Help for Heroin Addiction

A couple comments for regular readers…  first, watch for an upcoming change to a new name.  For years I’ve debated whether to adopt a name centered on ‘buprenorphine’, rather than the more-recognizable ‘Suboxone’.  I believe that time has come.   Second, I’m going to ‘reset’ with some introductory comments about the proper approach to treating heroin addiction, intended for those who are seeking help – starting with this post.
I’m addicted to heroin.  Which treatment should I use?
I’ve treated heroin addiction in a range of settings, including abstinence-based programs and medication-assisted treatment with buprenorphine, naltrexone, and methadone. My education prepared me for this type of work, and my personal background created empathy for people engaged in the struggle to leave opioids behind.
The first barrier to success is on you. Are you ready to leave opioids behind? How ready? Are you so ready that you will be able to end relationships with people who use? Are you ready to stop other substances, especially cocaine and benzodiazepines? You will find help during treatment and you don’t have to take these steps entirely on your own. But you must at least have the desire to get there.
If you’re ready, the next step is deciding the treatment that is likely to help you. Many people see abstinence-based treatment as a ‘gold standard’ – the ultimate way to escape opioids. Unfortunately, that belief has fueled many deaths over the past ten years, as desperate people paid large sums of money for themselves or loved ones expecting programs to alter personality over the course of three months. It doesn’t work that way for most people!
During several years working in abstinence-based programs, I helped fix people who were broken by addiction. After a couple months, people left treatment with healthier bodies, cleaner complexions, and better hair. But over 90% of those people returned to opioid use, some within a few days. Some of them died because of their new lack of tolerance to opioids. In each case, counselors said the same thing: ‘he/she didn’t really want it’. But I remembered that they DID ‘want it’ when they were in treatment. In fact, some were considered star patients! At some point we must hold treatments responsible if they fail over 90% of the time.
My perspective changed. Now I wonder, why does anyone expects those treatments to work? A person is removed from a life of scrambling and drug connections and poverty, placed in a box and shined up for a few months, then put right back in the same using world and expected to act differently?
I eventually learned about medications that treat opioid addiction. I realized that opioid addiction truly is a medical illness that should be treated like any medical illness. Think about it – we treat high blood pressure, asthma, and diabetes over time. We don’t cure any of them. In fact, the only illnesses that we can cure are infectious diseases, and even that accomplishment is fading as organisms develop resistance to current medications. Given that we can’t really cure anything, why do we expect anyone to cure addiction – in 12 weeks?!
Medication-based treatments for addiction represent a transition to normalcy. Doctors and nurses were removed from treating addictive disorders decades ago because of historical events that I’ll eventually write about. Clearly, it’s time for health professionals to take a role in treating addiction. In the next article I’ll discuss the medications currently available, and the reasons that one might work better than another for certain individuals.
In the meantime please check out my youtube videos under the name ‘Suboxdoc’, where I discuss the use of medications, primarily buprenorphine, for treating addiction to heroin and other opioids.

Counseling Schmounseling

I just noticed a couple of my recent posts….  these people have it wrong, and that person has it wrong.  One of these days I really need to print something positive and uplifting.  But not today.
Excuse the self-flattery, but I like to think of myself as a physician scientist.  That concept motivated my PhD work, and cost me friend after friend in the years that followed!  A physician scientist isn’t all that difficult to be from an educational standpoint, especially in the age of the internet.  The one thing that is necessary is the willingness, or need, to question every assumption by the media, the government, physicians, laypersons, and other scientists.   Ideally, the questions are guided by a knowledge of p-values, the process by which scientific grants are awarded, an understanding of the peer-review process, and the realization that anyone elected to office knows less about science than most other humans on the planet.
Last night I came across an opinion piece– I think in the Bangor Daily News, but I could be wrong about that– that argued that we will never stem the heroin epidemic without use of medications.  The comment section after the article was filled with the usual angry banter over methadone and buprenorphine that now follows every article about medication assisted treatment.  As an aside, why are the abstinence-based treatment people so angry about medication?  There are people out there who choose to treat cancer using crystals, but they don’t spend time bashing monoclonal antibodies!
Here is the part of this post where I start losing friends…  but let me first say that I know some counselors.  I like counselors.  In fact, some of my best friends are counselors.  But in the comments after that article I read the same thing over and over–   that meds aren’t the important thing, and that counseling is what really makes all the difference.  A couple weeks ago  the person sitting to my right said the same thing during a discussion about  medication-assisted treatments.  And that same phrase is repeated ad nauseum in lecture after lecture in ASAM lectures and policy statements related to addiction.  The phrase has even been codified into some state laws.  And why not?  It is something we all ‘know’, after all.
If we are going so far as writing laws requiring that people have counseling in order to obtain medication, shouldn’t we do one thing first?  Shouldn’t we determine if the comment is really true?
A couple years ago two papers came out– someone help me with the reference if you have them– that looked at abstinence rates after a year on buprenorphine in patients with or without counseling.  Guess what?  The counseling group did not do better!  In fact, the counseled patients did worse; not sigificantly so, but enough to clearly show that there was no ‘trend’ toward better performance in the counseled group (which would have been pointed out, were it true.)
I could hypothesize many reasons why the counseled groups would do worse.  Maybe they were angered by the forced counseling and therefore bonded less effectively with their physician.  Maybe they obtained a false sense of expertise in dealing with addiction, making them more likely to relapse, whereas the non-counseled group learned to just do as they were told.  Or maybe the counselors send out signals, consciously or unconsciously, that interfered with medication treatment.
The thing is, we have no idea which of these things, if any, are going on!  There have been no systematic studies or other attempts to understand what happens during the combination of counseling and medication treatments.  We just have a bunch of people saying ‘do them both!  do them both!–  a comment that apparently feels so good to some people that they just cannot consider things any other way.
For the record, I see ALL my patients for at least 30 minutes for every appointment.  As a Board Certified Psychiatrist, I guess that means I’m counseling them.  And from what I can tell, it seems to be working pretty well.  But even in my own case, I would never draw firm conclusions unless someone does a double-blind study and collects the data.
I encourage all physicians, scientists or not, to question some of what we ‘know’ about addiction treatment.  Is it really all about the counseling?  Maybe— but then again, smart people used to ‘know’ the world was flat, and the Earth was the center of the Universe.

