Methadone maintenance has been used in the United States for approximately 50 years as an effective treatment for opioid addiction. Yet many myths about its use persist, discouraging patients from using methadone, and leading family members to pressure patients using the treatment to stop.
Dr. Vincent Dole of Rockefeller University in New York, who pioneered the use of methadone as an opioid addiction treatment, found his patients no longer craved heroin. They were able to return to work and school, and participate in family life and community affairs.
As methadone’s use grew, the federal government decided it should only be dispensed in licensed treatment programs, which would provide a whole range of services such as counseling, vocational help and medical and psychiatric treatment.
This creation of the clinic system developed into a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it was advantageous to have many services available in the methadone clinic, but very stringent regulations came along with the clinic concept, including the requirement that patients come to the clinic daily for their methadone. Clinic hours often conflict with patients’ work schedules, and make it very difficult to take a vacation. In some areas of the country, the clinics are few and far between, requiring traveling many miles each day. The biggest and probably most important obstacle has been the stigma associated with being seen entering or exiting a methadone clinic.
In an attempt to reduce that stigma, I present the six most common myths about methadone and explain why they are incorrect.
Myth #1: Methadone is a substitute for heroin or prescription opioids. Methadone is a treatment for opioid addiction, not a substitute for heroin. Methadone is long-acting, requiring one daily dose. Heroin is short-acting, and generally takes at least three to four daily doses to prevent withdrawal symptoms from emerging.
Myth #2: Patients who are on a stable dose of methadone, who are not using any other non-prescribed or illicit medications, are addicted to the methadone. Patients taking methadone are physically dependent on it, but not addicted to it. Methadone does not cause harm, and provides benefits. People with many common chronic illnesses are physically dependent on their medication to keep them well, such as insulin for diabetes, inhalers for asthma and blood pressure pills for hypertension.
Myth #3: Patients who are stable on their methadone dose, who are not using other non-prescribed or illicit drugs, are not able to perform well in many jobs. People who are stable on methadone should be able to do any job they are otherwise qualified to do. A person stabilized on the correct dose is not sedated, in withdrawal or euphoric. The most common description of how a person feels on methadone is “normal.”
Myth #4: Methadone rots teeth and bones. After 50 years of use, methadone remains a safe medication. There are side effects from taking methadone and other opioids, such as constipation and increased sweating. These are usually easily manageable. If patients engage in good dental hygiene, they should not have any dental problems.
Myth #5: Methadone is not advisable in pregnant women. The evidence over the years has shown that a pregnant woman addicted to opioids has the best possible outcome for herself and her fetus if she takes either methadone or buprenorphine. A pregnancy’s outcomes are better for mother and newborn if the mother remains on methadone than if she tapers off and attempts to be abstinent during pregnancy. Methadone does not cause any abnormalities in the fetus and does not appear to cause cognitive or any other abnormalities in these children as they grow up. Babies born to mothers on methadone will experience neonatal abstinence syndrome, which occurs in most newborns whose mothers were taking opioids during pregnancy. This syndrome is treated and managed somewhat easily and outcomes for the newborn are good—it is not a reason for a pregnant woman to avoid methadone treatment. Mothers on methadone should breastfeed unless there is some other contraindication, such as being HIV-positive.
Myth #6: Methadone makes you sterile. This is untrue. Methadone may lower serum testosterone in men, but this problem is easily diagnosed and treated.
These myths, and the stigma of methadone treatment that accompanies them, are pervasive and persistent issues for methadone patients. They are often embarrassed to tell their other physicians, dentists and family members about their treatment. They may feel they are doing something wrong, when in fact they are doing something very positive for themselves and their loved ones. These misperceptions can only be corrected with more education for patients, families, health care providers and the general public.
Edwin A. Salsitz, MD, FASAM, is Medical Director, Office-Based Opioid Therapy at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York.
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