Tough Choice

I have been struggling with part II, primarily because there are no easy answers to the situation. I realize that I could easily criticize whichever path a doctor suggests for our imaginary patient.
As an aside, I believe that a major reason for the lack of sufficient prescribers of buprenorphine in some parts of the country is the ‘damned if I do, or damned if I don’t’ scenario. All docs are aware of the current epidemic of opioid overdose deaths, and I think most doctors assume that tighter regulations on opioids are appropriate, and are just around the corner. Some addiction physicians and some pain physicians, particularly those who prescribe opioids, fear being grouped by the media, DEA, or a licensing board as part of the problem, rather than as part of the solution. I recently read of a doctor charged with manslaughter for being one of several prescribers for a person who died from opioid overdose. He prescribed meperidine—and outdated and toxic medication—which likely contributed to the charges… but the story creates a chilling atmosphere, regardless. Suboxone and buprenorphine are much safer medications, but when the target population consists of people with addictions to opioids, there will always be some people who use the medication inappropriately— some with disastrous results.
For those late to the party, we are discussing the best treatment approach for someone who cannot control using opioids, but who for now, at least, has a low opioid tolerance. Starting buprenorphine in such a patient will cause opioid side effects, as described in an email that I received from a woman who was addicted to hydrocodone for four years, who stopped taking hydrocodone for 7 days before induction with buprenorphine.
She wrote:
This Suboxone is making me feel like crap. He has me on 8mg/2mg sublingual 2/day. It’s awful…
She had been taking 20-30 mg of hydrocodone up to 5 times per day, stopping them a week before induction. She continued:
Have had a headache in the base of my skull since starting Sub 4 days ago, nausea, vomiting, sweating a lot, face feels like it’s on fire, can’t taste anything, throat hurts, can’t sleep because my face & eyes itch so bad that I’ve rubbed them raw.
These are classic side-effects of over-narcotization from buprenorphine. A person in this position typically feels better holding the buprenorphine, and when the nausea is eventually gone, taking a greatly reduced dose of the medication. The problem is that if the dose is too low, there is no advantage to buprenorphine over other opioids. The whole point of taking Suboxone is to stay on a blood level HIGHER than the ceiling effect, as that essentially tricks the brain, since the opioid effect stays constant even as the blood level falls.
In a few days, the writer’s tolerance will increase to a level where she can take an entire dose of Suboxone without nausea. And by that time, the medication will greatly reduce the desire to take opioids.
Will she be better off on buprenorphine or Suboxone than she was on hydrocodone? Her tolerance will be higher—meaning greater physical withdrawal if she stops the buprenorphine, than she would have had stopping the hydrocodone.
But on the other hand, she tried to stop taking hydrocodone for several years, and couldn’t. She was taking over 4 grams of acetaminophen per day— the other medication present in Norco besides hydrocodone— which is enough to cause death through liver toxicity. And the ups and downs of hydrocodone addiction create a living Hell that eventually demoralizes the person.
I hear from writers who are angry at their physician for getting them ‘stuck on Suboxone’, saying they should have simply tapered off the hydrocodone instead. My answer is that it is easier to SAY ‘I would have tapered of hydrocodone’ than it is to actually taper and stay off hydrocodone!
A doctor seeing the patient I wrote about in part one, or the person above, would face two options:
1. Cause an incidental ‘high’ by administering buprenorphine, and titrating the dose up to a level that eliminates cravings, or:
2. Use an alternate treatment strategy.
Some doctors would opt for the latter, saying they are not comfortable with deliberately intoxicating patients with opioids—something that is unavoidable when starting a low-tolerance patient on buprenorphine (or Suboxone; note that the naloxone component of the medication is irrelevant to this discussion, as it has no action unless injected).
In such cases people are often referred to step-based or other residential treatment centers. I’ve written some pessimistic opinions about those places, but I’m just trying to be accurate. I realize that there are many people dedicating their lives to treating people with addictions in such places—ranging from free, community-supported programs to $80,000 per month luxury rehabs. As dedicated as those people are, the success rate of such programs remains low, and the risk of fatal overdose is present upon discharge. Most people who have gone through residential treatment relapse. And many people have been through rehab multiple times, yet continue to struggle.
Vivitrol, a monthly, injectable form of naltrexone, has been marketed to fill in this space, as a protection against relapse after residential treatment or after several weeks of detox. But for whatever reason, most people opt to forgo that medication, instead placing misguided faith in their own ability to stay clean. So what usually happens is that people with a lower tolerance to opioids repeatedly go through detox, or repeatedly pay for residential treatment, only to return to using opioids. Tolerance increases over time and eventually they present with a tolerance level where Suboxone seems more appropriate.
Assuming, of course, they live that long.