The Downside of Methadone

An Article by Mike Berens and Ken Armstrong, Seattle Times, discusses some of the problems with using methadone as a first-line treatment for pain:
When it comes to battling pain, Washington health officials have encouraged doctors to reach for methadone, a powerful and inexpensive prescription drug. For the past decade, the state has declared methadone to be as safe and effective as any other narcotic painkiller.

Methadone

But in a striking reversal that has gained momentum this week, doctors are receiving stark warnings that methadone is riskier and more dangerous — a drug of last resort — because it’s unpredictable and poses a heightened risk of accidental death.
“It’s a dangerous drug because it accumulates in the body and people die in their sleep,” Dr. Jane Ballantyne, a pain specialist at the University of Washington, said Friday. “It’s very tricky and difficult to use safely.”
Ballantyne and the university are helping spearhead a series of state-sponsored training programs to educate physicians, pharmacists and advanced nurse practitioners about the risks of pain drugs.
Earlier this week, while delivering a continuing medical education course for dozens of physicians and other medical professionals at the university, Ballantyne presented a slideshow in which she cautioned that methadone “should be considered a last option opioid, never a first line opioid.”
The state’s effort is a response to a Seattle Times series, “Methadone and the Politics of Pain.” The investigation, published in December, detailed that at least 2,173 people in Washington have died from accidental overdoses of the drug since 2003.
The Times found that year after year, a committee of state-appointed medical experts sanctioned methadone, empowering the state to designate it a “preferred drug” and steer people with state-subsidized health care — most notably, Medicaid patients — to the drug in order to save money.
The state has included only two drugs, methadone and morphine, on its preferred list of long-acting pain drugs.
During the committee’s meetings, officials from state agencies that have a financial stake in methadone’s selection consistently deflected concerns about the drug.
Methadone’s death toll has hit the hardest among low-income patients. Medicaid recipients account for about 8 percent of Washington’s adult population but 48 percent of methadone fatalities.
After the series, the state sent out an emergency public-health advisory that singled out the unique risks of methadone.
Medicaid officials faxed a health advisory to more than 1,000 pharmacists and drugstores about methadone, as well as about oxycodone, fentanyl and morphine. The state Department of Health mailed advisories to about 17,000 licensed health-care professionals.
The health advisory confirmed that Washington ranks among states with the highest rates of opioid-related deaths, exceeding the number of deaths each year involving motor vehicles.
Most painkillers, such as oxycodone, dissipate from the body within hours. Methadone can linger for days, pool into a toxic reservoir and depress breathing. With little warning, patients fall asleep and don’t wake up. Doctors call it the silent death.
Ballantyne noted that methadone is an indispensable drug and plays an important role in the treatment of many patients. However, due to the heightened risks, methadone should be prescribed only by those with extensive training and experience — and only after every other option has been exhausted.
Dr. Jeff Thompson, chief medical officer of the state’s Medicaid program, now readily agrees that methadone use carries unique risks and that it should not be the first choice if other drugs are equally suitable.
He said physicians are stepping up efforts to unravel the long-term impact on the body from prolonged use of prescription drugs now that Washington’s new pain-management law has gone into full force beginning this month.
The groundbreaking law requires practitioners to follow new standards for treatment and record-keeping. It also requires prescribers to consult with state-certified pain experts when narcotic dosages reach higher thresholds.
While the law’s goal is to lower doses and, if possible, wean patients from narcotic pain drugs, doctors are finding the task more difficult than hoped, Thompson said.
For instance, methadone patients can suffer prolonged withdrawal symptoms, like nausea and depression. With most pain drugs, withdrawal subsides within a week. Methadone’s grip can last for months, even years, he said.
State officials will review methadone’s role on the state’s preferred drug list during a meeting next month.
“I think we’re going back and relearning how to treat pain,” Thompson said.

