Tapering off Buprenorphine or Suboxone, Pt 2

In the last post we discussed some of the misconceptions about tapering off opioids.  Today we will discuss a couple basic principles, and then describe the approach I recommend for my patients tapering off buprenorphine.
Opioids act at receptors that normally bind endorphins, which are released by neurons in response to a range of stimuli including trauma and rewarding behaviors such as eating a good meal or using addictive drugs.  Endorphin pathways elevate mood, reduce sensation of pain, and impact urine production, immune function, intestinal motility, and other bodily functions.  Endorphin pathways have a certain baseline activity or ‘opioid tone’ that is directly related to opioid tolerance.   When opioid stimulation is greater than one’s tolerance, opioid tone is increased.  When opioid stimulation drops below one’s tolerance, opioid tone is reduced, causing withdrawal symptoms.
The goal of any taper off opioids is to recover original or native opioid tolerance.  Some people focus on getting rid of the opioid, and even use substances or behaviors to ‘flush buprenorphine from the body’.   Products marketed as detox agents have minimal impact on the clearance of buprenorphine or other substances.  And even if they could increase the rate of clearance,  they would only make detox harder by increasing the severity of withdrawal symptoms.  The relatively slow metabolism and clearance of buprenorphine provides a cushion by slowing the loss of opioid tone.
Prolonged use of any opioid changes opioid receptors.   The changes are not fully understood but include a decrease in number of receptors and changes in binding properties that reduce receptor sensitivity to opioids, including endogenous opioids (endorphins).  Recovery from a state of tolerance takes 2-3 months, and is initiated by reduced opioid tone.  Withdrawal symptoms reflect the reduced opioid tone that provokes eventual recovery of native tolerance.
Recovery of native tolerance is the rate-limiting step when tapering off any opioid, including buprenorphine.  When the dose of buprenorphine is reduced, the amount of buprenorphine at opioid receptors decreases over the next 5 days and then stabilizes at a lower level.  In response, opioid tone (the summation of current flow through opioid receptors) drops below normal.   If the dose of buprenorphine is maintained at that level, opioid tone will recover to normal in about 2-3 months.  If buprenorphine is suddenly and completely discontinued, opioid tone will decrease to very low levels and cause severe withdrawal that lasts for 2-3 months.  If buprenorphine dose decreases more slowly, opioid tone will decrease more slowly, lessening the severity of withdrawal.  But it still takes 2-3 months for opioid tone to return to normal.  So for any taper, patients must decide whether to decrease their dose quickly and be done in 2-3 months, at the cost of greater withdrawal, or instead to taper more slowly to reduce the severity of withdrawal.
The relationship between buprenorphine dose and opioid activity is linear up to about 2-6 mg.  Beyond that point further increases in dose have less impact on opioid tone.   The reverse occurs when tapering, so that opioid tone decreases only slightly as dose is reduced from 16 mg per day to 4 mg per day.  The non-linear dose/response relationship allows for rapid decreases in dose early in the taper process with limited or no physical withdrawal symptoms. Since the early challenge is mostly psychological, I use the early part of a taper to help assess whether a patient is truly ready to take on the tapering process.
I like to have patients lead the way in tapering off buprenorphine.  I’ve found that if I lead and reduce the amount of prescribed buprenorphine for the next month, patients often fail to make reductions and end up out of medication before the end of the month.  So instead I ask patients to tell me when they are certain that they are ready to stay at the lower dose.
During a taper, I recommend dosing buprenorphine twice per day.  Patients start by removing 2 mg from the evening dose.    After at least two weeks 2 mg can be removed from the morning dose.  This sequence is repeated at intervals of at least 2 weeks until the total dose is 4 mg per day. In my experience patients who get to that point are usually in a good mental position to begin the second, more difficult part of the taper.
Most people will be able to continue working when opioid dose is reduced by 5% or less every 2 weeks, or 10% every month.  That number is a good general guideline when deciding how fast to taper.  Suboxone film makes tapering relatively easy.  Patients purchase a weekly med organizer, and start the week by opening and stacking 7 films.  A scissors or razor is used to cut a millimeter from the end of the stack, and one film is placed in each compartment of the organizer for that day’s dose.  When the patient is comfortable with that dose, slightly more is removed for the next week.  The process continues every 2-4 weeks, eventually changing to the 2 mg films.  I recommend that patients continue tapering until the dose is 300 micrograms (0.3 mg) per day or less before stopping buprenorphine completely.  It is fairly easy to guesstimate where to cut the film in order to reduce by 10%;  just measure half, then half of that, then half of that.
Buprenorphine tablets, of course, are much harder to divide.  Zubsolv did people a favor by coming out with a range of doses, and hopefully other brand and generic manufacturers will eventually follow suit. For now I usually have patients use the tablets to taper as far as possible, using the 2 mg tablets in the lower dose range, and then pay the extra cost for the film for the final month or so.   A 12 mg film can be divided into 24 half-milligram pieces without too much effort, so the cost doesn’t have to be prohibitive.
I have had many patients taper successfully off buprenorphine.  Fear is common and normal for a number of reasons, but the fear usually gives way to a sense of confidence and optimism when a taper is done correctly.
Things to keep in mind:

  • Be patient.  Tapering by too much, or too quickly, causes withdrawal symptoms that lead to ‘yo-yos’ in dose.
  • Buprenorphine products are very potent.  A sliver of Suboxone Film may contain enough buprenorphine to harm or kill an animal or small child.  Take care to divide the medication in a well-lit setting, and clean up very carefully.
  • Buprenorphine is used to treat pain in microgram doses.  If you jump from 1 mg, you will have considerable withdrawal symptoms.
  • If you are still running out of medication early, it is not time to taper off the medication.
  • People on buprenorphine for a year or less have rates of relapse over 90%.  In my experience patients are more successful tapering off buprenorphine if they have been on the medication for 2-5 years or more.
  • If you struggle in tapering down to 8 mg, consider going back to your stable dose, waiting 6 months, and trying again.
  • People addicted to opioids often substitute other drugs for their drug of choice.  Do not start a new addictive substance in order to get off buprenorphine.

Good luck!

Rapid Opioid Detox from Suboxone

First Posted 1/26/2014
I recently answered a post at SuboxForum by a member who asked what to expect from rapid detox from opioids, and specifically from buprenorphine.
My reply:
Several of my current buprenorphine patients have been through rapid detox at some point in their past.  Their stories are so similar that it becomes difficult to distinguish one from the next.   A typical history would go something like this:
“I started pot and alcohol by 16, but discovered pain pills when I was about 17 when I had surgery. My doctor gave me pain pills when I hurt my back, and when he stopped, I started getting them from my aunt’s house. She had cancer so she had tons of them. Then she died, and I was getting them from friends at work until they got more expensive. I switched to heroin a couple years ago.”
I’ll ask, “have you been through treatments?”
“Yep– detoxed 3 times, twice to rehab, once for 30 days and once for 3 months…. I did NA on and off, and was on methadone for a couple years. Oh, and I did rapid detox in Florida 5 years ago.”
I’ll ask, “what is the longest you stayed clean?”
“I was clean most of the time when I was in rehab…  so maybe 2 months?  other than that it would be a few days here or there– usually not more than 3 days.  After rapid detox I stayed clean for 2 months because I didn’t have any money left to buy anything.
I’ll ask, “Have you been on Suboxone before? Any time totally off opioids?”
They’ll say “I was on it for 1 year but I stopped. Not sure if I was ever totally clean… there was always something around.”
I don’t mean to be flippant about relapse, especially given the high rate of death associated with relapse to opioids. But I want to give an idea of how my attitudes about buprenorphine were formed over the years. Patient after patient have provided stories about repeated relapses despite a variety of treatment efforts, including rapid opioid detox.
During my own period of active using in the early 1990′s, desperation drove me to my own ‘rapid detox’, without the anesthesia.  I kicked off my ‘clean time’ with IV naloxone, followed by a couple 50 mg tabs of naltrexone.  I had stopped opioids for several days, so I didn’t expect severe withdrawal…. but was I wrong!  I could walk by the end of day one, just barely, but I remained very sick for a week or two.  I’m sure I would have stayed sick at least a few weeks longer, had I stayed clean….  but as soon as I realized that I had made it through such a nightmare alive, I decided that I must have some awesome will power, and I could always just do that again, if I had to…. so I ‘rewarded’ myself with a bit more controlled using.
Crazy.
As I see it, the problem is that the person who walks out of the door of rapid detox is not all that different from the person who walked in.  Yes, the person had his mu opioid receptors antagonized for a day. But that’s not long enough to get one’s receptors back to normal, not by a long shot. After a day or two of naltrexone, patients still have weeks of withdrawal awaiting them.
What if a person stays on naltrexone for the entire several months that it takes for tolerant opioid receptors to be replaced by new, normally-sensitive opioid receptors? That would be a better option than rapid detox alone, reducing the odds for relapse by blocking receptors during the most intense physical cravings.
But in reality, addiction is much more complicated than physical cravings.    Despite the promises of a new life in ads for detox programs, naltrexone is not fairy dust that changes how a person deals with good and bad news. Most people who seek detox have been conditioned, for years, to use opioid in response to resentments.   So the person who picked up at age 18, 20, 25, and 28 tends to pick up again, unless something makes a real difference in how the person responds to life’s challenges.  For most people, I do not believe that rapid detox makes enough of a difference.

