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How Does Methadone Work?

Recently, new reports blame the opioid epidemic and suicide as the two most significant contributors to America’s dropping life expectancy. Overdose deaths and suicides are both increasing at historically high rates. Methadone, though, is one of the only opiates that is not contributing to the fatal trends of the 2010s and drugs.

The number of opiate-related deaths has increased more than 50% for three years in a row, topping out at more than 49,000 overdose deaths in 2017 alone. With the opioid epidemic underway and the high costs of health insurance and treatment, many users and health care professionals advocate for methadone’s potential as a harm-reduction solution to heroin addiction.

For many heroin users who don’t have health insurance, methadone clinics can be one of the few sources of reprieve. Desperate to stay off heroin and ease the withdrawal symptoms, methadone is one of the few medications that is FDA-approved to treat and manage opiate withdrawal.

Whether or not methadone is effective in treating heroin, why methadone clinics exist, and how methadone works are all commonly asked questions by addicts and families.

What Is Methadone?

Methadone is a fully synthetic, long-lasting opioid that is used in the treatment of heroin and opioid addiction. Additionally, methadone has been used to treat chronic pain conditions and can relieve pain symptoms up to eight hours. Most often, it is administered in pill, liquid, and wafer form as distributed by methadone clinics, which can only be certified by SAMHSA.

Methadone works on the brain in similar ways to heroin and opiates. While a pain killer, methadone has been found to lessen the symptoms associated with opiate withdrawal. In addition to the heroin user being more comfortable during withdrawal, methadone impedes someone being able to get high (feel the euphoric effects) of the heroin, fentanyl, codeine, etc.

Does Methadone Get You High?

Methadone does not create the intense and immediate rush that injecting, smoking, or snorting opiates produce. Part of the reason for this is because methadone can only be taken when directly administered by a physician in specific locations. It is almost unheard of for methadone to be prescribed for self-administered use outside of a designated facility.

However, methadone does come with side effects that do seem closely associated with the illicit drugs that it claims to suppress:

  • Difficulty breathing or shallow breathing
  • Feeling lightheaded or faint
  • Hives or a rash; swelling of the face, lips, tongue, or throat
  • Feeling chest pain
  • A fast or pounding heartbeat
  • Hallucinations or confusion

Besides these symptoms, overdoses of methadone have been reported. Methadone overdoses can be fatal.

Many people in the public health sector praise methadone’s potential for harm reduction. Doctors and experts claim that it is safe for pregnant women as a maintenance treatment and does not have any adverse effects on the baby or fetus.

Experts remain optimistic because methadone can be an effective treatment program to limit the spread of infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis. Getting heroin addicts off of the needle is the only fool-proof way to limit the risk of these diseases.

Is Methadone the Solution?

Like all medications, these are questions you should ask your doctor. Misusing methadone without a prescription is dangerous and can lead to death. SAMHSA and the National Institute on Drug Addiction (NIDA) make it very clear that methadone should be taken under the supervision and in the presence of a certified medical doctor.

Additionally, methadone is only effective if used in tandem with a treatment program and therapy. If you must take methadone, it should be viewed as a short-term bridge before beginning a program focused on abstinence from all opioids.

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