Methadone withdrawal & detox

This Page was last reviewed and changed on June 6th, 2022

Content Overview

Methadone is a drug that is more than capable of causing physical dependence and addiction. To quit the drug if this occurs, it will be necessary to complete a detox programme, which could result in various withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawing from methadone can be quite unpleasant but in a supervised facility, the process will be much simpler and safer.

Methadone is an opioid drug that has the potential for addiction, despite it commonly being used as a treatment for other types of opioid addiction. Although the risk for methadone addiction is low when the drug is used as part of a controlled opioid replacement programme, those who abuse or use it without a prescription have a significantly higher chance of becoming physically dependent and then developing a crippling addiction.

Thereafter, quitting methadone is a complicated process, even if a full-blown addiction has not yet developed. Similar to all opioid drug, you are likely to have developed a dependence on methadone if you have been using it for a prolonged period – even if following the recommended dose.

Methadone Withdrawal

Methadone is highly addictive, with many of those being prescribed this drug for the treatment of heroin addiction simply swapping the one addiction for the other. Those who use methadone at high doses or without a prescription have a substantial risk of developing an addiction. Nevertheless, even those taking it frequently to treat another opioid addiction risk a physical dependence developing.

If you find yourself in this situation, over time your body will get used to the regular doses of methadone and will adjust its physiological responses to the drug. This will mean that the methadone will end up becoming less effective than when initially taken. The result might be to increase the dose to achieve the feelings of relief desired.

As more time goes by, your body will learn to rely on the methadone for normal functioning. Trying to quit or cut back on your use will almost certainly lead to withdrawal symptoms occurring. These symptoms are the result of your body trying to re-adjust to functioning without the drug.

There is a real risk of severe withdrawal symptoms when quitting or cutting back on methadone use, so a methadone detox should be effectively managed. This means you will also need to be supervised at all times. If the detox takes place in a dedicated detox clinic, the process will be more comfortable and much safer than if you were to try to detox at home.

Methadone Withdrawal Symptoms

Although there is no way to know exactly which symptoms one will experience or how severe these might be, the following are some of the more common methadone withdrawal symptoms:

Causes of Methadone Withdrawal

Long-term use reaches a point where the body actually struggles to function normally without methadone. When physical dependence occurs, it basically means the body is depending on methadone to function. Should you then try to quit or significantly reduce the amount of the drug, you are likely to experience a range of symptoms, some of which can be quite unpleasant and can make you feel rather ill.

The reason for the withdrawal symptoms is that the body is trying to get back to normal and as it does so, various functions will be overcompensating for those that are not working as they should. It takes time for the body to recover; withdrawal symptoms are just part of this process.

Treatment for Methadone Withdrawal

Breaking free from methadone is a complex process and because of the likely presence of the various symptoms, you will require professional help to get better. The good news in this regard is that there are a number of treatment options available that can help make the process easier.

If you do a detox in a supervised facility, it is likely that your treatment provider will use medication to help either prevent the worst symptoms from occurring or at least to ease any that do.

In addition to medications though, you may be encouraged, for example, to try breathing and relaxation methods. This helps toward reducing cravings and levels of stress while also improving overall mental and physical wellbeing.

Does Methadone Withdrawal Work?

Overcoming methadone addiction obviously means quitting the drug before getting started on treatment for the addiction. As you know by now, we advocate that methadone withdrawal is most effective when it takes place in a special detox facility. One of the main reasons is that the staff in these facilities have the necessary knowledge and experience to make the process easier.

What often happens when affected individuals try to quit drugs on their own is that they experience withdrawal symptoms that make them feel unwell. They will already know that taking the drug again helps make the symptoms subside; without any support, they are likely to return to drug use. So while a detox facility one might still experience the same symptoms, the full support of a team of professionals can help ease the discomfort to a large extent.

Does methadone withdrawal work then? The answer is a resounding yes – provided you have plenty of support along the way.

Medications for Methadone Withdrawal

When you quit methadone, you may be advised to do so gradually over the course of a couple of weeks. In the meantime, your care provider might introduce a substitute opioid drug that will help to lessen the severity of the withdrawal.

Buprenorphine is a drug that is similar to methadone and is sometimes used to help with withdrawal from other opioid drugs in the same way that methadone is. So in the treatment of methadone withdrawal, buprenorphine is commonly used.

Your doctor might prescribe suboxone or naltrexone instead of buprenorphine. These medications are opiate agonists and work by preventing opiates from attaching to your brain’s receptors.

If you are experiencing symptoms that are making you feel unwell, such as nausea or diarrhoea, other medications can be provided to relieve these symptoms. Furthermore, if you are suffering from depression or anxiety, your doctor might administer antidepressants or beta blockers to help you cope better.

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Methadone Withdrawal Psychosis

Psychosis is the term given to a condition where a person loses touch with reality. Those affected often have false beliefs about the situation going on around them, and these beliefs can cause them to act in an unpredictable manner. This may put themselves or others in danger.

