The Difference Between Methadone and Other Painkillers

Methadone is a euphoria-free prescription opioid used to treat chronic pain and opiate dependenceMethadone is a long-lasting synthetic opioid that purposely lacks the chemicals to produce the euphoric high associated with other narcotic drugs like heroin, hydrocodone and oxycodone. German scientists in the 1930s developed the basis for methadone, and after acquiring the rights to the drug after WW II, the US introduced methadone to the market in 1947 as a pain reliever. In the 1960s, Rockefeller Foundation researchers found an alternative use for methadone as an opiate replacement drug. One of the original studies, published in The Journal of the American Medical Association in 1965, explained that methadone provided relief from narcotic hunger and induced enough tolerance to block the euphoric effects of an average heroin dose. By utilizing methadone, recovering heroin addicts can feed their physical opiate dependence while learning to live without the opiate high, and in time, the recovering addict gradually stops taking methadone. In recent years, treatment centers expanded the drug’s use to help opioid painkiller addicts, especially those with a history of relapse. The drug was primarily used for addiction treatment through the late 1990s, but methadone is now increasingly used to manage chronic pain again. As noted by WebMD, doctors wrote four million methadone prescriptions in 2006 exclusively for pain relief. Though all prescription opioids are a Schedule II controlled substance, methadone is different in several ways from other opioid painkillers.

Methadone vs. Opioid Painkillers

Hydrocodone is the active ingredient in brand name painkillers like Vicodin, Lortab, Zohydro and Norco, while oxycodone is used in OxyContin and Percocet. Along with morphine, various formulations of these three compounds make up the majority of opioid painkillers. Each of these drugs is a semi-synthetic opioid that pharmaceutical companies formulate using different alkaloids from opium poppy plants. Methadone, however, is entirely synthetic, and a lack of access to opium poppy is what originally motivated the Germans to develop the drug. Though the drug acts on the same opiate receptors in the brain, methadone is not a poppy-derived semi-synthetic like most other painkillers.

Several additional differences also exist between methadone and standard opioid painkillers, including the following:

  • Stays in the system for up to 59 hours compared to six hours for normal-release opioids
  • Can be used for addiction treatment while painkillers are exclusively for treating pain
  • Dosage is often given in a medical clinic whereas painkillers are often for at-home use

Some of the differences also involve risk levels. For example, the lack of opiate high and the extended release of morphine can lead to overdosing. Likewise, taking the drug with alcohol, sedatives, amphetamines, antidepressants or other opioids can also lead to an overdose. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2012, methadone was involved in nearly one in three prescription painkiller deaths in 2009, contributing to more than 30 percent of painkiller fatalities despite making up only 2 percent of the prescriptions.

Methadone Dependence and Addiction

Methadone does share a few key similarities with standard opioid painkillers. By tampering with methadone tablets, some people can access the opioid euphoria typically associated with other painkillers. Likewise, despite its use in addiction treatment, methadone joins other painkillers in its potential for causing addiction and dependence. Methadone users need to watch for warning signs, which can include the following:

  • Physical discomforts like dry mouth, vomiting, nausea and itchy skin
  • Feelings of drowsiness, lightheadedness, weakness and problems concentrating
  • Unexplained heart rate changes, tremors, seizures and gastrointestinal pain
  • Issues with insomnia, paranoia and increased symptoms of mental health disorders
  • Cravings and racing thoughts that occur during gaps in methadone use

If taking methadone properly and for legitimate reasons, the medical staff will monitor dosage level and help safeguard against addiction. People who take methadone independently and/or recreationally lack these safeguards and have a much higher risk of developing an addiction. In either case, professional rehabilitation is the most effective way to deal with any addiction, including methadone.

Opioid Addiction Treatment

The Addiction Science & Clinical Practice journal explained in 2002 that methadone acts on the same brain processes and structures as other opioids, but in a protective or normalizing way. When used properly and carefully, methadone can be a valuable aid in treating opiate addiction and chronic pain. When dealing with addiction, however, the 2002 study noted that people must take methadone in conjunction with other approximate therapies to maximize its effectiveness. While treatment centers customize recovery plans for patient, a variety of therapies are typically applied, and they potentially include the following:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to improve coping strategies and reduce negative thought patterns
  • Motivational interviewing that helps patients find personal motivation and catalysts for change
  • Integrated screenings and treatment for co-occurring mental health and personality disorders
  • Life skills tools like anger management, conflict resolution and chronic stress reduction
  • Holistic and non-narcotic therapies that help patients manage chronic pain issues

If you have questions about methadone therapies or addiction treatment, our admissions coordinators can help. We are available 24 hours a day to take your call, answer questions, provide information and even check health insurance policies for rehab benefits. Our helpline is toll-free, so if you need assistance, please call now.

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