The real dangers of methadone

Tolerance to and dependence on methadone can develop with chronic or indefinite use. What are some of the other dangers of long term methadone use? We review here.

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While methadone has been useful for many years in the treatment of addiction to opiates like heroin, there are dangers related to methadone that users should be aware of. What are these risks? We review here. Then, we invite your questions or comments about methadone and its dangers in the comments section at the end of the article.

The dangers of methadone use surface over time

Methadone is a synthetic opiate commonly used as a pain reliever or as a way to manage addiction to other opiates. It was synthesized in 1947 during WWII in Nazi Germany, when opium was in short supply. Those in Hitler’s regime who were addicted to opium asked chemists to create a drug to replace it, which resulted in methadone.

The effects of methadone last much longer than that of poppy-based opiates, which is why it came to be used in the management of addiction to other opiates like heroin, which only lasts a few hours and requires frequently repeated doses to maintain the drug-induced state. By the mid-1960s, methadone maintenance treatment had become a widespread way to curb the illegal use of opiates, along with the disease and criminal behavior associated with it. However, it has taken time for the dangers of methadone use to surface.

The real dangers of methadone use

Methadone has produced positive results in the treatment of opiate addiction. When used as prescribed, it can block cravings for stronger opiates and lead to improved health and social outcomes. However, tolerance to methadone and dependence can develop with the use of the drug, just as with any opiate. Additionally, twelve (12) months of treatment on methadone is considered the minimum dosing regimen, and some people can be on methadone for years. In fact, its use in the management of pain or addiction is considered somewhat controversial today.

With proper use of methadone, clients can reduce or stop the use of harder opiates such as heroin, morphine, or codeine. Still, often enough, the drug use “transfers” the addiction from the original opiate to methadone, which is then used as a substitute substance.  Getting help for methadone addiction involves physical AND psychological treatment. Because methadone is a relatively inexpensive drug, it’s easy to purchase, and has the capacity to produce mild euphoria, some people who take methadone abuse it. Further, the fear of methadone withdrawal causes many patients in methadone treatment to continue use indefinitely, depriving them of a drug-free life.

Medical programs dispense limited amounts of methadone for treatment, so many users will turn to illicit sources as they build a tolerance to the drug. In addition, there is a significant risk for overdose with methadone. Too much can be fatal.

So, the main dangers of methadone include:

  • drug addiction “transference”
  • drug dependence on methadone
  • drug tolerance
  • indefinite, chronic use with no exit plan
  • fatality
  • overdose

How to mitigate the dangers of methadone use with detox

Getting off methadone can be difficult, but rewarding. In fact, many users consider withdrawing from methadone more difficult and painful than withdrawing from heroin, so detox can be a significant challenge. Detoxification requires a tapering off of the drug, with typical withdrawal symptoms following within 24 hours, including:

  • depression and anxiety
  • excessive sweating
  • irritated eyes
  • lightheadedness
  • nausea, vomiting and diarrhea
  • strong drug cravings
  • uncontrollable shaking

In addition, as methadone wards off physical aches and pains, once it is eliminated from the body, those pains may return, sometimes with stronger intensity.

Because of the dangers of methadone withdrawal, individuals should carefully consider their options when it comes to detox. It is possible to detox fully, but proper medical assistance and emotional support will accelerate healing and assure the safety of an individual throughout the detox process. A medical history that includes age, drug usage details, family history and underlying mental disorders should be taken into consideration in order to develop an effective treatment plan. Some treatment plans include the use of medications, and with proper medical assistance, complete detox can take 30 days or less.

Methadone risk vs. benefit

Methadone can help many people overcome opiate addiction. It is an effective maintenance therapy because it retains patients in treatment and decreases harder drug better than treatments that do not utilize opioid replacement therapy. However, its use does come with risks. However, other drugs such as buprenorphine have been showing increasing promise as an alternative to methadone. Ultimately, it will be you and your physician’s decision as to whether or not methadone is the best for you. Knowing and understanding the risks can help you make a better informed choice.

If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments section below. We’ll do our best to respond to you personally and promptly.

Reference Sources: CDC: Methadone Maintenance Treatment
Oregon State: Methadone maintenance therapy versus no opioid replacement therapy for opioid dependence
About the author
Jillian Jesser loves life and tries to live it to the fullest each and every day. After failing to finish two drug and alcohol detox programs in as many years, she managed to complete the program the third time and follow through with residential treatment ending her addictions for good.
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