Short Term Suboxone

Firsted Posted 1/8/2014
I received an email today containing an angry comment about Suboxone/buprenorphine that I’ve read a number of times before on forums about addiction.  The essence of the comment was that Suboxone has caused tons of problems, including diversion, people stuck on the medication, and buprenorphine abuse. He wrote that the reason for all these problems was because Suboxone was ‘never intended for long-term use’, but rather was originally intended for detox only.
I could address the nonsense of his email by pointing out that the ‘problems’ he listed are infinitely better than the death that results from untreated addiction, but I’ve made that point already in a number of posts. Instead I’ll address his claim that the addiction community has hijacked a medication intended for short-term use and used it, incorrectly, for long-term treatment.
Let’s first presume, for the sake of the argument, that buprenorphine WAS originally intended for detox and not for maintenance, back in the year 2000 when the FDA considered approval of the drug.  That was not the case—but so what if it was? Over the past ten years we’ve gained knowledge about addiction that we didn’t have back then.  Studies that have shown, quite clearly, that use of buprenorphine for a year or less does little to ‘cure’ addiction.  We’ve also gained clinical experience with buprenorphine.  This gain in knowledge is not unique to buprenorphine, or to addiction.  All fields of medicine progress in a non-linear manner, as medications or procedures are honed to perfection over years of trial and error
.
I remember taking care of people going through autologous bone marrow transplants in the mid-1980’s when I was an intern in medicine.  Back then, bone marrow transplant patients were the sickest patients in the hospital, and many of them died.  I remember one young man in particular who had metastatic testicular cancer. We talked at the same time each night, when I was summoned to inject medications that helped him tolerate the side effects of platelet transfusions. I was moved by what he was doing, subjecting himself to horrible pain and nausea in order to get through a procedure that at the time was rarely successful. He died from a fungal infection during the stage of treatment when his own bone marrow had been destroyed by chemo, but before the transplanted bone marrow grew back to defend against the many organisms in our environment that can kill people who are immunocompromised.
Autologous bone marrow transplants have changed in many ways over the years, including how the marrow is harvested, how the marrow is cleaned of malignant cells, how the marrow is stored and re-introduced, the timing of each step in the process, the meds and techniques used to prevent fatal fungal infections, and the types of cancer appropriate for such treatment.  The current procedure bears little resemblance to the original—which is a good thing.
The same can be said of every aspect of medicine, from liver transplants to laparoscopic surgeries to running ACLS ‘code blues’.   In the latter case, we added calcium.  When we learned that brain damage was made worse by calcium, and we removed calcium.  We added bicarb, and took away bicarb.  It’s interesting to look back over 30 years at the number of things ‘we knew were right’ that proved to be wrong.  That’s how medicine worked—and still works today.
In the same way, if buprenorphine WAS ‘intended for detox’, so what?  We now know that short-term detox yields long-term sobriety in less than 5% of patients.  Even in the residential treatment centers that use buprenorphine only temporarily, to aid detox, success rates are poor.  Like meetings, buprenorphine works when you work it.  Like meetings, its value ends when you stop taking it.
In reality, buprenorphine was never ‘just a detox agent.’  I became certified about three years into the use of Suboxone in the US, and for a short time served as a ‘treatment advocate’, teaching other doctors how to treat patients with Suboxone.   We didn’t set time limits on treatment.  I suppose there were people who had a mystical view of how medication works, who hoped that buprenorphine somehow erased all of the psychopathology that accumulates during active addiction… but there were no official recommendations to use Suboxone only in that way.  Short-term detox was not the ‘intended use’ for Suboxone.
I’m left wondering: Where do these statements come from, that “Suboxone was never intended as a maintenance agent”, or that “it gets in your bones”, or “it is the worst opioid to come off”, or “it made me gain weight”, “it rotted my teeth”, “it is dangerous long-term”, etc.? Is it like the old ‘telephone game’, where stories take gain details as they are passed from person to person?  For that matter, why do some people spend their time trash-talking buprenorphine on sites intended to help people understand buprenorphine?  The forum is often visited by trolls who are obsessed with other people taking buprenorphine. Do people go on forums for illnesses other than addiction, and taunt patients with bogus information?
As I wrote to the angry person earlier today—if you don’t want or need the medication, move on already.  To some, this is serious business.  Surely you must have something better to do.
Addendum: Since this post, attitudes toward buprenorphine seem to have changed to some extent. We have far-fewer people coming to the forum just to attack buprenorphine. I’m hoping the difference is because of a better understanding of the medication, and not because of less use of the medication.

