Methadone is a prescription pain reliever that is also commonly used to treat withdrawal symptoms in people who are being treated for opioid dependency. However, methadone also has a relatively high risk of abuse and drug addiction in its own right, and the state of Utah has faced an epidemic of methadone overdoses in the last decade.
The PEW Research Center reports that Utah has the second-highest rate of fatalities from methadone overdoses in the nation, trailing only Maine. In the short time between 2000 and 2004, Utah deaths from methadone increased by 300 percent.
Methadone Remains a ‘Preferred Drug’ in Utah
Despite the fact that deaths related to methadone overdose are higher than average in Utah, the state still includes methadone on its preferred drug lists. The states with the highest and third-highest rates of methadone overdose—Maine and Washington—also continue to include methadone on their preferred drug lists.
Since 2013, 16 states beginning with North Carolina have removed methadone from their lists of preferred drugs for Medicaid, which means that its use is restricted to patients who have previously been treated with opioid drugs. The American Academy of Pain Medicine has recommended that the remaining 33 states that still have methadone on their preferred drug lists take steps to remove it because of the need for extra caution and care when using the drug.
Methadone’s Risks Set it Apart From Other Opioid Pain Relievers
Methadone works by relieving opioid cravings without producing the euphoric and intoxicating effects of highly addictive drugs like heroin. This allows opioid users to wean themselves off opioids rather than quitting “cold turkey,” but without the regular intoxication that makes it very difficult for them to function well in their day-to-day lives.
However, despite the fact that methadone does not produce the euphoric and intoxicating effects of opioids like heroin when taken in small doses, it is still a very powerful drug. As a result, there can be serious consequences if patients take more than the prescribed dose, including fatal overdose.
Breathing suppression is one of the primary effects of methadone. While patients should not experience serious difficulty breathing if they stick to the prescribed dosage of this drug, taking more than the prescribed dosage can be risky. What’s more, the effect of suppressed breathing lasts longer than the pain relieving action of methadone.
Methadone is the only narcotic pain reliever that suppresses heart and lung activity long after the pain relief has worn off. Patients who have been given methadone to treat pain may decide to take another dose as soon as their pain returns, which means that they are experiencing double the breathing suppression effects. This can be particularly dangerous if patients take a second dose before going to bed and experience difficulty breathing while asleep.
Surprisingly High Number of Fatal Overdoses
Methadone is by no means the most popular pain relieving drug in the United States, but it is involved in a significant number of pain relief-related overdose deaths. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), methadone is involved in one of three fatal overdoses despite the fact that it makes up only about 2 percent of all the opioid pain relieving drugs prescribed nationwide.
In Utah, methadone, hydrocodone and oxycodone are the three drugs most commonly involved in fatal overdoses. Utah has a higher rate of overall opioid prescriptions than the national average, which may contribute to higher-than-average fatalities. According to the Utah Department of Health, Utah had the fifth-highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the nation in 2011.