Hydrocodone (Vicodin) Addiction and Buprenorphine

I recently accepted a young man as a patient who was addicted to hydrocodone (the opioid in Vicodin), prompting a discussion about treatment options for someone who hasn’t been using very long, and who hasn’t pushed his tolerance all that high. Perhaps it will be informative to share my thought process when recommending or planning treatment in such cases. In part one I’ll provide some background, and in a couple days I’ll follow up with a few more thoughts on the topic.
Most people who have struggled with opioids learn to pay attention to their tolerance level—i.e. the amount of opioid that must be taken each day to avoid withdrawal or to cause euphoria (the latter about 30% more than the former). For someone addicted to opioids, the goal is to have a tolerance of ‘zero’—meaning that there is no withdrawal, even if the person takes nothing. That zero tolerance level serves as a goal, making having a high tolerance a bad thing, and pushing tolerance lower a good thing.
Tolerance is sometimes used as part of the equation when determining the severity of one’s addiction. But looking at tolerance alone can be misleading. Tolerance is a consequence of heavy use of opioids, and also a cause of heavy use of opioids. Tolerance usually goes up over time, so having a high tolerance probably correlates with length of addiction in some—- but not all— cases. Tolerance is also strongly related to drug availability. A person with a severe addiction, who only has access to codeine, will likely have a lower tolerance than a person with a more mild addiction, who has free access to fentanyl, oxycodone, and heroin.
I think it is more appropriate to measure the ‘severity of addiction’ by the degree of mental obsession that the patient has for opioids. Tolerance is one piece of information in determining that obsession, but tolerance alone can be misleading.
To get a sense of the obsession for opioids, I look at many factors. Has the person committed crimes to obtain the substance? Violent crimes? What has the person given up for his addiction? Has he been through treatment? How many times? How long did he stay clean after treatment? Have his parents or spouse thrown him out of the house, and if so, does he still use? Did he choose opioids over his career? Over his kids?
Answers to these questions provide a broad understanding about the addicted person’s relationship with the substance—an understanding that is necessary when considering the likely success or failure of one treatment or another. It is also important to consider the person’s place in the addictive cycle—i.e. early, likely in denial, cocky, with limited insight– or late, after many losses, more desperate—and perhaps more accepting of treatment.
I am a fan of buprenorphine as a long-term treatment for opioid dependence, as readers of this column know. I consider opioid dependence to be a chronic, potentially-fatal illness that deserves chronic, life-sustaining treatment— and buprenorphine, in my experience, is a very effective treatment in motivated patients. But tolerance becomes a factor, when considering buprenorphine for THIS patient.
Buprenorphine has a ‘cap’ or ‘ceiling effect’ that allows the medication to trick the brain out of craving opioids. In short, as the blood or brain concentration of buprenorphine drops between doses, the opioid effect remains constant, as long as the concentration is above the ceiling level. In order to achieve the anti-craving effects of buprenorphine, the dose must be high enough to create ‘ceiling level’ effects. If buprenorphine is prescribed in lower amounts—say microgram doses— the effect is identical to the effects of an agonist, since the dose/response curve is linear at lower levels.
Buprenorphine is a very potent opioid, and the effects of the medication are quite strong at the ceiling level. Comparisons to other opioids will vary in different individuals, but in general, a person on an appropriate dosage of buprenorphine develops a tolerance equivalent to that of a person taking 40 mg of methadone per day, or approximately 60-100 mg of oxycodone per day.
A person taking even a dozen Vicodin per day has a much lower tolerance to opioids. Such a person who starts buprenorphine treatment will obtain a very significant opioid effect from the drug— unless the dose of buprenorphine is raised very slowly over a number of days. And in that case, the person’s tolerance level would be pushed much higher.
So if our current patient starts buprenorphine, he will have a much higher opioid tolerance if/when the buprenorphine is eventually discontinued. I receive emails now and then from patients who are angry at their doctor for starting buprenorphine, feeling trapped by the considerable threat of withdrawal from stopping the drug. But at the same time, taking hydrocodone and acetaminophen in high amounts creates the risk of liver damage from the acetaminophen, as well as the considerable risks from opioid dependence.
And so the dilemma. Should buprenorphine be considered in such a case?