While psychosis can occur during opiate withdrawal, it is not a common symptom during methadone withdrawal. Having said that, a study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry in 1995 concluded that there is a high risk for the development of psychosis during a period of methadone tapering.

It was suggested that the risk is higher for patients who had pre-existing CNS (central nervous system) illness. It was also stated that ‘further research is required to evaluate whether methadone withdrawal psychosis represents a clinical manifestation of opioid agonist modulation of dopaminergic neurotransmission in the human brain’.

Medical Detox from Methadone as Part of a Whole Treatment Plan

Quitting methadone and going on to live a substance-free life will necessitate a comprehensive treatment programme that will tackle both the physical and psychological elements of your illness.

Medical detox is an essential part of any treatment plan as it allows for a safer and more comfortable withdrawal from the drug. As mentioned before, quitting methadone can be a complicated process and it is important that you have plenty of support if you are to make it through to the end.

It is worth repeating that in a dedicated detox facility, you will have a team of professionals on hand to help make the withdrawal process easier. In such a facility, it is possible for you to be given medication that will help you through the unpleasant withdrawals and that may even prevent some of them from occurring. Know that such help is rarely available for those who try to quit on their own at home.

It is important to realise that medical detox is just the first step on the road to recovery. While it is effective in helping you to quit the drug, it does nothing to deal with the other issues that will have led you to this point.

A whole treatment plan for methadone addiction should include both medical detox and rehabilitation. Many people quit after detox, mistakenly believing that they are better and so do not require further treatment. Unfortunately, this way of thinking can lead right back down the path of addiction.

You need to remember that there is a reason you became addicted to methadone. It is crucial that you discover what this reason was so that you can deal with it effectively. Failure to do so could trigger addictive behaviour in you again at a later date.

Methadone Addiction Detox

Detox is almost always necessary for anyone who has developed a physical dependence on any mood-altering drug and wants to get better; it is no different with methadone. Breaking free from methadone abuse or addiction will require professional help.

Detox is the process that allows the brain and body to heal. When you stop taking methadone, your body will require time to recover. As it flushes out chemicals that have built up while you were abusing the drug, you will experience a range of symptoms, some of which might be quite uncomfortable. In fact, many individuals liken the symptoms of methadone withdrawal to those experienced during a bout of the flu. Therefore, you are likely to feel sweaty and you may swing from being cold to being hot and feverish. You might also feel nauseous.

There could be the option of detoxing at home if you have a physical dependence but do not yet have an addiction. However, for your comfort and safety, it is generally recommended that methadone detox take place within a supervised detox facility.

In such a facility, staff can administer medications that can help to ease any discomfort. Furthermore, detox in a dedicated facility is typically quicker than home detox, where it is likely that you will be advised to withdraw from methadone much more slowly, possibly over the course of several weeks or months.

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Methadone Detox Protocol

A detox protocol is a plan of action that will happen while you withdraw from a particular substance. If you detox in a dedicated clinic, it is likely that your care team will put a detox protocol into place before the process begins.

Having detailed plans that will include information about your medical history and the type of detox that is to take place will ensure that everyone is working from the same page. As detox tends to take place over the course of a couple of weeks, there is likely to be a number of different staff members attending to your needs during that time.

It is vital that everyone knows your history and what type of treatments have been recommended to help you overcome your addiction to methadone. Your detox protocol will also include specific instructions of what to do in the event of an emergency. As detoxing from any mood-altering chemical carries the risk of severe symptoms, staff should be aware of the correct emergency procedures to follow in your particular situation to ensure your safety at all times.

Your plan will also contain information about any nutritional supplements that you should be given as well as other methods and techniques that may help you to get through the process.

Physical Dependence vs. Addiction

You would be forgiven for thinking that physical dependence is the same as addiction, but the two are separate. While you can have a physical dependence without being addicted, it is highly likely that you will also have a physical dependence if you have an addiction.

Physical dependence can occur in those taking a specific drug regularly at recommended doses. So, while there is no overwhelming need to take the drug, there may be withdrawal symptoms whenever the effects wear off.

Where addiction is concerned, you will experience a compulsive need to use methadone and will be unable to quit, even when knowing that you are likely to experience harmful consequences when you do use it. You will also experience withdrawal symptoms when you try to stop using the drug, or even when you try to reduce your dose significantly.

In the majority of cases, opiate drugs such as methadone are meant for temporary use only because of the risk of tolerance. Becoming tolerant to methadone means the relief you get from it will be diminished and you will need more to achieve relief. However, as you now know, the more you use the drug, the greater the chance that physical dependence will develop.

In terms of addiction, the risk is far greater for those who have been abusing methadone – i.e., taking it in high doses or without a prescription.