Making People Stop

Below is an e-mail that I changed just enough to hide the person’s identity.  Every week, I receive messages that describe similar situations.
My husband has struggled GREATLY with substance abuse since in his 20’s; he is now in his mid-40’s. He is the kindest sweetest man and he is the BEST husband and father. When he is using he becomes someone he is not. We have run the gamut from jail to overdose.  Six years ago a friend introduced him to Suboxone and it LITERALLY gave him his life back. He bought it off the friend for years, where it was very expensive. Finally I brought him to a doctor a bit over a year ago. She is pretty adamant about weaning him off of Suboxone.
From experience, I know that 2-3 months after he stops Suboxone he will relapse. I strongly believe it IS a MIRACLE drug! I agree in the sense that if a diabetic needs insulin to save his life, you give it for a lifetime. My husband over the last 6 years has been the man of my dreams, the man I always knew he was. I have extreme anxiety because I know this doctor is just doing her job and trying to follow guidelines however my husband’s LIFE is at stake!  It’s not like if he stops this med he could ‘just’ have depression;  he could end up in jail, or worse. He has his life back. He is enjoying his family life as he should.
If this is what it takes for him to live a normal life then why not?  When we ask his doctor about staying on Suboxone, she says her concern is that we don’t know the long-term effects. She doesn’t want to keep anyone on any med without knowing what it could do. She says it hasn’t been on the market long enough. 
My husband had a SEVERE opioid addiction. He was taking 10-15 Oxycontin 80mgs a day and then ended up switching to 400mgs of methadone before he switched to Suboxone. He has found that he is comfortable with 4 of the 8mg pills per day. I believe it is because he was used to taking such high doses of opioids. He has tried really hard to decrease Suboxone for his doctor but I see the anxiety build in him. She says no one in her practice is on that dose. To be honest he was taking more when he was buying them from a friend but brought himself to a stable 4 pills per day when he started with the doctor. He and I both REALLY like her and would like to continue treatment with her. I wish I had a DVD of little clips of our life from before and after Suboxone. I am positive she would be floored. I am positive she would understand my concern. In my eyes my husband is back. He is such a beautiful soul and I hate to see that taken away from him yet again.
Doctor I read up at the top of this blog that you agree with a lifetime use. He currently has no noted side effects. Do you have any suggestions that I may present to his doctor? I dream of the day that she says it is alright for him to continue on this until maybe he chooses to wean if he so chooses to do so. That would alleviate SO MUCH stress on both of us. Please let me know what you think.
Anyone who reads this blog knows that I agree with most of the opinions expressed in the email.  I know how horrible things are for active opioid addicts—and for the families of active opioid addicts.
More and more physicians pay lip service to ‘addiction as a disease,’ but most do not yet treat addiction as a disease.  The comments about diabetes are ‘right on.’ One could substitute a number of diseases to demonstrate the same point.  We physicians have few illnesses that we cure; rather we manage illness over a person’s lifetime— and opioid dependence is clearly a life-long illness.
To address a couple points in the message:  the active ingredient in Suboxone, buprenorphine, has been in clinical use for over three decades, and has established a clean safety profile.  Buprenorphine has not been used at the high doses employed for treating opioid dependence for quite as long, but even that track record is significant, i.e. 8 years in this country, and longer in Europe.  Most physicians would not consider an 8-yr-old medication to be a ‘new drug!’
The situation described in the message is, in my opinion, the result of several factors.   First and foremost, the reluctance to prescribe buprenorphine is a consequence of stigma.  Doctors prescribe new antidepressants, pain relievers, blood pressure treatments, and cholesterol-lowering agents with much less concern over ‘safety.’     I wonder, frankly, if safety is the concern—or whether there is an unconscious sense that patients addicted to opioids, or to other substances, don’t deserve an ‘easy way out’ of their problem; that sitting through a miserable detox is  a more fitting ‘treatment’ than a pill that makes things better.
I come to this cynical conclusion only because the alternative—that buprenorphine is ‘dangerous’—doesn’t make sense.  The risk of any medication must be compared against the risk of not using that medication.  As the message states, we know the risk of ‘not treating’ the woman’s husband!  Similar comparisons are used to justify the use of chemotherapeutic agents that have severe toxic effects, including the risk of killing the patient.  As I’ve written in prior posts, the fatality rate from untreated opioid dependence is as high as for many cancers.  So does it make any sense to withhold buprenorphine out of safety concerns?!
There are other reasons for doctors’ reluctance to prescribe buprenorphine. Many fear they will do something wrong, and run afoul of the DEA during an audit—a process that all buprenorphine-certified prescribers are subject to.   Some doctors feel pressure from friends and family members of patients, who often blame the doctor for keeping the patient ‘stuck on Suboxone.’  Some doctors want to maintain high patient turnover in order to keep money  coming in, since practices are ‘capped’ at 100 patients per certified physician.
Finally, I think many doctors see ongoing treatment as less satisfying than a ‘cure.’  They consider residential treatment the gold standard, and buprenorphine as a less-intensive alternative.  They buy into the idea that the addict can be returned to ‘normal’—whatever that is—if he/she works at recovery hard enough.  I understand the thought, as that is the type of treatment experience that I went through.  But on the other hand, the relapse rate for opioid dependence, after residential treatment, is very high. I myself relapsed after seven years of recovery, losing my career, and almost my life.  During my years as medical director of a large residential treatment center, patients discharged as ‘successfully treated’ often became repeat customers, at least until they lost their job and health insurance.  Some of them– too many of them–died.
I won’t get into the specifics of treatment;  I’ll leave that to her husband’s doctor to work out.  But I do hope that the doctor will give some thought to whether stopping this life-saving treatment is truly in the patient’s best interest.
To the patient’s wife– I encourage you to continue as an advocate, and I hope your doctor will understand your perspective.

Do You Prescribe Buprenorphine?

I’m not sure about the make-up of readers of this blog.  I know that there are about 20,000 page views each month, but I don’t know how many are by people addicted to opioids, people taking buprenorphine, family members of addicts, or physicians who prescribe buprenorphine.  If you fall into that latter category– i.e. if you prescribe buprenorphine, or if you prescribe other medications to treat opioid dependence such as Vivitrol or methadone– consider joining the group at linkedin.com called ‘Buprenorphine and other medication-assisted treatment of opiate dependence.’  If you already belong to LinkedIn, you can simply follow this link to join: http://www.linkedin.com/groupRegistration?gid=2710529
I have always resisted separating those who prescribe buprenorphine from those who are prescribed the medication.  I have avoided, for example, placing a ‘doctors’ section’ at SuboxForum, as I don’t want there to be two separate discussions.  Clearly, each group would benefit from the wisdom of the other.  But there are some physicians who want to discuss prescribing habits, techniques, and science with other docs, who are not comfortable discussing some topics in the ‘presence’ of their patients.
Non-docs, please don’t flame me for this decision;  I’ve wrestled with it, and have made this decision, at least for now.   Frankly, the discussions at SuboxForum are far more interesting than anything that has come up so far at the linked in site!    But some docs who prescribe buprenorphine are isolated out there, perhaps even looked down on by their peers for working with addiction– and that is a crying shame.    I want to get those docs some support.  My goal ultimately is to bring the two sides together, so that docs can talk to addicts and realize that they are the same species as the rest of their patients!
Thanks all,
JJ

