have been well documented for the better part of the last half century, most people – especially those who suffer from opioid addiction – agree that the benefits far outweigh the risks. Countries around the world have reported great success with methadone treatment that was properly regulated. Many former users of hard drugs like heroin report that without the use of methadone, they would have been unlikely to break away from the cycles of addiction.

There are a number of other drugs similar to methadone that have been used to treat opioid dependence, and there are other drugs to treat addiction to other substances like alcohol and benzodiazepines. But while these substances might help to get patients off the drugs, they are no substitute for a serious addiction treatment program like an inpatient treatment center, an outpatient program, or various addiction therapies. If you are struggling with a drug problem and want to get clean, we can help – all you have to do is pick up the phone. No matter what your drug of choice is and no matter how bad you feel things are, there is a lot we can do for you. Call us right now and find out with a free, confidential consultation.

(1) Wikipedia Methadone

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Methadone#History

Accessed 06/15/2011

(2) National Drug Intelligence Center Methadone Fast Facts Questions and Answers

http://www.justice.gov/ndic/pubs6/6096/index.htm#risks

Accessed 06/15/2011

(3) National Drug Intelligence Center

http://www.justice.gov/ndic/pubs6/6096/6096p.pdf

Accessed 06/15/2011

About James F. Davis

James F. Davis, CAS, is a Board Certified Interventionist and the founder of Recovery First. Inc. Davis is also an expert on Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS) - the leading cause of relapse among addicts and alcoholics. Mr. Davis operates a website dedicated to sufferers of Post Acute Withdrawal, and has published the first-ever survey on the condition. Davis is also the author of two upcoming books on the topics of PAWS and Adult Children of Alcoholics. You can contact Mr. Davis directly via his Google+ Page, via the Facebook page for Recovery First, or by writing to editor@recoveryfirst.org
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