Methadone is an opioid that’s been used for decades to treat addiction to other opioids like heroin. This medication has a limited ability to get an addicted person high, but it softens or eliminates cravings and withdrawal symptoms that make getting off heroin so difficult. Addiction treatment professionals may switch addicted persons onto methadone and then either gradually taper the dose until they can function without it or put them on a “methadone maintenance” plan so they can stay on an opioid without risk of overdose death. Methadone must be administered by medical professionals at specially licensed clinics so overdose can’t happen.
This type of addiction treatment has helped many people over the years, but there are downsides to being on methadone for a long period of time. Methadone is still an opioid and therefore still addictive. Some addicted individuals will find themselves hooked on this new opioid after being switched onto it. It can also be very addictive to those who have not abused opioids before and therefore have no tolerance to them.
Effects of Use
In addition to its addiction potential, there are several unpleasant side effects associated with methadone, including:
- Dry mouth
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loss of appetite
- Sexual side effects
Most of these side effects will wear off after a couple weeks of use or if use of the drug stops. However, psychological side effects and sleep problems can persist, especially if a tolerance has developed to the substance. There can also be long-term problems from weight loss and malnutrition, as well as damage to the colon from chronic constipation.
Methadone has a high potential for overdose if not given out by a doctor. The reason it needs to be regulated so carefully is that the drug stays in the system for much longer than most opioids, and uninformed individuals often take multiple doses in too short a period of time, quickly leading to a potentially deadly overdose. This is such a serious problem that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three overdose deaths from prescription painkillers is from methadone even though it accounts for only 2 percent of all opioid prescriptions. Opioid overdose can result in serious irreversible brain damage if the individual survives.
Even in typical cases, long-term methadone use can cause changes in the brain according to recent studies. Changes in nerve cells appear to affect memory and learning abilities, and a reduction in white matter can affect decision-making abilities, impulse control, and stress regulation.
The overall effects can be unpredictable, however, as minor changes to the brain can cause a myriad of side effects. At the same time, depression of the respiratory and gastrointestinal systems can cause chronic issues, such as frequent lung infections and damage to the large intestine. Changes in the brain and damage from overdose can also lead to serious psychological problems. These can range from depression and anxiety to hallucinations and psychosis.
Although methadone can help a lot of people, it’s very dangerous to use outside of a clinic setting. At the same time, deciding to stay on methadone long-term can cause a number of serious sustained health issues, including potential brain damage. Anyone addicted to opioids will have to weigh their options carefully to determine if the risks are worth it.