Withholding medication in jail

Much thanks to a reader for sharing a story out of Maine from several months ago. The story refers to a common situation that doesn’t really register unless one happens to look at things with a different frame of reference. 
The story refers to a woman jailed for driving on a suspended license.  The local Sheriff has a policy at the jail that people on buprenorphine or methadone for opioid dependence are ‘S.O.L.’– I think that is the official term– so the woman sued the jail for ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’  From my reading of the article it appears that special accomodations were made to allow the suit to simply go away, allowing the Sheriff and everyone else to delay making a formal decision on their degree of hypocrisy.  But the issue will surely return– to this jail and to others across the country.
I saw this situation over and over when I worked as a psychiatrist for the WI Dept of Corrections, and I admit that I never gave it much thought.  There is a double standard when it comes to certain areas of medicine, not only in regard to addiction, but to other psychiatric disorders as well.  For example, medical agencies have made it clear that ‘ADD’ and ADHD’ are real illnesses– as real as any other non-psychiatric illness.  But in prison, patients with ADD do not have any ‘right’ to treatment for that condition.  And opioid dependence, regardless of any talk about ‘disease models of addiction,’ is not treated like other diseases after the jail doors close!  I regularly saw patients come into prison after experiences in county jails that can only be described as ‘horrific;’ men or women with high opioid tolerances from methadone programs, forced to stop methadone ‘cold turkey’ with no consideration of treating their withdrawal– let alone continuing methadone.  Opioid-dependent patients on buprenorphine were treated in the same way. 
I have had patients who are treated with buprenorphine in my psychiatric practice go to jail for a range of offenses. Those with Huber privileges can often continue buprenorphine.  But those not on Huber are forced to go through withdrawal– a bad enough experience at home, and a horrible experience in a jail cell.  People in such a situation will take whatever they can find in order to relieve the misery of withdrawal, and in jail the choices of illicit medications are less than on the street, leading some addicts to relapse in their cells.   In the best case, the people forced off buprenorphine are eventually released from jail in a state of severe craving for opioids, with a tolerance that has been driven to a dangerously low level- placing them at significant risk for death by overdose.  An analagous situation would be depriving diabetic inmates of insulin, and releasing them to a roomful of cookies!
Of course, opioid dependence is not diabetes.  But it IS an illness– right?

Buprenorphine safer than methadone for neonates born to opioid addicts

Buprenorphine vs. methadone in neonates born to opiate addicts
Look mom-- no neonatal abstinence syndrome!

The article below describes a presentation at a recent meeting of ACOG, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, that compared the use of buprenorphine or  methadone for treating opioid addiction during pregnancy.  I hear from pregnant women often, who write out of frustration that their OBs have never heard of buprenorphine or Suboxone and asking what they should do to educate their physicians.  Let’s hope that studies like this one help get the word out!  If you search this blog you’ll find a number of my posts about pregnancy, opioid dependence and buprenorphine.  Some of the posts include articles about neonatal abstinence, breast feeding while taking buprenorphine, and comparisons between buprenorphine and methadone.  I also recommend, of course, the forum, where you will find many other women who have already wrestled with this issue.
Buprenorphine Favoured Over Methadone for Opiate Addiction in Pregnancy
By Fred Gebhart
SAN FRANCISCO — May 19, 2010 — A recent study in Maine among women addicted to opiates has found that buprenorphine is safer for neonates than traditional treatment with methadone.
The research was presented in an oral paper on May 18 at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ (ACOG) 58th Annual Clinical Meeting. The paper won ACOG’s Donald F. Richardson Memorial Prize.
“It has been shown that patients on methadone are more stable in terms of their physical and mental health and are more likely to receive standard prenatal care, but methadone has clear effects on the child,” noted lead author Michael Czerkes, MD, Maine Medical Center, Portland, Maine. “Buprenorphine is an attractive alternative, but there are few data on the effects on neonatal outcomes. Since our patient population uses both agents, we decided to find out.”
The key objection to methadone from the infant’s perspective is the appearance of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), a combination of symptoms that include dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system, gastrointestinal tract, and respiratory system. NAS has a number of short-term consequences, including prolonged hospital stays, prolonged monitoring, and an increased need for intravenous medications. Methadone is also inconvenient for the mother, requiring daily clinic visits, and it is subject to diversion because it is a euphoric agent.
Limited data on buprenorphine suggest that it may carry less risk for perinatal morbidity, but trials have been small and somewhat contradictory. Buprenorphine can be dispensed in 30-day packaging, which eases the burden on the mother, and is less subject to diversion because it significantly less euphoric than methadone.
Researchers at the Maine Medical Center conducted a retrospective chart review of women addicted to opioids who were using either buprenorphine or methadone and who delivered their babies at the institution between 2004 and 2008. There were 101 methadone patients and 68 buprenorphine patients available for analysis. There were no significant maternal differences between the 2 groups.
The differences between offspring of mothers in the 2 groups were dramatic, said Dr. Czerkes. The mean NAS score for buprenorphine infants was 10.69 compared with 12.5 for methadone infants (P = .0012). While the difference was statistically significant, Dr. Czerkes cautioned that it might not be clinically significant.
Other outcomes were both statistically and clinically significant. Buprenorphine infants spent a mean of 8.4 days in the hospital compared with 15.7 days for methadone infants (P < .0001) and only 48.5% of buprenorphine infants required treatment compared with 73.3% of methadone infants (P < .001).
Among buprenorphine infants who needed treatment, withdrawal symptoms appeared by day 3 or did not appear at all. Withdrawal symptoms in methadone infants appeared anywhere between days 2 and 6. “That may be a clinically significant finding,” said Dr. Czerkes. “If you don’t see withdrawal in these babies by day 3, they may not have withdrawal at all.”
Overall, he concluded, buprenorphine appears to be safer for neonates than methadone. Researchers are recruiting patients for a larger randomized controlled trial.
[Presentation title: Buprenorphine Versus Methadone Treatment for Opiate Addiction in Pregnancy: An Evaluation of Neonatal Outcomes]

