Methadone Treatment for Opiate Addiction

By Leslie Thompson

Treatment for a drug addiction can take shape in many different forms. From inpatient or outpatient therapy to group counseling or one-on-one sessions, there is a treatment option for every individual seeking help. Depending on what the addiction is and the needs of the addict, recovery plans will vary. One popular form of treatment for opioid dependence is the prescription medication Methadone—a synthetic opioid, classified as a DEA Schedule II controlled substance.

Methadone was originally developed by the Nazis during World War II when the threat of an opium shortage brought cause for alarm. It was introduced into the United States in the 1940s under the name Dolophine as an analgesic (or painkiller) and brings pain relief similar to that of morphine. Although still used as an analgesic, methadone became popular with physicians as a way to treat opiate addictions, particularly for individuals battling heroin. It is estimated that one million Americans are addicted to heroin and about 120,000 are taking methadone as part of their recovery treatment.

Studies have continually shown that methadone is useful in the treatment of opioid addiction because it blocks the effect of other opiates in the brain and reduces the withdrawal side effects associated with opiate abuse. When used as prescribed, methadone does not produce a “high,” and instead it acts a mild sedative. It also helps stabilize an addict’s life. Stated simply, methadone works when used the correct way.

Proponents of methadone encourage the drug’s usage for a variety of reasons, including the overall efficacy it has for opiate addicts, its long-lasting effect on an individual, and its affordability. Methadone therapy was originally developed as a short-term treatment option for heroin. Over the course of its existence, the length of time a patient should remain on methadone has been debated, so the current medical consensus is that treatment should continue as needed and as prescribed by an individual’s doctor.

However, like most prescription drugs, when methadone is taken illegally or as non-prescribed, its usage can turn into an addiction, often with side effects usurping those related to the drug it treats. Methadone is an opiate so physical dependency occurs almost immediately upon starting a treatment program. Critics of the drug often state that methadone treatment does not help the underlying root of an addiction, and that it only turns an opiate addict into a methadone addict.

Withdrawal symptoms of methadone are milder than those of heroin and include muscle cramps, anxiety, nausea, and increased heart rate. However, although the actual side effects are less severe, actually “kicking” the methadone habit is much more difficult than withdrawing from heroin, as it takes longer and is quite painful. Many past heroin users continue their methadone treatment out of fear of the withdrawal process. Methadone abuse often results in drug overdoses, either because the user has taken too much of the narcotic or because the drug was mixed with other drugs and/or alcohol. From 1999 to 2005, poisoning deaths related to methadone usage has increased 468 percent, making it the largest poisoning death increase of all narcotic drugs.

In order to avoid a methadone addiction, people using the drug to help with opiate addiction should use the drug exactly as prescribed. This treatment is also more successful if used in conjunction with therapy or a twelve-step program. Methadone addiction can happen very quickly, unbeknownst to the user. If you think you or a loved one may be abusing this highly addictive drug, please contact the prescribing physician immediately.

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