What Is Methadone?

Methadone is part of a category called opioids. It was created by German doctors during World War II. When it arrived in the United States, it was used to treat people with extreme pain. Today, your doctor may use it as part of your treatment for an addiction to heroin or narcotic painkillers.

It works a lot like morphine does. You can take it as a tablet, a powder, or a liquid. It must be prescribed by a doctor. People who take it illegally often inject it, which exposes them to diseases like HIV.

Even though it’s safer than some other narcotics, your doctor should keep a close watch on you while you take methadone. Taking it can lead to addiction or abuse.

What Does It Do?

Methadone changes the way your brain and nervous system respond to pain so that you feel relief. Its effects are slower than those of other strong painkillers like morphine. It blocks the high you get from drugs like codeine, heroin, hydrocodone, morphine, and oxycodone.

Your doctor may prescribe methadone if you’re in a lot of pain from an injury, surgery, or chronic illness.

It can also help if you’re in treatment for addiction to other opioids. It can give a similar feeling and prevent withdrawal symptoms. You may hear this called replacement therapy. Methadone replaces the opioids in your system with milder effects.

It’s usually used as one part of your treatment plan. It isn’t a cure for addiction.

Uses and Side Effects

While there’s no set amount of time you’ll take methadone to treat an addiction, experts say it should be at least a year, and maybe more than that. The doctor will carefully track your body’s response to it and adjust your treatment. When it’s time to stop taking it, he’ll help you stop slowly to prevent withdrawal.

With short-term use, you may notice:

Some side effects are more serious. Call the doctor if you:

If you use the drug for a long time, it might lead to lung and breathing problems. It can also change a woman’s menstrual cycle. If you get pregnant, talk to your doctor about changing your dose. It can cause complications.

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What Are the Risks?

Some people shouldn’t take methadone. Tell your doctor if you have:

Drugs than can affect methadone include:

  • Other narcotics
  • Drugs that make you sleepy or slow your breathing
  • Drugs that change your serotonin level

You can become dependent on it. Your brain may begin to rely on the pain relief it brings.

Even though the effects are milder than other opioids, your body can still adapt to it. This means that you’ll need to take more to feel the same relief from pain or withdrawal symptoms, which can lead to abuse and addiction. Your doctor will call this tolerance.

No two people react the same to methadone. Your doctor calculates the dose that’s right for you. Changing it can lead to dangerous side effects or an overdose.

Overdose symptoms can include:

  • Slow breathing
  • Slow heart rate
  • Severe drowsiness
  • Weak muscles
  • Cold, clammy skin
  • Small pupils
  • Fainting

In some cases, overdose can be fatal. It’s important to be honest with your doctor about your methadone use.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Nayana Ambardekar, MD on August 19, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

Center for Substances Abuse Research, University of Maryland: “Methadone."

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: “Methadone.”

American Family Physician: “Methadone Treatment for Pain States.”

Michigan Medicine, University of Michigan: “Methadone.”

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