Methadone, Used to Treat Pain, Kills Thousands Every Year

By Douglas Main | December 20, 2011 9:53 am

Methadone is commonly given to people trying to kick a heroin addiction. But the long-lasting opioid is also an inexpensive, effective pain-killer. With rising costs of prescription narcotics like OxyContin, doctors are increasingly prescribing methadone to treat pain, especially to patients on Medicaid or less generous health insurance plans. From 1999 to 2005, its use in the U.S. increased more than five-fold, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. But over the same time period, deaths associated with the drug have increased more than five times, climbing from 786 in 1999 to 4,462, according to the CDC. In Washington state alone, more than 2,100 people died after taking the drug since 2003, says says The Seattle Times.

Methadone’s pain-killing effects last only four to eight hours, but it stays in the body much longer; studies have put the high end of its half-life between 59 and 128 hours. That means the pharmaceutical’s dangers—specifically, it’s ability to depress and eventually paralyze the respiratory system—last much longer. This means patients in pain might be tempted to take more of the medicine without being aware of the toxic buildup. Read more about it in a piece at The Seattle Times, which makes a convincing case that use and deaths from the drug are much more common amongst the poor than the affluent.

[via The Seattle Times]

Image credit: Abulic Monkey / Flickr


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • Me

    people need to PAY ATTENTION! doctors, pharmacists, and the little info sheet that comes with prescriptions will warn you about things like this and I’ve found most of the time when overdoses happen it is the patient’s fault for either deliberately taking too much or not staying properly hydrated, but probably that they let their doctors voice go in one ear and out the other

  • Etienne

    Big pharma is pulling a veil over our eyes. Who really thinks the best painkillers (in terms of effectiveness, non-addictiveness, etc) are drugs developed in the last 20 years and still under patent? Opioids can be addictive, and some people can’t handle them. They become outlawed as the death toll and their notoriety rises, and they’ve always got some new, “safer”, patented opioid waiting for us to prescribe en masse. They’ve been playing this game since the beginning of the century. Remember how morphine started out? As a painkiller and drug to help people off opium! Of course there are natural substances out there that people have been using as painkillers for thousands of years. Most you’ll never hear about, and as for the one you know, marijuana… well it can’t be patented, so it must be evil, right?

  • Norbrook

    Etienne? Morphine is natural. It’s the active ingredient extracted from opium poppies. Same with cocaine.

  • http://none brad suffers every day

    Excuse my anger after what some Doctors had put me through trying to hide their mistakes never admiting they were just out right wrong. It makes me angery and I started to vent sorry to the readers. But this is a very sore subject how can some one who isn’t in cronic pain tell some one what they need because some one else abused the system. Its not perfect but its all we have. Every one wants to control all our rights. Slowly people in gov sit all day trying to think of ways to take away out rights only so they can fine some poor guilty soul who is allready suffering. You donnt think the Doctors who know and understand what is going on with 99% of the people who are really trying to get some relief. No one can understand cronic pain until they have sat up all night after night after night feeling like they want to die because their pain has trapped their poor soul in a body that isnt working the way it use to. I was hurt when a 18 year old kid ran a red light it changed my life forever Im leaking spinal fluid it took the doctors 20 years to find that it was that all the this time even after I told them this from the very start I was ignored and told I was just trying to get drugs. Even though their has never been a record of that or a dirty pee test I was even acussed of being a meth addic with no proof I was still treated like a leaper and called a career criminal with no record ever just because some nurse said so and the rumor grew and grew Hospital to hospital in the end I did use because I was dieing and it was the only thing that saved my life. I have doctors who have agreed with me after they got to know me and know that I dont have a addictive personalty. I hate taking the pain kil;lers but if I didnt I know I would of died a long time ago. leaking spinal fluid is no joke as soon as you sit up your sick if its 70 degrees its ten times worse noise smells or any movement AND your getting much worse you cant eat hot food it makes me sick not spicey but temp the fluid cools the brain and cussions it riding in a car is bad. The only thing I can do is lay on my back what is that good for not much unless I wanted to pimp my self what else is left. If they take my meds they should just shot me iin the head because I wont want to live like that any more or again. Ive been through hell.

  • tonya1968

    This drug is very dangerous, even taking as prescribed. Please visit my website at

  • MrsRobinson

    Norbrook, the key differences between Pot and Morphine & Cocaine is that pot is taken as is and is nontoxic with no addictive properties whereas morphine and cocaine are MADE FROM alkaloids taken from plants and altered to their respective states and are both toxic and addictive.

    Also, I knew a guy who was using methadone to treat a heroin addiction… he was also dying of hepatitis C which he contracted from his own dirty unshared needles. It’s not pretty and it was horrifying to see the skull x-bones on the warning label stating if any non heroin user were to take the dose it would kill them. I’m all for scientifically back safe meds and not garbage panned out by doctors on guess work with no peer review.

