Here’s What You Need to Know About Methadone Treatment

About 980,000 Americans are currently struggling with an addiction to heroin or another opiate. These people are at an increased risk of death not just from drug overdose, but from hepatitis B or C, liver disease, HIV or mental health problems. Methadone maintenance can treat opiate addiction and can significantly prolong an addict’s life and reduce his or her chances of contracting a blood-borne illness like HIV or hepatitis.

But how effective is methadone maintenance treatment, exactly? What does methadone do for addicts and how does the treatment procedure work? The stigma of opiate addiction means that methadone maintenance remains poorly understood and controversial. Methadone maintenance treatment, in which recovering opiate addicts receive daily doses of the drug for at least 12 months, is the most effective form of treatment there is for opiate addiction. Most recovering addicts must receive this treatment at special facilities known as methadone clinics, though some trusted patients may eventually earn the right to use their medication at home.

How Effective Is Methadone Maintenance?

Methadone maintenance therapy, also known as MMT, is the most effective treatment for opiate addiction. A review of 52 studies involving 12,075 opiate addicts found that MMT was more effective than methadone detoxification treatment, buprenorphine maintenance treatment, heroin maintenance treatment, no treatment and all other forms of treatment. A review of 28 studies involving 7,900 opiate- addicted subjects showed that HIV-negative addicts who do not receive methadone maintenance have a 22 percent chance of contracting HIV, compared to a 3.5 percent chance for those who are undergoing methadone treatment.

Studies also show that methadone maintenance treatment improves the lives of recovering addicts across the board. When researchers followed up with a group of 150 opiate addicts 2.5 years after they entered methadone maintenance, they found that the recovering addicts had experienced social, medical, psychological, legal and career improvements thanks to their treatment programs. Another study of 933 heroin addicts going through methadone maintenance found that they were less likely to abuse narcotics or engage in criminal behavior, but more likely to get married and hold down jobs, provided they stuck with their methadone programs.

How Does Methadone Maintenance Work?

According to the CDC, methadone works because it blocks the euphoric effects of heroin and other opiate drugs while relieving withdrawal symptoms, but without causing any intoxication itself. Methadone is a slower-acting drug than heroin, so it need only be taken once a day. By contrast, addicts must use heroin three or four times a day to control withdrawal symptoms, and even if they do, they will still experience intoxicating euphoria that makes it difficult for them to function. With methadone, however, they can function normally without experiencing withdrawal symptoms, which can be so painful that they are often a cause of relapse.

Methadone maintenance treatment is most effective when patients are given a dose of 60 to 120 milligrams a day. Some benefits of methadone maintenance therapy include:

• Reduction or elimination of injected drug use

• Lowered mortality

• Lowered risk of disease and overdose

• Fewer risky sexual behaviors

• Increase in family stability and employment

• Better pregnancy outcomes

• Lowered criminality

In the United States, opiate addicts must go to a methadone clinic in order to receive treatment. At the clinic, the addict will receive a pre-treatment physical evaluation from a physician. He or she may require treatment for concurrent or pre-existing conditions.

New patients must almost always receive their daily dose of methadone at the clinic, under the supervision of the clinic medical staff. This is a precaution meant to keep patients from abusing methadone by using more than one dose at a time, or selling their methadone on the streets. However, patients who consistently show progress in the methadone maintenance program and show themselves to be trustworthy and committed to their recovery over time may eventually earn the right to take some methadone home with them, so that they needn’t keep returning to the clinic every day for their medication.

Therapy is a regular part of methadone maintenance treatment. Individual or group counseling may be required for any recovering addict participating in a methadone maintenance program. Counseling can help recovering addicts develop the coping skills they will need to eventually stop taking methadone and stay off drugs long-term.

Research has consistently shown that methadone maintenance treatment is the most effective form of treatment for opiate addiction. If done properly, it can help addicts stay off drugs, reduce risky behaviors, stay out of trouble with the law and improve their lives. For many, MMT means the difference between living a long and productive life and succumbing to addiction.

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