Buprenorphine for low-dose opioid use

A reader wrote with a question that I don’t think I’ve addressed on the blog.
Do you have a threshold for how much narcotic a patient must be using before you will put them on buprenorphine? I am concerned about narcotic addicts that are using 6-10 Vicodin (hydrocodone) a day for example.  Many have very mild withdrawal symptoms, but are never-the-less unable to stop on their own.
This is an insightful question that provokes enough discussion to fill at least one blog post.  I don’t have a simple answer, other than to go on a case-by-case basis and try to determine who, if anyone, might be able to walk away from opioids completely (i.e. a person who I would be less likely to put on buprenorphine, as doing so would drive tolerance higher) vs. those who will need maintenance treatment eventually, even if their doses are not yet very high.
Patients have a right to know if they are having their tolerance increased in my opinion, given the misery involved in bringing tolerance down.  It is also important to tell people with lower tolerances that they are going to get a buzz from buprenorphine for a few days because of the potency of buprenorphine.  This opiate stimulation is likely to occur even with a very small piece of a Suboxone tablet; a quarter tab or 2 mg of buprenorphine has almost the same potency as 16 mg because of the ‘ceiling effect.’  The potent opioid effect may make the doctor liable for a car accident, or could even lead to overdose if the patient combines buprenorphine with other respiratory depressants.
In general,  the ‘break even’ point on the tolerance scale is 80-100 mg of hydrocodone or about 60 mg of oxycodone per day.  In other words, if the person is taking 8-10 of the larger-strength Vicodin per day, I would consider Suboxone to be of about equal potency.
In considering whether a person’s use and tolerance are high enough to call for buprenorphine, some people focus too much on the initial potency relationships, and forget that opioid dependence is almost always a long-term condition.  I’m not sure by your last sentence whether you realize or not that the presence or absence of bad withdrawal is a red herring for acheiving sobriety from opioids.  Many addicts mistakenly think that withdrawal is the primary force that keeps them actively addicted.  In late addiction they find that desperation helps them get through withdrawal over and over, but they continue to relapse– as soon as they feel well!  From a scientific perspective, I have not seen evidence of a correlation between the severity of addiction and the addict’s tolerance level (if anyone has seen such a study, please forward me the reference).  At the same time, I don’t think I would feel comfortable starting buprenorphine in a person taking a couple Tylenol 3’s per day.  Luckily (?), this type of situation has been rare in my experience.   I should do chart reviews and publish the exact numbers, but out of the 500 or so people presenting with opioid dependence over the past 5 years, I would guess that the average tolerance level is approx. 120-150 mg of daily methadone (range of 30-400 mg per day), or approx. 160 mg of oxycodone per day (range of 40-700 mg of oxycodone per day).  Yes, I had two people—interestingly, both women– come in at those upper daily doses of methadone and oxycodone.   The methadone patient had been labeled a ‘fast metabolizer’ of methadone as reason for the ridiculously high dosage.  The reason seemed good enough, until I found, when converting her to other agonists for pain, that her tolerance was ultra-high to ALL opioid agonists—telling me that she was not metabolizing the methadone fast enough to prevent her body’s response to the high dosage, and calling the entire ‘fast metabolizer’ issue into question.  The woman taking the large amount of oxycodone had inherited a tidy sum of money; hundreds of thousands of dollars, all gone after one year of using.
Ouch.

Buprenorphine and the Dynamic Nature of Character Defects

What follows is a lightly-edited version of one of my posts from a couple years ago.  I still think that this is a good model for understanding the actions of buprenorphine.

