How to Get Off Methadone

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Methadone is an opioid medication that was introduced in the 1970s as a way to help heroin addicts wean off the drug. The long-acting opioid is still used today, but only under strict medical supervision. Though it can be effective at easing withdrawal symptoms and treating pain, methadone is a strong drug that can lead to addiction. This is why more treatment centers – The River Source included – are moving away from methadone maintenance programs and treating heroin addicts with a different combination of medication.

What Makes Methadone Dangerous?

When used as prescribed, methadone is effective at reducing withdrawal symptoms, decreasing cravings and blocking the euphoric effect of heroin. Methadone is capable of doing this because it’s an opiate and a full-agonist that takes over the brain’s opioid receptors. Just like other opiates, methadone can lead to tolerance, dependence and addiction, even when it’s prescribed to treat pain.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the number of drug-poisoning deaths from methadone has increased sevenfold in recent years. In 1999, there were about 800 deaths, and in 2007, the number of deaths increased to 5,518. With a better understanding of the risks of methadone, as well as new treatments for heroin withdrawal, methadone deaths have been on the decline since 2008. However, in 2014, methadone was still involved in 26 percent of opioid-analgesic overdose deaths.

Here are a few of the reasons why methadone is so risky.

  • Dependence. Methadone withdrawal is extremely difficult because of the physical dependence it can cause. This is why some individuals remain on a low maintenance dose of methadone for an extended period of time.

  • Abuse. Methadone is sometimes prescribed for more than just heroin addiction. It can also be used to treat pain, and this can lead to psychological dependence. Once dependent on the drug, addicts may find outside sources to buy it from.

  • Tolerance. One of the most dangerous parts of methadone is the tolerance that builds up. To achieve the same effects, users need more and more of the drug. Too much methadone can be fatal.

What’s the Problem with Methadone Treatment and Maintenance?

Now that you know a bit more about methadone and its dangers, let’s explore the reasons why methadone does not make a good treatment and maintenance regimen for recovering heroin addicts. There are risks associated with all types of medications, but methadone is of particular concern because of the following:

  • Methadone is highly addictive, at least as addictive as heroin. Therefore, heroin users are trading one addiction for another.

  • Withdrawal from methadone is generally worse than withdrawal from heroin. This makes it very difficult for people to get off methadone. Many stay on a low dose for years.

  • Methadone stays in the system longer than heroin – up to 59 hours. Heroin generally stays in the body for 4-6 hours.

  • Unlike heroin, you can’t really tell when you’ve had too much methadone. This can lead to taking another dose and another, until a toxic amount builds up in the body.

  • Since it’s difficult to know when you’ve had enough methadone, you don’t know when another dose may be the last. Methadone can cause the body to shut down and die.

  • Methadone has a lot of dangerous drug interactions. When taken with other opiates such as heroin or morphine, the drugs can cause your metabolism to slow down. This can result in death.

  • If you are on a maintenance program and want to get off, you will probably need medical drug detox to kick the habit.

How to Get Off Methadone and Begin Recovery

With all the dangers to methadone, it’s understandable that you may be ready to stop your maintenance program. If you’re wondering how to get off methadone without suffering from serious withdrawal effects, it’s vital that you speak with your doctor or another qualified individual. Withdrawal from methadone can be highly uncomfortable, and each person requires an individualized approach.

Methadone detox is safest when completed in a drug treatment facility such as The River Source. This way, you will receive 24-hour supervision that prevents withdrawal symptoms from causing life-threatening effects. The goal of any detox program is to taper off the drug or reduce the dosage rather than stopping methadone cold turkey. Though this process takes longer, it’s generally safer, more comfortable and more effective.

Timeline and Symptoms of Withdrawal

The first symptoms of methadone withdrawal typically appear within 30 hours from the last use. The entire process lasts a week or more, but can vary based on the individual and their use of the drug. Once the withdrawal process starts, users begin to feel uncomfortable, with symptoms mimicking a bad flu. The most common initial withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Tiredness

  • Restlessness

  • Anxiety

  • Sweating

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Yawning

  • Runny nose

  • Tearing eyes

Some symptoms peak at 72 hours. In addition to the above flu-like symptoms that can be experienced, other symptoms that may turn up are:

  • Muscle aches and pains

  • Goosebumps

  • Nausea

  • Diarrhea

  • Stomach cramps

  • Depression

  • Drug cravings

Like withdrawal from other types of drugs, methadone withdrawal is generally worse during the first week. After 7-10 days, some symptoms begin to taper off. However, some effects will continue to last beyond the first week such as fatigue, anxiety, depression and trouble sleeping

While these symptoms can be scary, don’t let them stop you from getting the help you need. Talk to a treatment center about how to get off of methadone in the safest and most efficient way possible.

