The Cycle of Heroin and Methadone Addiction

Heroin and Methadone Addiction

Understanding the deadly cycle of heroin and methadone addiction is vital for effective intervention.


No one sets out or intends to become a drug addict, but this doesn’t stop people from developing devastating dependencies to drugs like heroin, OxyContin and Methadone.

While a substance abuser struggles to keep his/her head above water, surrounding family, friends and loved ones struggle in a different way, asking simply: Why? How could my son, daughter, father, sister, or brother become a liar, a thief, someone who cannot be trusted? How could this happen? And why won’t they stop?

Opiate Addiction Causes and Life Cycle

The first thing to understand about addiction is that for drugs to be attractive to an individual, there must first be some underlying unhappiness, sense of discomfort or pain. Loss of a loved one, family stress, other drug or alcohol use patterns or sheer boredom are each reasons why one might turn to opiates.

What is an Opiate?

The term opiate refers to any substance derived from the naturally-occurring opium poppy plant. The most commonly abused opiate substance is heroin.

Methadone, which is technically an opioid, is a powerful drug used in the treatment of heroin addiction (replacement drug therapy) and management of withdrawal symptoms.

(Note: The term opioid refers to synthetically manufactured narcotic drugs which are made to mimic the effects of naturally-occurring opium. Opiate and opioid are often used interchangeably, although they mean different things.)

Heroin and Methadone: What Causes Opiate and Opioid Addiction?

Whether an individual is genetically or biochemically predisposed to addiction and/or alcoholism is a controversy that has been debated for years within the scientific and medical communities. One school of thought stands behind the “disease concept,” embracing the notion that addiction is an inherited disease, and that the individual is destined for substance abuse at genetic level, even for those experiencing long periods of sobriety.

No matter which theory one follows, the biophysical effects of opiate and opioid drugs produce specific habit-forming patterns which, through dependency, lay the framework for a serious condition of addiction.

Opioid drugs interact with the brain’s reward systems by flooding the system with excessive dopamine levels, producing a very intense high and causing the individual to experience severe “cravings” and to focus their activities around the drug. The cycle of heroin and methadone addiction are each deeply interrelated and depend on these key biophysical factors.

After extended use, the person may no longer respond to the drug in the way that person initially responded. In the case of heroin and methadone, physical tolerance develops rapidly to the analgesic (pain killing) effects of the drug. While the development of tolerance is not addiction, many drugs that produce tolerance also have addictive potential.

Using Methadone to Treat Heroin Addiction—Does it Work?

While some support the use of the opioid methadone in treating heroin addiction, others have called it a “band-aid” form of treating, criticizing its blatant avoidance of the underlying issues causing substance abuse to begin with.

The European Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) reports that methadone treatment for heroin is not only a costly burden to the state, but could be likened to “nationalized drug dealing.”

As drug analyst Kathy Gyngell estimated in her CPS report, a greater success rate could be achieved amongst addicts if efforts were geared more toward freeing people from dependency, rather than employing an opioid prescription which is, in itself, is highly addictive and produces its own set of risks and withdrawal symptoms.

When a heroin abuser undergoing methadone maintenance treatment stops taking the opioid abrupty, he/she may experience irritability, nausea, anxiety, aching muscles/joins or chills—all of which encourage the individual to take more of the methadone, leaving the underlying substance dependency unaddressed.

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