Buprenorphine and the Dynamic Nature of Character Defects

‘Suboxone’ and ‘Subutex’ are the trade names for medications that contain buprenorphine, a substance used to treat addiction to pain medications and/or heroin.  Buprenorphine treatment for opiate dependence has been an option in the US since 2003.  Other treatment approaches for opiate dependence have been used for decades but have had limited success.  With a little imagination, treatment approaches can be placed on a continuum depending on the degree to which the treatment demands changes in the personality and behavior of the addict.  Methadone maintenance is often described as a means of ‘harm reduction’ by preventing the behaviors related to the obsession for opiates or by reducing intravenous use of heroin or other substances.  At the other end of the treatment continuum there are the step-based and other Recovery programs.  One limitation of programs that demand personality change is that such change is difficult and rare, and usually only occurs after a significant amount of despair has been experienced by the addict.  Opiate dependence differs from other addictions in the lethality of overdose, and the fatality rate of even early abuse of that class of substances.  Opiate addicts are at significant risk of dying from their addiction before enough desperation has accumulated to motivate personality change.  A second limitation is the high rate of relapse that occurs even after sustained Recovery.  If a ‘changed’ addict stops actively participating in the program that induced the changes, the personality of the addict tends to revert back to the personality that was present during active drug use.
I initially had mixed feelings about buprenorphine treatment of opiate dependence, my opinion likely influenced by my own experiences as an addict in traditional recovery.  But my opinion has changed over the past four years from what I have seen and heard while treating over 400 patients with buprenorphine.  But while buprenorphine has opened a new frontier of treatment for opiate addiction, arguments over the use of buprenorphine often split the recovering and treatment communities along opposing battle lines.  The arguments are fueled by petty notions of ‘whose recovery is more authentic’, and miss the important point that buprenorphine offers huge benefits for the health and lives of opiate addicts.
A unique medication
For clarification, the active ingredient in Suboxone is buprenorphine, a partial agonist at the mu opiate receptor. Suboxone contains naloxone to prevent intravenous use; another form of the medication, Subutex, consists of buprenorphine without naloxone.  The unique effects of buprenorphine can be attributed to the drug’s unique molecular properties.  First, the partial agonist effect at the receptor level results in a ‘ceiling effect’ to dosing after about 4 mg, so that increased dosing does not result in increased opiate effect beyond that dose.  Second, the high binding affinity and partial agonist effect cause the elimination of drug cravings, dispelling the destructive obsession with use that destroys the personality of the user.  Third, the high protein binding and long half-life of buprenorphine allows once per day dosing, allowing the addict to break the conditioned pattern of withdrawal (stimulus)-use (response)- relief (reward) which is the backbone of addictive behavior.  Fourth, the partial agonist effect and long half life cause rapid tolerance to the drug, allowing the patient to feel ‘normal’ within a few days of starting treatment.  Finally, the withdrawal from buprenorphine provides a disincentive to stop taking the drug, and so the drug is always there to assure the person that any attempt to get high would be futile, dispelling any lingering thoughts about using an opiate.
Different treatment approaches
At the present time there are significant differences between the treatment approaches of those who use buprenorphine versus those who use a non-medicated 12-step-based approach.  People who stay sober with the help of AA, NA, or CA, as well as those who treat by this approach tend to look down on patients taking buprenorphine as having an ’inferior’ form of recovery, or no recovery at all.  This leaves buprenorphine patients to go to Narcotics Anonymous and hide their use of buprenorphine.  On one hand, good boundaries include the right to keeping one’s private medical information so one’s self.  But on the other hand, a general recovery principle is that ’secrets keep us sick’, and hiding the use of buprenorphine is a bit at odds with the idea of ’rigorous honesty’. People new to recovery also struggle with low self esteem before they learn to overcome the shame society places on ‘drug addicts’;  they are not in a good position to deal with even more shame coming from other addicts themselves!
An ideal program will combine the benefits of 12-step programs with the benefits of the use of buprenorphine.  The time for such an approach is at hand, as it is likely that more and more medications will be brought forward for treatment of addiction now that Suboxone has proved profitable.  If we already had excellent treatments for opiate addiction there would be less need for the two treatment approaches to learn to live with each other.  But the sad fact is that opiate addiction remains stubbornly difficult to treat by traditional methods.  Success rates for long-term sobriety are lower for opiates than for other substances.  This may be because the ‘high’ from opiate use is different from the effects of other substances—users of cocaine, methamphetamine, and alcohol take the substances to feel up, loose, or energetic—ready to go out and take on the town.  The ‘high’ of opiate use feels content and ‘normal’— users feel at home, as if they are getting back a part of themselves that was always missing. The experience of using rapidly becomes a part of who the person IS, rather than something the patient DOES.  The term ‘denial’ fits nobody better than the active opiate user, particularly when seen as the mnemonic:  Don’t Even Notice I Am Lying.
The challenges for practitioners lie at the juncture between traditional recovery and the use of medication, in finding ways to bring the recovering community together to use all available tools in the struggle against active opiate addiction.
Drug obsession and character defects
Buprenorphine has given us a new paradigm for treatment which I refer to as the ‘remission model’.  This model takes into account that addiction is a dynamic process— far more dynamic than previously assumed.  To explain, the traditional view from recovery circles is that the addict has a number of character defects that were either present before the addiction started, or that grew out of addictive behavior over time.  Opiate addicts have a number of such ‘defects.’  The dishonesty that occurs during active opiate addiction, for example, far surpasses similar defects from other substances, in my opinion.  Other defects are common to all substance users; the addict represses awareness of his/her trapped condition and creates an artificial ‘self’ that comes off as cocky and self-assured, when deep inside the addict is frightened and lonely.  The obsession with using takes more and more energy and time, pushing aside interests in family, self-care, and career.  The addict becomes more and more self-centered, and the opiate addict often becomes very ‘somatic’, convinced that every uncomfortable feeling is an unbearable component of withdrawal.  The opiate addict becomes obsessed with comfort, avoiding activities that cause one to perspire or exert one’s self.  The active addict learns to blame others for his/her own misery, and eventually their irritability results in loss of jobs and relationships.
The traditional view holds that these character defects do not simply go away when the addict stops using.  People in AA know that simply remaining sober will cause a ‘dry drunk’—a nondrinker with all of the alcoholic character defects– when there is no active recovery program in place.  I had such an expectation when I first began treating opiate addicts with buprenorphine—that without involvement in a 12-step group the person would remain just as miserable and dishonest as the active user.  I realize now that I was making the assumption that character defects were relatively static—that they develop slowly over time, and so could only be removed through a great deal of time and hard work.  The most surprising part of my experience in treating people with buprenorphine has been that the defects in fact are not ‘static’, but rather they are quite dynamic.  I have come to believe that the difference between buprenorphine treatment and a patient in a ‘dry drunk’ is that the buprenorphine-treated patient has been freed from the obsession to use.  A patient in a ‘dry drunk’ is not drinking, but in the absence of a recovery program they continue to suffer the conscious and unconscious obsession with drinking.   People in AA will often say that it isn’t the alcohol that is the problem; it is the ‘ism’ that causes the damage.  Such is the case with opiates as well—the opiate is not the issue, but rather it is the obsession with opiates that causes the misery and despair.  With this in mind, I now view character defects as features that develop in response to the obsession to use a substance.  When the obsession is removed the character defects will go way, whether slowly, through working the 12 steps, or rapidly, by the remission of addiction with buprenorphine.
