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Methadone Withdrawal Symptoms, Timeline, and Treatment

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Methadone Withdrawal Symptoms
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Methadone is a long-acting synthetic opioid medication that plays a pivotal role in the management of opioid use disorder and withdrawal. Initially developed for pain relief, its capacity to mitigate the severe withdrawal symptoms experienced by those stopping opioid use has made it a cornerstone in addiction treatment protocols.

What is Methadone?

Methadone is a synthetic opioid analgesic medication that is primarily used to treat opioid addiction, specifically addiction to morphine, heroin, or prescription painkillers. Methadone acts as a safer, medically supervised alternative to ease opioid withdrawal symptoms and reduce cravings, making the transition away from more potent opioids and other medications more manageable. It is also used to treat chronic pain, especially when other pain treatments do not work or cannot be tolerated.

Methadone works by affecting the brain and central nervous system, particularly the opioid receptors, to reduce the feeling of pain and ease withdrawal symptoms from other opioids. When administered under the oversight of trained medical professionals, it can serve as an integral component of medication-assisted treatment as part of a comprehensive treatment program that includes counseling and participation in support groups.

The role of methadone as an addiction medicine has been gaining increasing attention in recent years, with its use becoming more widespread and its feature on the list of essential medicines by the World Health Organization. It is increasingly seen as a safe and effective treatment option for individuals struggling with addiction to opioids or heroin. In addition, methadone has been found to reduce the risk of relapse or overdose and to be cost-effective compared to other addiction treatments.

Methadone Withdrawal Symptoms, Timeline, and Treatment

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Methadone Treatment Timeline

Methadone, originally developed as a prescription drug, is now more commonly used as a replacement therapy for individuals addicted to opioids, especially heroin. The primary objective behind methadone maintenance treatment is to reduce the harm associated with illicit drug use by providing a more stable, controlled substitute.

Induction Phase

During the induction phase, a person starts taking the methadone under the supervision of a medical professional following strict clinical guidelines. Starting from the last dose of the other opiates taken, the process of dose adjustment ensues to prevent uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms that can range from a runny nose to high blood pressure.

The initial dose is modified over time through dose reduction in response to the individual’s needs. The goal is to find a methadone dosage that supports withdrawal management and reduces cravings without causing excessive sedation or intoxication.

Stabilization Phase

Once an effective dose is achieved through careful dose reductions, the person continues to take methadone regularly. This phase helps stabilize their opioid use and reduce the risk of relapse. It’s not uncommon for symptoms to remain severe initially, but with consistent medication and support, they gradually diminish. The length of the stabilization phase can vary, but it typically lasts for several weeks to several months.

Maintenance Phase

The maintenance phase is a prolonged stage, typically lasting up to six months or more. Throughout this period, individuals consistently take methadone to bolster their recovery and encourage relapse prevention. The ultimate objective is a gradual reduction of the dose over time.

Tapering Phase

If the person and their healthcare provider decide that they are ready to stop using methadone, a gradual tapering schedule begins. Once the person becomes stable at a lower dose, they can consider another attempt at tapering. The dose will be reduced slowly over a few weeks or months to minimize withdrawal symptoms. It’s a delicate process, that doesn’t support quitting methadone cold turkey.

Emotional support from healthcare providers and loved ones can be crucial to help the person navigate through the transition.

The Risk of Addiction in Methadone Users

While methadone can be effective during a medical detox program for those experiencing withdrawal symptoms or cravings associated with opioid or heroin addiction, it comes with its own risks of dependency. Individuals who abuse methadone or take it as prescribed can become physically dependent on it and experience withdrawal symptoms when they try to quit.

Firstly, methadone itself is an opioid, which means it can induce euphoria, though to a lesser extent than drugs like heroin and other drugs. As such, if it’s not taken as prescribed, there’s a potential for drug abuse. Over time, as with other opioids, users can develop an extremely physically addictive dependence on methadone. This means they may experience physical and psychological symptoms of dependence when misused or taken in higher doses than prescribed. This can occur when individuals seek to intensify the effects or self-medicate for emotional distress, leading to a cycle of misuse that may be difficult to break.

