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How Does Methadone Help Treat Opioid Addiction?

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methadone for treating opioid addiction
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According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), people who struggle with opioid use disorder who follow through with complete detoxification are still likely to relapse on the drug. Although relapse is a normal part of recovery for many people, it can be life-threatening when it comes to opioids which have a high potential for overdose.

One of the most effective ways to reduce the risk of opioid addiction relapse is to use medications like methadone. Methadone is a synthetic opioid drug that acts on opioid receptors in the brain to eliminate withdrawal symptoms and reduce drug cravings.

What is Methadone?

Methadone is a long-acting, full opioid-agonist medication that can block the high produced by other opioids, such as oxycodone or heroin. It can be used to reduce opioid withdrawal symptoms, eliminate cravings, and prevent relapse.

Methadone was first created by German doctors during World War II to manage pain and was quickly brought to the U.S. for the same reason. However, the most popular way methadone is used today is to treat opioid dependence and addiction.

Methadone works by changing the way the brain and central nervous system (CNS) respond to pain. It works in similar ways as other opioids, but its effects are slower and longer-lasting. The drug comes in tablet, powder, diskette, and liquid forms, with the diskette and liquid forms being the most common.

Methadone for Opioid Dependence and Detoxification

As a full-opioid agonist, methadone minds to the same receptors in the brain as opioids do and activates them in a similar way. This mechanism of action can trick the brain’s opioid receptors into thinking it has taken another opioid, thereby reducing the intensity of opioid withdrawal symptoms.

Since methadone can reduce the symptoms of opioid withdrawal, it is often given to patients who are detoxing from opioids in hospitals or addiction detox centers. Patients typically receive one dose in the morning or night which can alleviate withdrawal symptoms for 12 hours.

Some of the symptoms that methadone treats include:

  • Sweating
  • Body aches
  • Muscle pain
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Cravings
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Insomnia

While some people stop taking methadone after detox, others use it as a part of their substance abuse treatment program.

How Methadone is Used in Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) for Opioid Addiction

Methadone was the first medication used in medication-assisted treatment (MAT), and people who took methadone to recover from addiction are often said to be on “methadone maintenance.”[3] Methadone maintenance has gotten a bad reputation due to the drug’s potential for abuse and addiction. Like other opioid drugs, methadone can be abused and used to get high, and doing so can be highly addictive.

Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) programs that dispense methadone do so in a careful, controlled manner. It is rare that patients are allowed to take home large prescriptions of the drug. Instead, many methadone clinics require patients to check into the rehab facility each morning or every other morning to receive their dose. Some patients who have demonstrated medication compliance are permitted take-home doses in between program visits, such as for the weekend.

By taking methadone every morning, patients can keep their cravings at bay and have more focus on their therapy or personal recovery. Methadone treatment is most effective at managing opioid addiction when it is combined with comprehensive treatment services, such as:

  • Group therapy
  • Individual therapy
  • Aftercare support
  • Peer support groups

Methadone does not cure addiction and it is not intended to be a substitution for addiction treatment. Instead, it is an important tool that can help improve treatment retention and reduce the risk of relapse in patients who are in rehab for opioid addiction.

Side Effects of Methadone

Methadone may cause side effects, including:

  • Itchy skin
  • Sweating
  • Constipation
  • Headache
  • Dry mouth
  • Stomach pain
  • Upset stomach
  • Restlessness
  • Weight gain
  • Sleep changes
  • Appetite changes

Getting off Methadone in Recovery

Methadone is an opioid so it can be physically addictive, even when taken as prescribed. As a result, you may experience withdrawal symptoms if you stop taking methadone cold turkey.

Doctors and other healthcare providers do not recommend stopping methadone abruptly. Instead, it’s best to gradually reduce your dose until your body is no longer dependent on the substance. This method, known as tapering, can eliminate the risk of withdrawal symptoms and make getting off methadone far easier.

Some people only take methadone during detox while others continue taking it during and after treatment. How long you stay on the medication will be based on your needs and medical necessity. When you are ready to stop taking it, be sure to discuss a tapering plan with your prescribing physician.

methadone for treatment addiction to opioids

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Find out if Opioid Addiction Treatment With Methadone is Right for You

When taken as directed, methadone is a safe and effective opioid addiction treatment medication. If you qualify for methadone treatment, your medication will be specifically tailored to your individual needs, and your dose can be adjusted and re-adjusted as needed. Methadone may not be right for everyone, so it’s important that you are honest about your medical history and do not take the medication unless it is prescribed to you by a doctor. To learn more about methadone maintenance treatment or to find out if MAT is right for you, please contact our team of dedicated admissions counselors today.


  1. https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/medications-to-treat-opioid-addiction/how-do-medications-to-treat-opioid-addiction-work
  2. https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/drugsatfda_docs/label/2018/006134s045lbl.pdf
  3. https://www.fda.gov/drugs/information-drug-class/information-about-medication-assisted-treatment-mat
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3629676/
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK562216/
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Medically Reviewed By

Inessa Maloney, MS, LMHC Clinical Director
Learn about Inessa Maloney

Inessa Maloney, MS, LMHC has been dedicated to the mental health and substance abuse field for a decade, providing her expertise to guarantee quality and accuracy.

  • Specializes in outpatient services with a focus on substance abuse
  • Expertise in reality-based therapy, CBT/DBT, and motivational interviewing
  • Holds a Master’s Degree in Professional Counseling
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