Suboxone Detox is a Sucker's Bet

First Posted 10/6/2013
I attended the US Psychiatric and Mental Health Congress meeting last week and actually attended the meetings (the event was held in Las Vegas), but I was disappointed by the absence of lectures about addiction.  There are other mental health groups geared more toward addiction, but one would think that psychiatry would maintain a strong presence in the field.  This was my first time at the annual meeting for this group, and so I can’t say that I’m witnessing a trend away from addiction by psychiatry—which would be a real shame.
At any rate, I had a very busy Friday and Saturday catching up with the office work I put off for a few days. So today I had to cram in a lot of non-work activities, to make sure that my life remains well-balanced.  That meant watching the entire Packer game, going to the movie ‘Gravity’ complete with 3-D glasses, and then catching the latest episode of Homeland, where psychiatrists continue to gain a bad name.  Thorazine injection, anyone?
So I’m beat…  but I’ve been intending to write something for the past couple weeks, and I think I can knock it off fairly quickly.  Readers know that I get many emails from across the country describing atrocious behavior by physicians.  The latest scam?  It appears that everyone with a medical clinic has a secret recipe for tapering off Suboxone.
I received an email from a person who wanted to stop Suboxone/buprenorphine for months, if not years.  For people who don’t know my attitude, I tend to believe my own eyes, and also what the research shows—that over 9 out of 10 of the people who stop buprenorphine are using opioids again within one year.  When people moan that ‘it is hard to stop buprenorphine’, I remind them that the reason they are TAKING buprenorphine is because they were unable to stop opioids.  Why would they expect that to change?  Oh- I know— counseling!  That’s the line from all of the addiction insiders—that patients take buprenorphine and do ‘counseling’, and the addiction goes away.
There are two scientific findings that keep trickling out these days that are driving some people crazy— and I admit to a bit of amusement with each headline.  The first set of findings concern the troubling lack of global warming over the past 8 years—including the recent headlines that polar icecaps, predicted by Gore et al. to be completely gone by now, have grown by almost a third in the past year.  The other interesting findings are the several studies that failed to demonstrate an increase in sobriety in buprenorphine patients engaged in ‘counseling.’    There is real danger for people who borrow science just in order to hide behind It for an argument or two; they risk getting caught naked when the science moves in an unexpected direction!
Anyway, the person wrote to tell me that after multiple failed efforts to taper off buprenorphine on her own, she had gone to a rapid-detox clinic that promised to ‘heal’ her receptors over a few days. The $7 grand was spent, and I had no desire to ruin whatever placebo effect she would gain from the silly cocktail of nutritional supplements she purchased.  So I told her that I hoped she felt better soon, not adding that she will feel better at about the same time she would have felt better without the rapid detox and nutritional supplements.
She wrote again a week later, struggling from withdrawal, and then again a few days after that to say that she went back on buprenorphine.  But the good news was that she found a different doctor who SPECIALIZES in getting people off buprenorphine.
A few days later she wrote to tell me about the hundreds of dollars the visit cost— and asked if his taper schedule appeared reasonable.  ‘He’s your doctor’, I explained, trying to sound neutral.  I shared my belief, though, that it was a conflict of interest for doctors to sell nutrient products that they themselves prescribed, and that opioid receptors are able to return to health without the addition of trace nutrients.
A week later she wrote about yet another specialist, who this time took $800 to tell her to take 3 mg for a few days, then 2 mg for a few days, then 1 mg for a few days.  She said she had to go back for another appointment for him to tell her what to do after that.
I know it sounds like I’m joking, but sadly, I’m not.  More sadly, I’ve read similar messages a number of times over the past few years.  I’ve stated that I would try to point out things I write that are based on science, vs. things based on personal experience, vs. what I’ve witnessed as a clinician.  What I’m about to say is based on all three.
I had my own nightmare withdrawal from potent opioids when I was in treatment 13 years ago.  I lost 30 pounds from my already-skinny frame at that time, having no appetite and without taking nutrient supplements.   But my withdrawal ended and my receptors healed in about 6-8 week, just as in every opioid addict who I’ve assisted through detoxification.  And when I’ve seen people go away for rapid detox, they complain about feeling lousy— the same amount of complaining over the same lousiness—for the same 6-8 weeks.  One would think that all of this would be enough to outrage the FDA, who usually get irritated at stories about high-cost, low-yield medical procedures.  But once again, the truth is even worse.  For those who do manage to white-knuckle through 6-8 weeks of withdrawal, guess how many are still clean a year later?  Wanna bet?
As for the warming of the planet, I’ll continue to read the science with an open mind.  Maybe Gore will be right in the long run, which would be bad for the planet but good for those who give out Nobel Prizes.  But we know one thing for certain now; that asserting the ice caps would be gone by 2014 was a sucker’s bet.  And the same is true about promises for a rapid or gentle path through opioid withdrawal.