It’s also worth noting that methadone’s long half-life can be both a benefit and a drawback. While it allows for less frequent dosing and the possibility of lower doses compared to other opioids, each dose of methadone has lasting effects. This also means that methadone can accumulate in the body if taken in excess, leading to a risk of overdose. Overdose symptoms are particularly dangerous because they include respiratory depression, which can be fatal.

Another concern is that some users may continue to use illicit drugs alongside methadone, which can increase the risks of overdose and harmful drug interactions. Combining methadone with other depressants like alcohol or benzodiazepines can be particularly dangerous.

Methadone Withdrawal Symptoms

Methadone was initially developed to treat heroin addiction, but it is now utilized to address various opioid dependencies. Its withdrawal symptoms tend to be milder and don’t onset as rapidly as those from other opiates which can have intense withdrawal symptoms. This is attributed to methadone’s presence in the body, which lasts between 1 to 3 days. Nevertheless, despite being milder, uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms occur from methadone which bears a resemblance to those experienced from other opioids, encompassing a range of psychological and physical symptoms. Methadone is a Schedule II controlled substance because it has a significant potential for abuse and physical dependence. In high doses, it can also lead to opioid overdose. While methadone withdrawal symptoms vary, methadone withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Cravings
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Muscle aches
  • Sweating
  • Chills
  • Shivering
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How Long Does Methadone Withdrawal Last?

The methadone withdrawal process is a challenging phase for those overcoming opioid addiction and is a direct consequence of discontinuing or reducing the intake of this medication. The symptoms of methadone withdrawal can be quite distressing, and their intensity and duration can differ significantly among individuals.

Similar to symptoms of opioid withdrawal, the duration of methadone withdrawal symptoms varies based on several factors, including the length of time someone has been taking methadone, their individual opioid tolerance, and the dosage they’ve been taking.

The methadone withdrawal process can be more prolonged and more severe for those who decide to quit cold turkey without tapering their dosage. Conversely, gradually decreasing the dose under medical supervision can help manage and possibly shorten the duration of severe withdrawal symptoms.

Opioid Withdrawal Timeline

Methadone withdrawal can be a challenging process, both mentally and physically. It’s crucial to be prepared for what’s ahead so that you can anticipate and manage the symptoms effectively. While personal experiences may vary, a general timeline for the symptoms of methadone withdrawal is as follows:

Days 1-2

Symptoms begin 30+ hours after taking the last dose and may include chills, muscle aches, and anxiety.

Days 3-8

Symptoms peak between days 3-8 and may be very intense. Cravings will be strong as well as body aches, anxiety, flu-like symptoms, and gastrointestinal upset.

Days 8-10

Symptoms usually subside during this type but may still produce irritability, discomfort, poor appetite, depression, and more. Symptoms may also come and go.

Days 10-14

Most acute withdrawal symptoms will subside, but some post-acute withdrawal symptoms may, such as low energy levels, difficulty sleeping, cravings, and mood changes, may linger for several weeks or months.

Treatment for Methadone Addiction

After medical detox (methadone detox), it’s important to attend an addiction treatment program that can help you overcome drug dependence. At our drug and addiction treatment center, we combine behavioral therapy, counseling, and peer support to help individuals overcome their addictions. Treatment options for methadone may include:

Find Help Today

To start methadone therapy, call our recovery centers at (781) 622-9190. We work with some of the most highly-rated methadone detox centers in Massachusetts. Our qualified admissions counselors can verify your insurance coverage, get you admitted to a methadone detox center, and make a plan for you to transition from methadone treatment to one of our outpatient substance abuse treatment programs when you’re done detoxing. With the appropriate support, you or your loved one can navigate the challenges of methadone dependence and pave the way for lifelong recovery from addiction.

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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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