In traditional step-based treatment the addict is in a constant battle with the obsession to use. Some addicts will have rapid relief from their obsession when they suddenly experience a ‘shift of thinking’ that allows them to see their powerlessness with their drug of choice.   For other addicts the new thought requires a great deal of addition-induced misery before their mind opens in response to a ‘rock bottom’. But whether fast or slow, the shift of thinking is effective because the new thought approaches addiction where it lives—in the brain’s limbic system.  The ineffectiveness of higher-order thinking has been proven by addicts many times over, as they make promises over pictures of their loved ones or try to summon the will power to stay clean.  While these approaches almost always fail, the addict will find success in surrender and recognition of the futility of the struggle.  The successful addict will view the substance with fear—a primitive emotion from the old brain.  When the substance is viewed as a poison that will always lead to misery and death, the obsession to use will be lifted.  Unfortunately it is man’s nature to strive for power, and over time the recognition of powerlessness will fade.  For that reason, addicts must continue to attend meetings where newcomers arrive with stories of misery and pain, which reinforce and remind addicts of their powerlessness.
The dynamic nature of personality
My experiences with buprenorphine have challenged my old perceptions, and led me to believe that the character defects of addiction are much more dynamic.  Buprenorphine removes the obsession to use almost immediately.  The addict does not then enter into a ‘dry drunk’, but instead the absence of the obsession to use allows the return of positive character traits that had been pushed aside.  The elimination of negative character traits does not always require rigorous step work— in many cases the negative traits simply disappear as the obsession to use is relieved.  I base this opinion on my experiences with scores of buprenorphine patients, and more convincingly with the spouses, parents, and children of buprenorphine patients.  I have seen multiple instances of improved communication and new-found humility.  I have heard families talk about ‘having dad back’, and husbands talk about getting back the women they married.  I sometimes miss my old days as an anesthesiologist placing labor epidurals, as the patients were so grateful—and so I am happy to have found buprenorphine treatment, for it is one of the rare areas in psychiatry where patients quickly get better and express gratitude for their care.
A natural question is why character defects would simply disappear when the obsession to use is lifted?  Why wouldn’t it require a great deal of work?  The answer, I believe, is because the character defects are not the natural personality state of the addict, but rather are traits that are produced by the obsession, and dynamically maintained by the obsession.
Combining buprenorphine treatment and traditional recovery
Once the dynamic relationship between use obsession and character defects is understood, the proper relationship between buprenorphine and traditional recovery becomes clear.  Should people taking buprenorphine attend NA or AA?  Yes, if they want to.  A 12-step program has much to offer an addict, or anyone for that matter.  But I see little use in forced or coerced attendance at meetings.  The recovery message requires a level of acceptance that comes about during desperate times, and people on buprenorphine do not feel desperate.  In fact, people on buprenorphine often report that ‘they feel normal for the first time in their lives’.  A person in this state of mind is not going to do the difficult personal inventories of AA unless otherwise motivated by his/her own internal desire to change.
The role of ‘desperation’ should be addressed at this time:  In traditional treatment desperation is the most important prerequisite to making progress, as it takes the desperation of being at ‘rock bottom’ to open the mind to see one’s  powerlessness. But when recovery from addiction is viewed through the remission model, the lack of desperation is a good thing, as it allows the reinstatement of the addict’s own positive character.  Such a view is consistent with the ‘hierarchy of needs’ put forward by Abraham Maslow in 1943; there can be little interest in higher order traits when one is fighting for one’s life.
Other Questions (and answers):
-Should buprenorphine patients be in a recovery group?
I have reservations about forced attendance, as I question the value of any therapy where the patient is not an eager and voluntary participant.  At the same time, there clearly is much to be gained from the sense of support that a good group can provide.  Groups also ‘show’ the addict that he/she is not as unique as he thought, and that his unhealthy way of visualizing his place in the world is a trait common to other addicts.  Some addicts will learn the patterns of addictive thinking and become better equipped to handle their own addictive thoughts.
-What is the value of the 4th through 6th steps of a 12-step program, where the addict specifically addresses his/her character defects and asks for their removal by a higher power?  Are these steps critical to the resolution of character defects?
These steps are necessary for addicts in ‘sober recovery’, as the obsession to use will come and go to varying degrees over time depending on the individual and his/her stress level.  But for a person taking buprenorphine I see the steps as valuable, but not essential.
-Where does methadone fit in?
Methadone is an opiate agonist that has a long half-life in brain tissue.  This long half-life promotes a relatively constant state of opiate stimulation, reducing opiate cravings between doses.  But while the ceiling effect of the partial agonist buprenorphine results in a stable, unchanging tolerance to the medication, methadone has no such ceiling, and tolerance will always increase with increasing dose of methadone.  This constant increase in tolerance erodes the ability of methadone to satiate cravings for opiates.  A newly-raised dosage will prevent cravings temporarily, but as tolerance inevitably rises, cravings will return.  With cravings comes the obsession to use and the associated character defects.  This explains one difference in the subjective experiences of addicts maintained on buprenorphine versus methadone.  Methadone maintenance is also usually experienced as more sedating than the effects from buprenorphine.  There is a valuable role for methadone to play as we try to prevent deaths from opiate dependence, but I see the mechanisms of action of methadone and buprenorphine to be profoundly different.  Methadone is appropriately described as a ‘maintenance agent,’ but I see a more appropriate term for the actions of buprenorphine, as a ‘remission agent.’  This term accounts for the effects of buprenorphine on the obsession for opiates, and the ability of the medication to allow for dissolution of the character defects caused by active addiction.
The downside of buprenorphine
Practitioners in traditional AODA treatment programs will see buprenorphine as at best a mixed blessing.  Desperation is often required to open the addict’s mind to change, and desperation is harder to achieve when an addict has the option to leave treatment and find a practitioner who will prescribe buprenorphine.  Buprenorphine is sometimes used ‘on the street’ by addicts who want to take time off from addiction without committing to long term sobriety.  Buprenorphine itself can be abused for short periods of time, until tolerance develops to the drug.  Snorting buprenorphine reportedly results in a faster time of onset, without allowing the absorption of the naloxone that prevents intravenous use.  Finally, the remission model of buprenorphine use implies long term use of the drug.  Chronic use of any opiate, including buprenorphine, has the potential for negative effects on testosterone levels and sexual function, and the use of buprenorphine is complicated when surgery is necessary.  Short- or moderate-term use of buprenorphine raises a host of additional questions, including how to convert from drug-induced remission, without desperation, to sober recovery, which often requires desperation.
The beginning of the future
Time will tell whether or not buprenorphine will work with traditional recovery, or whether there will continue to be two distinct options that are in some ways at odds with each other.  The good news is that treatment of opiate addiction has proven to be profitable for at least one pharmaceutical company, and such success will surely invite a great deal of research into addiction treatment.  At one time we had two or three treatment options for hypertension, including a drug called reserpine that would never be used for similar indications today.  Some day we will likely look back on buprenorphine as the beginning of new age of addiction treatment.  But for now, the treatment community would be best served by recognizing each other’s strengths, rather than pointing out each other’s weaknesses.

