Everything You Need to Know About Methadone
Following methadone’s discovery as a potential treatment for heroin addiction in the 1960s, methadone clinics began making waves, appearing first in urban areas and then spreading availability to more rural communities. While demonized for many years, these facilities have been providing a crucial service in the battle against addiction and have contributed to the rehabilitation of countless lives.
However, the long-held stigma surrounding methadone treatment may cause some potential patients to hesitate. What is methadone, how is it used, and how can it help patients make their way through recovery?
What Is Methadone?
Methadone is a medication designed to treat opioid addiction by reducing cravings and withdrawal symptoms while blocking or blunting the euphoric effect of taking opioids. Especially in light of the ongoing opioid epidemic, methadone has become a cornerstone of addiction treatment and recovery. Approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), methadone is considered safe and effective so long as the drug is taken as prescribed.
Methadone is commonly available as a liquid, pill, powder, or wafer and is typically recommended for use daily. Pain and addiction relief from methadone lasts four to eight hours.
Who Needs Methadone?
Methadone is primarily targeted for drug users struggling with an addiction to opiates such as heroin or morphine. To be eligible for methadone treatment, patients must receive the drug under medical supervision — which has contributed to the rise of specialized methadone clinics.
Legally, methadone can only be dispensed through a dedicated opioid treatment program with certification from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). In certain cases, patients may be allowed to take methadone at home between clinic visits, but only after a significant period of stability that shows treatment progress and compliance with the correct dosage.
Methadone and Addiction Treatment
While itself a potentially addictive substance, methadone has important potential to help individuals reach their recovery goals, sustain their rehabilitation from opioids, and achieve healthier, more fulfilling lives. In most cases, methadone is only one part of an overall treatment plan aimed at helping patients heal not only physically but also mentally and emotionally. Often, methadone treatment is therefore partnered with services such as counseling and support groups.
While the methadone portion of such treatments is highly regulated, the length of time required is variable from patient to patient. One publication from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) suggests that the minimum time length for methadone treatment should be 12 months. However, patients with a more profound addiction or tendency towards relapse may require years of treatment.
Even once a patient nears the end of their treatment schedule and feels ready to stop taking methadone, they cannot halt the treatment cold turkey — users must be weaned off of methadone gradually to prevent withdrawal. As such, it’s important that a doctor or other medical professional be involved in the decision to provide support and monitor the patient’s progress as they step down their methadone use.
Using Methadone with Caution
While therapeutic, methadone can be addictive, so patients must only use this drug as prescribed by their doctor. Prescriptions are tailored to patients individually, so dosages should never be altered without consultation. Methadone stays in patients’ systems for longer than its effects are felt, so the dosage schedule should also be followed closely and never taken early.
Tips for Best Treatment Results:
- Always take methadone according to the prescribed dosage and schedule. Even if you miss a dose, don’t take any extra.
- Don’t consume alcohol during methadone treatment.
- While under the influence of methadone, be careful driving or operating machinery.
- Keep methadone away from children at all times.
- Store methadone in a dark, room temperature environment such as a cabinet.
- If you need to dispose of unused methadone, you can do so by flushing it down the toilet.
- If you take too much methadone or suspect you’re overdosing, call 911 immediately.
Potential Side Effects of Methadone
Some users may encounter side effects while using methadone. Commonly, these include symptoms such as restlessness, nausea, constipation, or issues with sexual performance. However, some users may experience more significant side effects. Stop taking the drug and contact your doctor if you experience any of the following:
- Difficulty breathing or shallowness of breath
- Feeling lightheaded or faint
- Hives, rash, or swelling of the face, lips, tongue, or throat
- Chest pain
- A fast or pounding heartbeat
- Hallucinations or confusion
Using Methadone While Pregnant or Breastfeeding
Contrary to common perception, it is safe for women to take methadone even while pregnant or breastfeeding. In fact, methadone can be preferable in certain cases. If a pregnant woman goes through drug withdrawal, it can cause her uterus to contract and may trigger a miscarriage or premature labor. By using methadone to wean off opioids gradually and without withdrawal symptoms, pregnant women may be better able to manage their addiction without putting the baby at risk.
It should be noted that babies born to mothers with opioid addiction or who are undergoing methadone treatment during pregnancy may themselves go through withdrawal after birth. New and expectant mothers should work closely with their medical team to monitor the baby’s health.
As for breastfeeding, research suggests that the nutritional and developmental benefits of breastfeeding outweigh the small proportion of methadone transferred through breast milk. As such, breastfeeding is still recommended if possible.
How to Find a Methadone Clinic
If you or a loved one needs access to methadone treatment, you can call SAMHSA’s 24-hour helpline for guidance or treatment referrals, available at 1-800-662-4357. You can also consult a methadone clinic directory to find locations near you.
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