Last updated: 11/12/2018
Author: Addictions.com Medical Review
Reading Time: 5 minutes
Opiate withdrawal is an uncomfortable and often unbearable time for many individuals, especially if they decide to quit the drug cold turkey. Whether you have been taking opiates for medicinal purposes or abusing them recreationally, it is likely that you will experience the painful opiate withdrawal symptoms if you have been on the drug for at least a few months. Either way, methadone treatment can help with the symptoms of opiate withdrawal.
How Difficult Is Opiate Withdrawal?
Many people decide to undergo opiate withdrawal without medication simply because it can be expensive and because the withdrawal syndrome is not life-threatening like the syndrome associated with alcohol. But the process can be extremely difficult, painful, and uncomfortable depending on the symptoms, and it can sometimes last for more than a week.
According to the NLM, the symptoms of opiate withdrawal are:
- Runny nose
- Tearing of the eyes
- Muscle pains and aches
- Bone and joint pain
- Dilation of the pupils
Generally, opiate withdrawal can feel like a bad case of the flu that regular flu medicine and rest don’t cure. On top of these symptoms, if you have been abusing and/or become addicted to opiates, you will experience strong cravings that will make you want to start abusing the drug again. Because of all these factors, opiate withdrawal can be a much more difficult time than many people realize.
How Does Methadone Help with the Symptoms of Withdrawal from Opiates?
According to the CDC, methadone “relieves symptoms associated with withdrawal from opiates.” The drug is a synthetic opioid and, when it is taken in small doses, it keeps the individual from feeling most of the withdrawal symptoms that occur when one stops taking opiate drugs. Because the body and the brain are getting the small dose of methadone, they do not produce the symptoms they usually do when there are no opiates in the system at all.
This is a relatively safe and beneficial option, as methadone:
- “Is excreted slowly so it can be taken only once a day”
- “Does not cause euphoria or intoxication itself (with stable dosing), thus allowing a person to work and participate normally in society”
- Is readily available to individuals in need from outpatient clinics and some other sources
- Lessens the intense symptoms of opiate withdrawal which can sometimes cause an individual to relapse
How Does Methadone Help Prevent Relapse?
The NLM states, “The biggest complication [of opiate withdrawal] is return to drug use.” Opiate withdrawal can often end in relapse, as the person might become fed up with the feelings of strong cravings and take the drug again just to make them stop.
This can also be very dangerous even after the individual has finished with the regular detox or withdrawal process. Cravings are normally part of withdrawal for an addicted person, but they can last much longer than the usual withdrawal period. Methadone “relieves the craving for opiates” so that patients will not feel this before and after normal detox.
The Science Behind Methadone and Withdrawal
According to the NIJ, “opioids, such as heroin or morphine, cause a release of excess dopamine in the body” which makes users become dependent on the drug, needing it to “continuously occupy the opioid receptor in the brain.” When methadone is taken instead of the other opiate drug, it occupies the receptor itself and blocks the high that opiate abuse causes. Individuals then
- Do not feel strong cravings for opiates
- Do not experience the full extent of the opiate withdrawal symptoms
- Do not get high on either abused opiates or the methadone itself (if they take the correct dosage)
- Are able to go about their daily lives with the help of methadone to mellow their symptoms of withdrawal
“Methadone can suppress narcotic withdrawal symptoms for up to 24 to 36 hours for patients,” meaning that patients can come into the clinic, get their medications, and then go about their days without the intense feelings of withdrawal and cravings. Some patients are also permitted to take the medication home with them and to treat themselves once they have proven their ability to do so.
Methadone also helps with a number of other problems associated with opiate abuse and addiction in ways such as blocking the sedating effects of opiates, reducing mortality, crime, and overdose rates, and allowing people to lead more productive, healthier lives free from opiate abuse.
Is Methadone the Best Choice for Withdrawal Treatment?
There are other choices besides methadone for withdrawal treatment including:
- Buprenorphine (a partial opioid agonist with both agonist and antagonist properties)
- Beneficial for addicted and non-addicted individuals who want to end their dependence on opiates quickly
- Clonidine (a centrally acting alpha-agonist hypotensive agent)
- Does not cause intoxication in patients and can be administered in a hospital or another type of facility
- Tapering off medications
- Beneficial for patients who are merely dependent on opiates but not addicted and who need to just be slowly weaned off the medication
These are the main choices of medications which can treat opiate withdrawal, including methadone, and can be just as effective depending on the individual and their needs. But if you are wondering whether or not methadone will be particularly beneficial for you, ask yourself these questions:
- Am I addicted to opiates?
- Have I tried to stop taking opiates in the past and not been successful?
- Do I need to withdraw from opiates before going into formal addiction treatment?
- Do I experience severe cravings, opiate withdrawal symptoms, or other issues when I stop using the drug?
- Do I need help relieving the symptoms of my opiate withdrawal?
- Do I need long-term maintenance treatment instead of a faster detox?
If you said yes to these questions, methadone could be extremely beneficial to you. The drug is safe and effective when taken in the right doses and will cause the symptoms you feel to become milder or (in some cases) be relieved completely. Opiate withdrawal is not easy, and methadone can help by occupying the receptors in the brain that crave the drug. It can ease your symptoms, give you your life back, and make going through opiate withdrawal much easier.