Withdrawal in newborns: Lay off the guilt trip!!

I will share some thoughts that I left at a discussion at a ‘linked in’ group about addiction.  I was responding to someone who was equating addiction and physical dependence in a baby born to an opiate-addicted mother.  My feeling is that such women are given way too much of an attitude by the nurses and others who care for them, and that was the motivation behind my response.  Read on:
There are many differences between physiological dependence and addiction to substances. For example, people who take effexor are dependent– and will have significant discontinuation-emergent side effects– but they are not ‘addicted’, which consists of a mental obsession for a substance. The same is true of beta-blockes, in that discontinuation results in rebound hypertension, but there is no craving for propranololol when it is stopped abruptly.
We have no idea of the ‘cravings’ experienced by a newborn, but I cannot imagine a newborn having the cortical connections required to experience anything akin to the ‘cravings’ experienced by opiate addicts, which consist of memories of using and positive reinforcement of behavior—things that are NOT part of the experience ‘in utero’.
It is also important to realize that the withdrawal experienced by addicts consists of little actual ‘pain’ (I’ve been there—I know). Addicts talk about this subject often, as in ‘why do we hate withdrawal so much?’ It is not physical pain, but rather the discomfort of involuntary movements of the limbs , depression, and very severe shame and guilt. The NORMAL newborn already HAS such involuntary movements as the result of incomplete myelination of spinal nerve tracts and immature basal ganglia and cerebellar function in the brain. And the worst part of withdrawal—the shame and guilt and hopelessness—are not experienced in the same degree in a baby who has no understanding of the stigma of addiction!
Finally, if we look at the ‘misery’ experienced by a newborn, we should compare it to the misery experienced by being a newborn in general. I doubt it feels good to have one’s head squeezed so hard that it changes shape—yet nobody gets real excited about THAT discomfort—at least not from the baby’s perspective! I also doubt it feels good to have one’s head squeezed by a pair of forceps, and then be pulled by the head through the birth canal! Many hospitals still do circumcisions without local, instead just tying down the limbs and cutting. Babies having surgery for pyloric stenosis are often intubated ‘awake’, as the standard of care– which anyone who understands intubation knows is not a pleasant experience. And up until a couple decades ago—i.e. the 1980s (!), babies had surgery on the heart, including splitting open the sternum or breaking ribs, with a paralytic agent only, as the belief was that a baby with a heart defect wouldn’t tolerate narcotics or anesthetic. I don’t like making a baby experience the heightened autonomic activity that can be associated with abstinence syndrome, but compared to other elements of the birth experience, I know which I would choose!
My points are twofold, and are not intended to encourage more births of physiogically-dependent babies. But everyone in the field should be aware of the very clear difference between physiological dependence and addiction, as the difference is a basic principle that is not a matter of opinion—but rather the need to get one’s definitions right. Second, the cycle of addiction and shame has been well established, and there is already plenty of shame inside of most addicted mothers. If there are ten babies screaming loudly, only the whimper from the ‘addict baby’ elicits the ‘tsk tsk’ of the nurses and breast feeding consultants. My first child was born to a healthy mom years before my own opiate dependence, and he never took to breast feeding; he his mother been an addict, his trouble surely would have been blamed on ‘addiction’ or ‘withdrawal’. Unfortunately even medical people see what they want to see—and sometimes that view needs to be checked for bias due to undeserved stigma—for EVERYONE’S good, baby included.