Methadone can be taken both legally and illegally. Doctors prescribe it to relieve severe pain in people who need around the clock analgesic medication for an extended period of time and are unable to take other forms of painkillers.
Methadone is also prescribed to treat dependence on opioid drugs, such as narcotic painkillers and heroin. It works on the central nervous system to block the “high” caused by using opiates, while also reducing cravings and withdrawal symptoms.
As it can be habit-forming, methadone must be taken exactly as prescribed by a doctor, and under a doctor’s supervision. Using methadone in conjunction with alcohol or other drugs greatly increases the likelihood of addiction and medical complications.
Understanding Methadone Abuse
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), “methadone works by changing how the brain and nervous system respond to pain. It lessens the painful symptoms of opiate withdrawal and blocks the euphoric effects of opiate drugs such as heroin, morphine, and codeine, as well as semi-synthetic opioids like oxycodone and hydrocodone.”
However, because methadone can be addictive, it is still susceptible to abuse. Methadone remains in the body for longer than its effects can be felt, which creates a strong potential for overdose when the drug isn’t taken according to precise instructions, under the guidance of a medical doctor. It will also cause withdrawal symptoms. You should not suddenly stop taking methadone; the dosage must be carefully tapered off.
Even taking methadone as directed can cause a number of side effects. These should be taken seriously, as some may indicate a medical emergency. SAMHSA instructs that patients should stop taking methadone and contact a doctor or emergency services right away if they:
- Experience difficulty breathing or shallow breathing
- Feel lightheaded or faint
- Experience hives or a rash; swelling of the face, lips, tongue, or throat
- Feel chest pain
- Experience a fast or pounding heartbeat
- Experience hallucinations or confusion
Signs and Symptoms of Methadone Abuse
Signs of methadone abuse may include:
- Running out of the medication before the prescription is due to be finished
- Taking methadone without a prescription
- Taking methadone with alcohol
- Taking it in combination with other drugs
- Isolating from friends and family
- Changes in mood and behavior
- Changes in appearance
- Secretive behavior
- Unusual actions or physical symptoms
- New difficulties in relationships
Dangers of Methadone Abuse
Abuse of methadone can be dangerous in a variety of ways. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that “The difference between appropriate prescribed doses and dangerous doses of methadone is small. Methadone has special risks as a painkiller. For example, taking it more than 3 times a day can cause the drug to build up in a person’s body, leading to dangerously slowed breathing. Methadone can seriously disrupt the heart’s rhythm.
“Methadone can be particularly risky when used with tranquilizers or other prescription painkillers. In one study, four in ten overdose deaths involving single prescription painkillers involved methadone, twice as many as any other prescription painkiller.”
The U.S. National Library of Medicine explains that possible symptoms of methadone overdose may include the following:
- small, pinpoint pupils (black circles in the center of the eyes)
- slow or shallow breathing
- cool, clammy, or blue skin
- loss of consciousness (coma)
- limp muscles
Who Abuses Methadone?
Individuals in treatment for addiction are unlikely to abuse methadone, because they will not be able to “get high” from the drug in the same way that they can with their drug of choice. However, some recovering addicts have developed addictions to methadone anyway, by failing to take the medication as instructed.
People taking methadone for pain are at risk of abusing the medication if they fail to follow the prescription instructions, or take more than the recommended amount. Some users overdose after taking larger and larger amounts to chase the feeling of euphoria that other opioids produce, but which methadone will not.
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.”
When it is used appropriately, under a doctor’s instructions, methadone can be beneficial, and improve a patient’s quality of life. Prescribed methadone has helped thousands of people overcome dangerous opioid addictions. But overuse and abuse of methadone will lead to serious mental and physical consequences.
Anyone, from any walk of life, can become addicted to methadone, although the drug is somewhat difficult to obtain as a street drug. Most often an individual must have some sort of connection to an addiction treatment doctor or facility, or to another person who does, in order to obtain it.
Because this medication is prescribed by doctors to combat drug abuse, users often believe that methadone is non-addictive. This is a hazardous misconception. Methadone is only safe when it is used in a precise dosage, as determined by a medical doctor, to prevent opioid withdrawal symptoms or to treat pain. When you use methadone inappropriately, addiction occurs.
Am I Addicted to Methadone?
If you fear that you may be addicted to methadone, read and honestly answer the following questions:
- Do I take methadone in higher doses or more frequently than directed by my doctor?
- Do I attempt to abuse the drug in order to combat feelings of unhappiness, loneliness, depression, etc.?
- Have friends or family members mentioned more than once that they are worried about my drug use?
- Do I become hostile or angry when they do so?
- Do I ever experience withdrawal symptoms such as restlessness, teary eyes, runny nose, yawning, sweating, chills, muscle pain, widened pupils (black circles in the middle of the eyes), irritability, anxiety, backache, joint pain, weakness, stomach cramps, difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, nausea, decreased appetite, vomiting, or diarrhea?
- Am I secretive about my drug use, lying about when I use or how much I take?
- Have I experienced any major problems in the last year, such as a breakup, job loss, car accident, family problems, financial problems, or getting arrested as a result of my drug use?
- Do I take methadone with alcohol?
- Do I take methadone in combination with other drugs?
- Do I feel incapable of weaning myself off methadone on my own?
If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, you may be addicted to methadone and in need of professional substance abuse help.
Methadone Addiction Treatment
Addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease. The NIDA explains that “repeated drug use changes the brain, including parts of the brain that enable you to exert self-control. These and other changes can be seen clearly in brain imaging studies of people with drug addictions.”
This is why addicts require professional help to break the cycle of addiction. The substance abuse specialists at a qualified drug and alcohol treatment center are trained in how to manage addiction and lead addicts safely to recovery.
Detoxification is the first step to any recovery plan. A person needs clarity of mind and a body free from addictive substances before they can fully recover. You should never abruptly stop taking methadone. Ideally, detox should take place under the guidance of medical professionals who can instruct you on the safest way to taper the dosage, slowly weaning you off the drug.
Addicts may receive inpatient residential treatment for their addiction, and/or outpatient treatment. No matter what type of recovery plan they choose, all substance abuse treatment will include talk therapy.
Individual therapy allows for patients to work privately on issues specific only to them, while group therapy allows them to both support and receive support from fellow addicts who are experiencing similar struggles. Family therapy is a valuable tool to ensure individuals will have the best environment possible at home, to prevent relapse.
Other treatment options include:
- 12-step meetings: Meetings based on the 12-step program that originated with Alcoholics Anonymous are an invaluable resource to support long term sobriety.
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy: CBT teaches patients to retrain their brains with new methods of coping with stress and cravings, and avoiding trigger situations
- Treatment for co-occurring conditions: most addicts suffer from undiagnosed mental health issues that underlie and fuel their substance abuse. These co-occurring disorders must be addressed as a part of recovery.
- Nutrition, fitness and recreational therapy: a strong body is just as important as a strong mind when it comes to long-term recovery. The better a person feels, the more prepared they will be to handle life as it comes.