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Methadone Addiction Statistics: Lesser of Two Evils?

Methadone was developed in the first half of the twentieth century as a synthetic opiate. It is structurally similar to morphine and heroin, and acts in a similar way on the brain. Thus, the effects of taking methadone are similar to what one experiences when taking heroin. It was originally used medicinally for the treatment of chronic pain, but since has become a widely used treatment for heroin dependence.

Methadone acts similarly to heroin but is much less potent. So, by taking methadone heroin users can stave off some of the effects of heroin withdrawal, but they don't experience the same high as when taking heroin. Withdrawal from heroin is an extremely uncomfortable experience, and is one reason why heroin users will continue to take the drug (to avoid withdrawal). Thus, methadone allows them to withdraw from heroin without experiencing some of the negative effects.

Methadone Addiction Statistics

There are two common forms of treatment using methadone. One is methadone maintenance therapy, where methadone is provided to the patient on a regular basis. This regular dose of methadone allows them to abstain from taking other drugs, like heroin. The period of methadone maintenance can be long, however, and in some patients may be years. Methadone reduction programs are another approach to methadone treatment where the dose of methadone is gradually reduced until the patient no longer requires it. Often the patient will start on methadone maintenance therapy then progress to methadone reduction once they are no longer in danger of heroin withdrawal and the mental cravings for opiates have diminished slightly.

Since methadone programs involve repeated dosing of the patient with a drug similar to heroin, it's not surprising that methadone addiction can also occur. Over time, the body builds up a tolerance to methadone. Then, when a patient attempts to discontinue their use of methadone, they can experience severe withdrawal effects. The withdrawal effects resemble those of any opiate addiction, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, sweating, depression, suicidal ideation, insomnia, and delirium.

Some feel that the withdrawal effects of methadone are even stronger than those created by heroin, and may last for a longer period of time. This is the basis for methadone reduction programs. By slowly weaning the patient off of methadone, it is thought that some of the more serious effects can be avoided.

Because of its addictive potential, however, methadone use has become especially problematic. A black market has arisen for selling methadone, and the fatal overdoses of methadone have topped most other narcotics. In 2004, 13% of all overdose deaths involved methadone. Most of these fatalities are drug addicts, many of whom began taking methadone as an attempt to beat their addiction to other opiates.

Methadone has become the most commonly prescribed opioid painkillers as of 2009; 4 million prescriptions were written in 2006. In the deaths that have been attributed to methadone, it is difficult to determine how many were due to prescription methadone and how many to methadone purchased over the black market. It is also difficult to determine how many people are actually addicted to methadone. Over 250,000 people utilize methadone clinics today, but it is unclear what percentage of these people are addicted to methadone. Since they are technically engaged in treatment, it is harder to distinguish when they reach the point of addiction (the point at which most people would enter into treatment). They may not recognize their addiction until they try to stop taking methadone.

Alternatives to Methadone

Because of the problems that have come to surround methadone administration, some other drugs have begun to be prescribed for heroin addiction. One is buprenorphine, commonly known by the trade name Suboxone or Subutex. This is another synthetic opioid that acts similarly to heroin. The drug faces some of the same issues as heroin, however, as people will take it in large amounts to try to mimic some aspects of a heroin high.

Some have even begun offering heroin therapy, where heroin addicts are provided heroin in smaller and smaller amounts in order to wean them off of the drug. This has found some success in European countries.

Heroin addiction is a problem that isn't likely to go away anytime soon. Methadone is a potential treatment, but methadone addiction statistics show it is not without its own problems. Medical professionals continue to seek an adequate solution to the problem of heroin addiction.


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