  • Bob Manke

    I am a currently listed affected party to the Iowa Supreme court challenge to schedule one status for medical cannabis. It is thoroughly outrageous that anti-drug morons can run so much as a traffic stop when they have made such egregious careers out of crushing the ill and infirm. I appeared before the Iowa Board of Pharmacy three times and they came out unanimously in favor of legalizing medical cannabis in Iowa. I am on oxycodone and today was abused by a lying drug warrior of a medical doctor who has his head up his ass. We badly need relief from these psychopaths. The totally phony drug war is lost, drug warriors. It is coming down around your shoulders! I am not going to stop drug warriors. I am going to set up Iowa to reprogram the brain of the DEA and then you can try your filthy tricks some more. I want to take Less dope and marijuana is way less dope than oxycodone, for sure. Legalize medical marijuana in Iowa NOW!

  • candy

    definitely. marijuana studies that show it has actually helped people are suppressed. they dont get enough profit. but by all means lets lock up people who use it legally or not.

  • http://na noel

    Those who with-hold effective painkillers because of ideology should sign a legal form preventing themselves from ever receiving such treatment in the future despite how badly they need it.

  • Mike

    As long as opiates are manufactured (by whoever), and as long as doctors prescribe them, there will be opiate abusers and addicts. Methadone is the best thing there is that allows addicts to continue with a productive life. I know. I’ve lived it. I was an opiate abuser since having multiple surgeries for injuries received as an athlete dating back to 1982. From that point on, I had periods of sobriety and periods of debilitating addiction until I finally went to a methadone clinic in 2004 – and doing that has put a stop to the insanity. You can’t tell me that if I were to just “get off that stuff” as my sister yelled at me a few years ago, that I would be fine. Since then I was forced to stop for several months, but still I went back to maintenance as soon as I could. Now, as I’m getting older, I think I want to see if I can move away from it and the entire drug scene, and for the first time in my life I feel I actually might be able to succeed. If not for methadone (maintenance), I’m not sure I would feel the same way. It has allowed me to live a productive and decent life until I think my body and my mind are ready. And I want to bring up my initial point again. Opiates (as we know them) must be phased out, and they should be prescribed to those not enduring a terminal or painful chronic illness/injury very, very sparingly. For those of you who wouldn’t willingly go the route of drug abuse, don’t allow a doctor to lead you down that path. A problem that’s hard to get around, relating to medication for doctors, is that sometimes they have either no or inadequate personal experience with the use of some drugs they prescribe. The fact of the matter is, until opiates as we know them are no longer prescribed/manufactured, there will always be a need for methadone maintenance or its equivalent as a countermeasure to opiate addiction.

  • Heather

    My mom was sent home with methadone after a spinal fusion surgery. My mom will religiously take any drug that the doctor prescribes, and if she had been alone, she would be dead. I had to seriously fight her doctors to get her off this medication, she was so screwed up and incoherent and had no idea that she kept taking more. She was just like a sleepwalker. No one’s mother or father should ever be sent home with this stuff. As a caretaker, it was a nightmare dealing with her the two days she was on it.

  • Donald Wagster

    This is total crap. They are using data from the period when pain doctors were allow to prescribe the 40mg waffers ,which had only been used at detox. Because methadone had such a safe history to that point , they were loosing the restrictions on it. Big mistake, That is why there was a sudden spike in deaths (almost always multi-drug O.D.’s) during the period stated. It has been removed from market in that form .Check the latest stats. Back to normal.
    Its is a shame that the this info has been distorted and used in the way stated in this article.

  • Geack

    @2. Etienne – “Of course there are natural substances out there that people have been using as painkillers for thousands of years. Most you’ll never hear about…” You never heard of them because they don’t really work very well. Your implication that they’re being hidden from us is stark raving BS. Aspirin became an overnight sensation a century ago because, unlike virtually everything else everyone up to then had tried, it actually worked without being more trouble than it was worth. Think about it this way: people have been getting rich by trading useful materials since the beginning of time. The Silk Road, the spice trade, the pre-biblical copper mines in Turkey, the ancient caravan-route empires, cotton, wool, iron, glass, buckwheat, hemp, rice, sorghum, opium, on and on and on… any time someone somewhere has produced something better than what people used to be stuck with, word about that new better thing spread, creating trade. You honestly want us to believe something as universally useful as a real painkiller has been around forever but somehow word never got out about it? No 13th-century monarch or 15th-century raja or 18th-century merchant or 19th-century robber baron built a fortune on it? Just plain silly.

  • jim

    I was paralyzed due to a spine injury. I had to fusions. I could not walk for two years. The pain was unbareable. I tried everything. Morphine did not work. The doctor asked if I would like to try methadone. It was like night and day. Pain was controable. I ave been taking methadone for ten years to manage my pain. I take 10 mg every 8 hours. I am also prescribed tramadol for when the methadone does not take affect right away. I will not take more than prescribed. I tried wiening or cutting back but the pain level comes back up. The important thing is to follow your doctors orders. I also have a spinal cord stimulator that sends electricy through my spine and legs to help control the pain. It works but Istill need methadone. I also get testostrome injections do to low t. It was down to 25. My erections have been affected about 50 percent, I am 62 years old and at least I can walk again and my pain is controlled. Being on disability with no money is a whole different story for another day.


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