Breaking Down the Most Common Methadone Withdrawal Symptoms

Methadone is used to treat opiate addiction, but it can be very addictive on its own, especially when it is taken frequently and in high doses. As a result, some patients recovering from an opiate addiction may end up trading their addiction to opiates for an addiction to methadone.

Statistics from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) show how common methadone abuse and addiction is in the United States:

  • In 2012, about five million people reported abusing methadone at some point in their life.
  • Almost 4,700 calls to poison control centers involved methadone use in 2012.
  • Nearly 67,000 visits to emergency rooms were tied to methadone use in 2011.

When someone takes a high dose of methadone on a regular basis, they can quickly develop a tolerance to the drug. Tolerance simply means that a user needs more of a substance than before to achieve the same effect. Over time, a person can also become dependent on methadone, which means that they need to take the drug in order for their body to function normally and not experience withdrawal symptoms.

Withdrawal symptoms occur when someone stops taking a substance that their body has come to rely on in order to function. As the substance leaves a person’s system (a process known as detoxification, or detox), their body tries to establish normal functioning again. However, withdrawal symptoms occur during this process, which can make recovery difficult for patients who are trying to reclaim their lives from addiction.

Since the symptoms of methadone withdrawal can be very uncomfortable, doctors recommend that patients undergo detox in a supervised medical environment, either in an inpatient or outpatient setting. Medical professionals can monitor a patient’s withdrawal symptoms and help control their severity in such an environment.

Before you attempt to stop taking methadone, it’s important to understand the symptoms of methadone withdrawal and how to manage them. This knowledge can help make the detox process more manageable and your recovery more successful.

Breaking Down the Most Common Methadone Withdrawal Symptoms

The symptoms of methadone withdrawal are much like withdrawal symptoms people experienced when they stop taking other opiates like heroin and morphine. However, unlike the withdrawal symptoms of other opiates, the withdrawal symptoms of methadone are generally less intense. Most patients report that their symptoms are moderate and feel like having the flu.

The symptoms of methadone withdrawal tend to start 24 to 30 hours after the last dose of the drug, and they can last for a few weeks or longer. The most common withdrawal symptoms from methadone include:

  • Psychological symptoms like agitation, anxiety, depression, difficulty focusing, hallucinations, irritability, paranoia, and restlessness.
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms, including diarrhea, nausea, stomach cramps, and vomiting.
  • Other physical symptoms like chills, cravings for methadone, dilated pupils, fever, goosebumps, insomnia, muscle aches, rapid heartbeat, runny eyes and nose, sweating, tiredness, and yawning.

The withdrawal process for methadone is different for everyone, because the duration and symptoms vary depending on the length and severity the addiction. For example, if you have a more severe methadone addiction, you will likely experience more intense symptoms than someone who has a more mild addiction to the drug.

Your body chemistry and tolerance level will also impact the length and severity of your symptoms. Additionally, if you are addicted to methadone in addition to other substances, you may find that the withdrawal process is longer and more severe.

Finally, attempting to quit methadone abruptly (or “cold turkey”) can cause more painful and uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. As a result, doctors recommend gradually tapering your dose of methadone under close medical supervision to make withdrawal symptoms more manageable and bearable.

Methadone Withdrawal Timeline

The symptoms of methadone withdrawal usually appear within 24 to 30 hours of the last dose of methadone. However, since it can take anywhere from 15 to 60 hours before the substance leaves your system, some people don’t experience withdrawal symptoms until several days later.

Once the symptoms of methadone withdrawal begin, they typically last three to six weeks. However, it can take longer for someone with a more severe addiction. The first seven to 10 days of symptoms tend to be the worst. At the peak of withdrawal symptoms, you’ll feel like they have the flu and experience the troubling psychological symptoms mentioned above. Luckily, these symptoms will slowly fade over the next few weeks of the recovery process.

To give you an idea of what to expect during methadone withdrawal, here’s a timeline that briefly summarizes the symptoms of methadone withdrawal at each stage.

  • The First 24 to 30 Hours: You’ll likely start to experience methadone withdrawals symptoms within 24 to 30 hours of their last dose. The first symptoms to appear include physical, flu-like ones such as chills, fever, muscle aches, and a rapid heartbeat.
  • Days 2-10: At this point, you’ll often find that methadone cravings are quite strong. They will also start to develop psychological symptoms ranging from anxiety and irritability to hallucinations and insomnia at this point. The physical, flu-like symptoms will also still be present for about a week.
  • Days 11-20: During this time, the physical symptoms will start to fade; however, cravings for methadone will remain strong. Additionally, you may start to develop symptoms of depression. In fact, some people may experience severe depression and feel a complete lack of motivation or pleasure.
  • Days 21+: While depression may remain, its symptoms should only appear intermittently for the next few weeks. Any remaining withdrawal symptoms should be very mild at this point in the withdrawal process.

The symptoms of methadone withdrawal can be very uncomfortable, which can make some people want give up on the detox process in an attempt to avoid the discomfort of the symptoms. However, you should resist this impulse, because it can lead to a vicious cycle of withdrawal and relapse.

