A team of German scientists created the basis for methadone in the 1930s, and the US, which acquired the rights after World War II, introduced methadone in 1947 as an opioid pain reliever. The use of methadone expanded in the 1960s, however, when researchers at the Rockefeller Foundation sought ways to combat the nation’s growing heroin addiction problem. Methadone is a long-acting synthetic opioid without euphoric effects, and taking it as an opiate replacement helped reduce heroin withdrawal symptoms and cravings. Methadone maintenance programs quickly emerged as a tool for helping heroin addicts get clean. Still, despite its long history as an addiction and pain relief medication, methadone works on the same neural receptors that heroin does, and certain uses of the drug (e.g., excessive dosing, injection and snorting) can produce narcotic highs. Methadone is also an addictive drug itself, and users can develop a habit even when taking the drug for legitimate medical needs. To minimize serious potential risks, individuals taking methadone for whatever reason should regularly take inventory of how the drug might be affecting their behavior and health.
Signs of Methadone Dependence
Methadone is available in various forms (e.g., tablets, powder, liquid), and its effects last between 24 and 36 hours depending on the user’s age, weight and tolerance level. If a physical dependence develops, there are several potential warning signs, including the following:
- Physical discomforts like nausea, dry mouth, vomiting and itchy skin
- An overall respiratory decline epitomized by a slower breathing rate
- The onset of cravings and obsessive thoughts during gaps in methadone use
- Sense of lightheadedness, drowsiness, weakness and impaired concentration
- Unexplained tremors, seizures, changes in heart rate and gastrointestinal distress
- Introduction or amplification of mental health issues like depression and anxiety
- Social changes that can include increases in isolation and strained relationships
- Loss of interest in people, places and activities that previously brought joy
- Insomnia, paranoia, cramps, pain and other withdrawal symptoms that often emerge after stopping use
Methadone abuse also involves several potential health risks. Because the drug stays in the system for so long, it increases the likelihood of overdose for people consuming other substances like alcohol, amphetamines and anti-anxiety, anti-depressant and/or analgesic medications. Illustrating the extent of the risk, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website notes that methadone plays a role in 30% of opioid overdose deaths despite accounting for only 2% of opioid prescriptions. Methadone addicts also have higher rates of heroin relapse.
Methadone Abuse Help
If a methadone addiction does develop, rehabilitation is the safest and most effective way to pursue a recovery. Treatment centers customize a personal recovery plan for each patient, and it often starts with a tapered detoxification that gradually reduces dosage. Various therapies help patients deal with craving triggers, relapse risks and relationship problems, and integrated treatment addresses co-occurring mental health and personality disorders. Highlighting their targeted approach, rehab centers also use holistic therapies for non-narcotic relief if chronic pain motivated the initial methadone use. The Substance Abuse and Mental Services Administration (SAMHSA) reported that nearly 300,000 people sought treatment for methadone addiction in 2008, which means almost 1,000 addicts per day made the right choice to get help.
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