Help for Methadone Withdrawal

Not only is it important to research the rehab centers that provide methadone detox but also you should know what their approach to treating the withdrawal process is. Specifically, how does the treatment center plan to make you most comfortable? Which medications are used to ease withdrawal symptoms? Will there be emotional support offered?

The best methadone detox centers will be experienced in the following:

  • Drug Treatment for Withdrawal. A number of treatments are available to ease withdrawal symptoms and make it more possible for you to recover from methadone addiction. Medications may include naloxone, buprenorphine and clonidine. These drugs can reduce the severity of withdrawal symptoms and shorten the withdrawal process.

  • Guided Methadone Treatment. In severe cases of addiction to methadone, a doctor may actually recommend taking methadone as treatment. Guided methadone therapy is used to slowly wear down the methadone levels in the body, making it easier to stop using the drug in the long term. This treatment is only available to certain patients and requires continuous monitoring by a doctor.  

  • Emotional Support. What happens once the withdrawal process is over? As symptoms begin to subside, you need to learn how to deal with life experiences without falling back to methadone. An inpatient or outpatient treatment program can be helpful in keeping you on track with your recovery.

Early Recovery: Tips for the Methadone Addict

Now that you know how to get off methadone without withdrawal symptoms interfering with your recovery, let’s talk about some of the ways that you can maximize your success in staying sober. It’s possible and even common to relapse on methadone, especially in the early days of recovery. The drug is powerful and mind-altering, and it takes a long time to mentally and emotionally remove yourself from it.

No methods promise sobriety from methadone, but there are steps you can take to safeguard your recovery. Below are a few examples.

  • Surround Yourself with Good Influences. If you were recovering from a terrible flu, you wouldn’t hang out with a bunch of sick people. The same is true in this scenario. You are vulnerable, so choose the people you surround yourself with carefully.

  • Keep Boredom at Bay. If you participate in a residential treatment program, you should be given some type of continuing care plan. This plan will help you stay on track with your goals and prevent boredom.

  • Attend Your Support Groups. Continue going to your support groups. They remain an important tool in your recovery as you learn to function in the world without methadone, which may have been a part of your life for so long.

  • Make Positive Choices. Every choice you make for yourself should be a positive one. Eat the right foods. Get plenty of rest. See your doctor regularly. Go outside and get fresh air every day. The better you take care of yourself, the more motivation you will have for staying sober.  

  • Avoid Triggers. Build a life that is free (or as free as possible) from triggers. Don’t drive past old hangouts. Delete toxic people from your contacts list. Don’t watch movies or TV with drug-using behavior. You may even want to avoid social media.

  • Develop New Interests. Since much of your time was probably spent being content on methadone, you need to find new activities. Get a membership at your local gym, park district or Y center. Attend classes or swim lessons. Enroll in a cooking/baking class. Try painting or going to theater plays. Find others in your support groups who will enjoy these new experiences with you.

Are You Ever Cured from Methadone Addiction?

Addiction can be successfully treated and managed, and so this is your goal as you get off of methadone. Don’t be discouraged, however. The reason why addiction professionals don’t like to use the word “cure” is because someone who once struggled with addiction remains at risk for it in the future.

Rather than assuming you’re free of the disease, having a protective mindset reminds you to treat yourself carefully and make smart choices today, tomorrow and in the future. This is what helps you remain sober even when life throws you stressful situations.

Wrapping Things Up

There are two ways to become addicted to methadone: people are either prescribed methadone for pain or they are put on a maintenance regimen to treat heroin addiction. The latter is most common. If you’ve found yourself in this position, it’s important to know that help is available.

Treatment for methadone addiction can be safe and effective, providing that you complete the withdrawal process in a medically supervised detox center. This way, you receive 24-hour supervision and access to a wide range of treatments that will reduce the severity of withdrawal symptoms. Most importantly, it’s the first step to finally free yourself of an addiction that probably replaced a past addiction.

To learn more about the safe and effective way to detox from methadone, please consult with an addiction specialist at The River Source.

Photo Credit: FreeImages.com/FredShakeshaft