Despite the nation’s decade-long surge in opioid addiction, large swaths of the U.S. lack specialized opioid treatment centers to dispense methadone, one of three medications available to treat addiction to heroin and prescription pain pills, Stateline reports. The other two medications, buprenorphine (approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2002) and Vivitrol (approved in 2010), can be prescribed by doctors. For some patients, particularly those who have built up a high tolerance for opioids through prolonged use or high doses, methadone is the only addiction medication that works.
Although research has proven methadone’s effectiveness at eliminating withdrawal symptoms, quelling drug cravings, and keeping people in treatment, it has been plagued by stigma and misinformation since its development in 1964. Originally developed and still used to treat pain, methadone normalizes the brain and satisfies the body’s physical dependence on opioids without producing a high. Still, many in the medical community and addiction counseling field adhere to the discredited belief that because the methadone molecule is similar to heroin its use amounts to “trading one drug for another” or “one addiction for another” and does not mark true recovery. The American Society of Addiction Medicine says that all three medications should be considered for people with an addiction to heroin or prescription painkillers. Just as with any other chronic disease, one medication may work for certain patients, while the other two may not. In 2014, more than 28,000 people died of an overdose of opioid painkillers or heroin, and an estimated 2.5 million were addicted to opioids.