Methadone and the Recovering Addict

Methadone and the Recovering Addict

Methadone, or methadone hydrochloride, is a narcotic medication frequently used to treat people with addictions to opiate drugs such as morphine and heroin. In some cases, addiction specialists use this medication as part of a short-term course of opiate detoxification (detox), while in other cases it is used as a relatively safe, long-term replacement for opiate drugs.

Typically, methadone provides its greatest benefits when used as part of an ongoing replacement or maintenance program. When used for short-term detoxification, methadone and other treatment options frequently fail to prevent relapse and a return to active drug addiction.

Methadone Basics

Methadone is available in forms that include tablets, dissolvable tablets, liquid solutions and liquid concentrates. Like all opioid narcotics, it achieves its effects by targeting specific areas on your brain cells (neurons) and altering your normal brain function. However, unlike heroin and other opiates, methadone does not produce the classic effects of an opiate drug “high,” such as euphoria and sedation. In fact, when you take methadone, it stops other opiates from accessing your neurons and triggering these effects. In addition, methadone eases the effects of opiate withdrawal and reduces the body’s opiate cravings. For these reasons, addiction specialists commonly use this medication as part of supervised treatment programs that either detoxify the body (purge opiate drugs completely) or create a safer substitute for common opiates of abuse.

When used as part of a short-term opiate detox program, methadone is typically given in daily doses of roughly 40 mg for a period of two or three days. After this time, doctors gradually lower the dose as the symptoms of opiate withdrawal fade. When used as part of a long-term maintenance or replacement program, the drug is given in ongoing daily doses that range between 60 mg and 120 mg. Because of the potential for methadone abuse, you can only legally obtain methadone from doctors or clinics registered with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Methadone Benefits

When compared to people who take low daily doses of methadone, people who take high daily doses of the medication have a significantly better chance of staying in treatment and avoiding illegal opiate use. In practical terms, this means that people who take ongoing maintenance doses of methadone typically have a better recovery outlook than people who take methadone for short-term detox purposes. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the greatest benefits appear in people who stay in methadone maintenance programs for at least one year, and roughly 80 percent of people who take methadone for at least two weeks end up continuing in active treatment for 6 months or more. In addition to relapse avoidance, known benefits of methadone maintenance programs include lower rates of criminal activity and lower rates of HIV/AIDS infection.

Methadone Risks

Although methadone produces different effects in your body than common illegal or illicit opiates, it is still a narcotic drug. For this reason, you can potentially get addicted to its use. People with heightened risks for methadone abuse or addiction typically have either some form of mental illness, or histories of alcohol or drug addiction or abuse. In addition, methadone use can potentially lead to life-threatening changes in your normal breathing rate or normal heartbeat. Each year in the U.S., roughly 4000 people die from methadone overdoses, or from combined overdoses of methadone and other drugs. In many cases, overdose victims engage in risky behaviors that include using the drug without proper supervision and using the drug to get the sort of “high” associated with other types of opiates.

Other Detox Methods

Other medications commonly used for opiate withdrawal and detoxification include a synthetic opioid drug called buprenorphine; an anti-anxiety/high blood pressure drug called clonidine; and a non-narcotic opiate blocker called naltrexone. Buprenorphine and clonidine are typically used in the early stages of treatment (which last for roughly three days), while naltrexone use is combined with psychotherapy in the later treatment stages (which last for another 12 weeks). According to figures released by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, less than half of the patients who detox with buprenorphine or clonidine make it to the later stages of treatment without experiencing a relapse. Less than 20 percent of these patients make it through the full 12 weeks of treatment.

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