Sick When Starting Suboxone: Abres Los Ojos!

An interesting case from a reader:
Thanks Doc for your efforts. I appreciate you.
I am a four year hydrocodone addict 55 years old. I became addicted when I used the drug for an injured cervical disc.
A couple of years ago I found out about suboxone and got in touch with a Dr. in Tulsa who prescribed it for me. I waited until I thought I was in withdrawl..about twenty hours and took my first dose. I became dizzy, nausiated, numb and all I could do was make it to the bedroom where my nausea eased a bit…I never vomited. I lay there for ten hours in a numbed state half in and out of sleep. The next day I was fine.
The Dr. said I took it too early. So, I waited a week without any hydros and took another pill and got the same results. The Dr. said to flush them and I did.

Two years later I am still an addict. Do you think I should try again? Could I take small slivers of the pill without the negative effects? What do you think?
I am desperate to get clean.
I have also heard about subutex but have never tried it. Could it be that subutex is what I should try for?
Respectfully,
John in Oklahoma
My Response:

High on opiates
High on opiates

How much hydrocodone were you taking in the days leading up to taking Suboxone? Your reaction sound more like a person overdosing on buprenorphine than precipitated withdrawal– do you remember, at the time you were nauseated, were your pupils very large, or very small? If you were in withdrawal your pupils would be huge; if you were overdosing they would be ‘pinpoint’, and if you were having an allergic reaction of some type, they would be about normal.
20 hours should be plenty long for hydrocodone, and your second attempt could not have been precipitated withdrawal, providing you weren’t on some other opiate. Nausea and vomiting are not the main features of withdrawal; more typical would be lower abdominal cramps and diarrhea. Nausea is a big part of overdose, on the other hand. The potency of Suboxone (any dose above 4 mg) is equal to about 30 mg of methadone, or about 60 mg of oxycodone, or about 100 mg of hydrocodone… if you were taking the 5 mg tabs, that would mean that a tablet of Suboxone would equal the potency of about 20 tablets of vicodin. Since vicodin lasts only a few hours, to have an equal tolerance you would need to be taking about 20 times 6 = 120 tabs of vicodin per day. That is a lot of vicodin– enough to kill you by destroying your liver, so you were probably taking significantly less.
Out of junk
Out of junk

I think the Suboxone was just too strong. Yes, you could try working your way up with tiny pieces, but it is
hard to titrate at the low doses because of the unusual dose/response curve. I think a better way, if you are not on a huge dose of vicodin, would be to use clonidine, immodium, and maybe some other things to help with the withdrawal, and use the steps to stay clean… otherwise you will be moving up the tolerance ladder.
Subutex would be another option if I am wrong with my assumptions about your dosing– some rare people do have bad reactions to the naloxone, even though little gets into the system. One other hypothesis… if you were taking tons of vicodin, and your liver was in bad shape, your liver might not have been able to destroy the naloxone (first pass metabolism at the liver is what keeps the naloxone in Suboxone from working), and so the naloxone in Suboxone precipitated withdrawal.
Good luck!
John Writes Back:
Yes, Dr. you may be right. My dose was relatively low, I was taking at or about four or five lortab 10 tablets a day.
I wasn’t aware of the potency of the suboxone. I seem to remember I took the four or five mg. tabs, the small orange hex shaped one.
I did not check my pupils, but if I take it again I will be sure to do that.
I know my dosage is not that of others and that Vicodin addiction is not that of Oxycontin or heroin. That said, I still feel hoplessly addicted to them and have tried the twelve steps twice. That is why I am interested in the suboxone, but like you say it would be stepping up the tolerance ladder, I suppose. Since my willpower is nonexistant at this point, I think I am going to give the suboxone one more try the way I suggested and I will let you know how it works.
Half-wasted?
Half-wasted?

Thanks for your timely reply, and I think you hit the nail on the head.
God bless you
John in Oklahoma
And Me Again:
You might want try a bit of a medication called ‘hydroxyzine’, which is used to reduce nausea from opiates– although it also can be quite sedating, so don’t drive on the combination. A non-sedating alternative would be odantreson (zofran), which is what is given post-op for nausea. In fact, forget the hydroxyzine– premedicate yourself with a dose of zofran, about 4 hours before the induction, and you should do much better.