Methadone withdrawal can be difficult, but there’s no need to do it alone. Working with doctors, therapists, and support groups at a drug treatment center can help you overcome methadone withdrawal symptoms and begin the recovery process to achieve long-term sobriety.

Treatment for Methadone Withdrawal and Addiction

When seeking treatment for methadone addiction, it’s important to find a program that is designed to provide methadone detox and counseling. These two components of the treatment process are related, because counseling cannot begin until a patient has detoxed from methadone.

Although methadone withdrawal can occur at home, it is safest and most effective when it happens in a drug treatment center or a hospital setting. Regardless of where you decide to detox, you should remain under the supervision of a doctor who can treat your withdrawal symptoms to prevent them from becoming dangerous or life-threatening.

The medical detox process for methadone will involve slowly reducing your dosage of methadone over the course of a few weeks. It does take longer to detox using this method, but it also reduces the severity of methadone withdrawal symptoms.

Your doctor can also prescribe medications to help ease withdrawal symptoms. These medications can shorten the withdrawal process and relieve some of the related symptoms, making it easier to recover from a methadone addiction. Some of the most commonly prescribed medications for patients undergoing methadone withdrawal include:

  • Buprenorphine reduces the symptoms of withdrawal and it can reduce the length methadone detox.
  • Clonidine reduces psychological symptoms like anxiety and agitation and treats physical symptoms like cramping, goosebumps, muscle aches, runny nose, and sweating.
  • Zofran can prevent dehydration by reducing nausea and vomiting.
  • Baclofen can reduce the pain of muscle aches.

If your addiction is severe, your physician may recommend a treatment known as guided methadone therapy, which involves prescribing methadone. It might seem counterintuitive; however, this treatment can help you slowly reduce your methadone use. Since methadone is long-acting, the methadone levels in your system decrease gradually as you break down the substance. As a result, taking more methadone and then slowly reducing your dose can actually reduce withdrawal symptoms.

Keep in mind that methadone therapy is only available if you’re in a government-approved treatment program. In such a program, your doctor will monitor your intake and response to methadone to make sure that the detox process is safe and effective. This eliminates the risk of overdose and methadone abuse. Your doctor will continue the treatment until your body no longer needs methadone.

Once the detox process is complete, the next stage of treatment can begin. If you attend a drug treatment center, you will benefit from the expertise of physicians and therapists who are dedicated to developing personalized treatment plans to promote long-term sobriety for each patient.

If you are suffering from a severe methadone addiction, it’s best to attend an inpatient drug treatment program that lasts anywhere from 28 to 90 days, while outpatient treatment can be an effective option if you are dealing with a more mild addiction to the substance. Regardless of the setting you select, you will undergo some form of psychological counseling to help you overcome your methadone addiction. Some common forms of counseling include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) helps patients understand the causes of and trigger for their methadone use. It also teaches patients how to modify their thoughts and behaviors to maintain long-term sobriety.
  • Motivational interviewing (MI) helps patients find internal motivation to avoid using methadone in the future.
  • Contingency management (CM) gives patients positive external reinforcements that serve as rewards for healthy behaviors during the recovery process.
  • Family counseling is designed to involve all relevant family members in the recovery process. This form of counseling helps family members learn their role in the patient’s methadone use and helps them find more effective communication skills.

Emotional support is just as important as detox and psychological counseling. For patients who struggle to find support from family members and friends who might not understand their addiction, attending a support group can be very effective. By speaking with other people who are recovering from a methadone addiction, you’ll realize that you aren’t alone in your journey for sobriety and you’ll also have partners to help you stay on track when temptation strikes.

Preventing Methadone Relapse

Some people are tempted to fall back into methadone use, often due to the symptoms of methadone withdrawal. However, as unpleasant as withdrawal symptoms are, it’s critical to remember that methadone use is much more dangerous than the symptoms of withdrawal.

Methadone use can result in life-threatening problems, including difficulty breathing and a slow heart rate. It can even sedate a person to the point of coma or death. Additionally, people who use methadone after detoxing from the substance have a higher risk of overdosing on the drug, because they have a reduced tolerance for it. In comparison, the greatest risk of methadone withdrawal is dehydration caused by diarrhea and vomiting. However, this risk can be managed by your doctor.

While overcoming an addiction to methadone can be difficult, it’s not impossible. The symptoms of methadone withdrawal can be uncomfortable and sometimes painful, but they far outweigh the risks of continued methadone use. The best way to recover from an addiction to methadone is with help from trained medical professionals and a strong support network. Together, these resources can help you take control of your life and achieve freedom from methadone addiction.

The River Source takes a holistic approach to treating methadone addiction. In a supportive and professional environment that provides behavioral and pharmacological therapies, our goal is to help patients detox from methadone and involve them in effective inpatient treatment programs. After inpatient treatment, every patient leaves The River Source with a long-term care plan to help them stay sober for life.

If you or a loved one is suffering from methadone addiction, The River Source can help. Contact us today to learn more about our unique approach to treating methadone addiction and how we help patients overcome the symptoms of methadone withdrawal.