Methadone Overdose

Methadone overdose is a problem for anyone who abuses the drug. When it is taken in high doses, it can severely depress the central nervous system, leading to potential respiratory distress and cardiac problems. It is a similar situation when methadone is combined with other sedative substances that also affect the central nervous system.

Overdose is more of a problem in those taking methadone without a prescription as street methadone is not regulated and there is just no way to tell how pure it is or what strength it is. When taking the drug as part of an opioid replacement programme, the amount of the drug you are given will be controlled by a medical professional.

Having said that, there are those who will be tempted to take other substances along with methadone to enhance its effects. This can cause overdose and lead to the following symptoms:

  • Disorientation
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Constipation
  • Constricted pupils
  • Shallow breathing
  • Respiratory distress
  • Abdominal spasms
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Clammy, cold skin
  • Blueish tinge to lips and nails
  • Limp muscles
  • Drowsiness
  • Coma

It is vital to seek help immediately if any of the above signs manifest either in yourself or another person after taking too much methadone or mixing it with another depressant substance. Early intervention is imperative for methadone overdose as there is also a risk of fatal consequences.

Methadone Addiction Treatment and Rehab

Treatment for a methadone addiction is obviously crucial if you want to regain control of your life. A detox will help you to overcome the physical addiction, but it is not enough to detox alone. To put your addictive behaviour behind you for good, you will need to undergo a programme of rehabilitation as well. Rehab takes place on a residential or day care basis and is provided by the NHS, charities, and private clinics. Rehab deals with the underlying emotional and psychological issues associated with your illness. It will also help you to learn more about the illness and how to prevent it from returning in the future.

Methadone Addiction Withdrawal and Detox Statistics

  • In England and Wales, methadone-related deaths reached an all-time high since records began in 1993 with 486 deaths in 2011.
  • In 1993 there were 206 deaths related to methadone poisoning, but that number had more than doubled to 437 just four years later.
  • From that point, the number of deaths began to decline steadily to the lowest number recorded in 2002 at 199 deaths.
  • Since 2011, methadone poisoning deaths have decreased but remained relatively stable in the following seven years.
  • In 2016, the number of methadone deaths was 413.
  • Studies have shown that drug-related deaths for female opioid users are lower than for male users.
  • The risk of death from opioid use increases after the age of 35 regardless of gender.
  • A study of Scotland’s methadone-prescription clients from 2009 to 2013 found that methadone-specific drug-related deaths increased sharply with age.
  • Although the use of methadone as an opioid replacement drug halves the risk of drug-related deaths, in older clients that risk increases.

Frequently Asked Questions

How does methadone withdrawal affect my health?

During the detox process, you are likely to feel quite unwell and may feel as though you have the flu. However, these symptoms are unlikely to last and once you get through detox, you can look forward to many health benefits as your body restores normality.

In a special detox clinic, you will be made more comfortable and medication might be used to help relieve any symptoms you do experience.

Will my information be kept confidential?

Whoever provides your care has a duty to keep your information private and confidential. If you are worried about others finding out that you are in treatment for addiction, you needn’t be. Staff at detox and rehab clinics are bound by strict confidentiality policies that prohibit the sharing of information with third parties. No one will know that you are in treatment for addiction unless you tell them.

Am I addicted?

When using a mood-altering substance such as methadone, it can be easy to allow things to spiral out of control without even realising. A clear sign is when a family member or friend raised concerns.

Has your use of methadone changed?Are you taking more methadone than you did in the beginning? Have you begun using it with other substances to enhance the effects? Answering “yes” to any of these may be a sign of addiction.

A good way to tell if you are addicted is to see how long you can go without methadone. If you have an addiction, this is unlikely to be very long. You might experience a compulsive need to use the drug. Please note, you should not do this until you have discussed it with your doctor.

How serious is methadone detox?

Although methadone detox does not carry the same risk of severe withdrawal symptoms as withdrawing from alcohol or benzodiazepines do, it can still be an unpleasant experience. For some people, the risk of problems is higher, particularly those with a history of mental or physical health problems.

Can medications help me detox from methadone?

In a special detox facility, medications may be administered to help you get through the process. Your care team might decide that a substitute opioid drug is appropriate to prevent the worst of the withdrawals. If so, a drug such as buprenorphine could be administered as the methadone is slowly withdrawn. Because buprenorphine also acts on the brain’s opioid receptors, it helps lessen the impact and gives your body a chance to get used to the withdrawal of the methadone.

Can I die from methadone withdrawal?

There is always the risk of complications during any drug withdrawal but in the case of methadone withdrawal, the risk of death is low, particularly if you complete the process under medical supervision in a dedicated detox clinic.

How do I detox from methadone?

If methadone is withdrawn slowly over the course of several days or weeks, the impact will be less severe. When quitting methadone before an addiction develops, you will be given a tapering schedule by your doctor. This will allow you to withdraw from the drug over the course of weeks or months. Using the “cold turkey” method is possible only under medical supervision.

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