This blog entry describes medications (other than methadone and buprenorphine) that treat opioid dependency. None of these medications are opioid stimulating drugs, and therefore have no potential for addiction. I’ve had many questions about these medications lately, so I thought a re-posting of this entry may be appropriate.
Clonidine has been used for decades as a blood pressure medication. It’s cheap and effective, but has some unpleasant side effects: sedation, dry mouth, and constipation. Because newer blood pressure medications have fewer side effects, clonidine is used less today than in the past to treat high blood pressure. However, it’s at least moderately effective at treating many of the symptoms of opioid withdrawal.
Among many other places in the central nervous system, opioids act on a part of the brain called the locus ceruleus. The locus ceruleus, which in Latin means the “blue place,” is part of the autonomic nervous system. When locus ceruleus neurons are stimulated, norepinephrine is released into the brain, and this causes overall stimulation of the brain. Opioids slow the firing of these neurons in the locus ceruleus, reducing the release of norepinephrine. When the body gets opioids regularly from an outside source, the locus ceruleus makes adjustments, to make up for extra opioids. Then, if the supply of opioids is suddenly stopped, the locus ceruleus becomes unbalanced, and releases an overabundance of norepinephrine. The heart rate and blood pressure increase, along with other symptoms: runny nose, yawning, tearing of the eyes, diarrhea, and nausea.
Since clonidine works by calming the locus ceruleus, clonidine reduces many of these unpleasant opioid withdrawal symptoms, though it rarely eliminates all withdrawal symptoms. In the past, when it was the only medication available for opioid withdrawal management, patients rarely stayed at a detox facility long enough to complete their withdrawal. It was difficult to retain the addict in treatment. Now, most state-of-the-art detoxification units use Suboxone to ease withdrawal symptoms because it’s more effective, and helps retain patients in detoxification, a necessary step prior to the more intense inpatient rehabilitation.
Opioid antagonists (blockers)
Opioid antagonists are drugs that firmly attach to the opioid receptors, but don’t activate these receptors. Antagonists prevent other opioids from reaching and activating the receptors. Antagonists remove opioids from the receptors, so if antagonists are given to an actively using opioid addict, the addict will become sick with withdrawal. This is called “precipitated withdrawal” because it was caused, or precipitated, by a medication.
Naltrexone is the most commonly used oral opioid blocker. It’s taken orally, in pill form. It’s started after an opioid addict has completed opioid withdrawal. It can be a difficult medication to take, because it may also block endorphins, our own naturally made opioids. Some patients complain of headache, muscle aches, and fatigue while taking naltrexone. Many times these unpleasant symptoms will subside, with more time on the medication. The medication can be started at a half dose for the first week or so, and then increased to the full dose. Most patients tolerate this better.
Naltrexone has been used in this country mainly for relapse prevention, particularly for addicted professionals. Many professionals, such as doctors and pharmacists, who have been treated for opioid addiction, are started on naltrexone when they return to work. These professionals may need to work around opioids, and if they relapse while taking naltrexone, the opioids will have no effect. The antagonist thus serves as extra insurance against a relapse. Many licensing boards for impaired professionals insist they take naltrexone as a condition of being allowed to return to work in their fields.
Naltrexone works well, but only if the patient takes it every day. If the addict “forgets” to take her dose for one or two days, it’s then possible for her to get high from ingested opioids. Because of this, the medication is also available in an implantable form. Pellets containing naltrexone are placed just under the skin and the medication is released into the body over three months. With this method, compliance is obviously higher, since the addict would have to dig the pellets out to be rid of the blocking drug. Not many centers place these pellets, so access to this treatment may involve some travel.
A long-acting, monthly injection of this drug has just been approved for the treatment of opioid addiction. Obviously, compliance will be much better, because after it’s injected, there’s no turning back. Studies are ongoing to see what the success rate will be with this easier option. Unfortunately, the injection is quite a bit more expensive than the daily pills.
One concern with the opioid antagonists described above is what to do if the patient is in a bad accident and needs opioid pain medications, or needs surgery. Most patients will have to be admitted to the hospital, with close monitoring, because it takes large doses of opioids to override the effect of blockers. Pain control is obviously more complicated in such a situation.
Naloxone is the intravenous form of an opioid antagonist, better known by its brand name Narcan. It’s injected to rapidly reverse the effects of opioids. Emergency workers often carry Narcan with them to use if they encounter a person who has overdosed with opioids. This medication can be life-saving, but it also puts the opioid addict into immediate withdrawal.
Detoxification under anesthesia
Because of the fear that many opioid addicts have of opioid withdrawal symptoms, some treatment programs have used a method of inducing physical withdrawal while the patient is under anesthesia.
With rapid or ultra-rapid detoxification, the patient is first given some type of general anesthesia, and then given doses of an intravenous opioid antagonist like naloxone. The naloxone puts the patient’s body into withdrawal, but since he’s unconscious, he won’t be aware of it. Hours later, the patient is brought out of anesthesia. Proponents of this method of detoxification say that the patient has no further withdrawal once he is out of anesthesia. However, several studies show significant post-procedure symptoms, with nausea, vomiting, and insomnia. These symptoms can continue for days after the procedure. (1)
This method appeals to many addicts because it’s advertised to be quick and painless. However, most evidence shows patient outcomes using rapid or ultra-rapid detoxification have the same results as techniques using buprenorphine to transition off of opioids and onto naltrexone. (2) Plus, ultrarapid detox costs much more. In many places, the procedure costs tens of thousands of dollars. This method also has the added risks of general anesthesia.
Treatment centers that perform rapid detox advertise claims of “100%” success, speaking of numbers of patients that complete treatment. But if the patient is under anesthesia, of course 100% will complete the treatment. They aren’t going anywhere, since they are unconscious. Many proponents of rapid detox exaggerate and inflate success rates in this way. However, most studies show that at one year, success rates with rapid detox under anesthesia, compared to detox with a short course of buprenorphine are equal. They’re equally dismal, with only twenty percent of the addicts still abstinent from all opioids.
Most reputable treatment centers no longer use this expensive, and relatively riskier, method of detoxification under general anesthesia. Since the studies don’t show greater abstinence rates with this method, it’s difficult to justify its expense and risk. (2)
However, there may be some patients for whom this is an acceptable treatment. Perhaps if ultra-rapid detox is the only treatment option that an addict is willing to try, the potential benefits may outweigh risks, since we know continued active addiction is very risky. This method of detox may be most successful with a very motivated addict who, for whatever reason, has a deadline they want to meet for detoxification. Even though there’s less than a twenty percent chance that he will be off opioids at one year after the procedure, that addict will still be introduced to the idea of addiction treatment
- Singh j, Ultra-rapid opioid detoxification: Current status and controversies, Journal of Postgraduate Medicine 2004; 50:227-232.
- Collins ED, Kleber HD, Whittington RA, Heitler NE, Anesthesia-assisted vs buprenorphine- or clonidine-assisted heroin detoxification and naltrexone induction: A randomized trial, Journal of the American Medical Association, 2005; 294 (8) 903-913.
- Cucchia AT, Monnat M, et.al; Ultra-rapid opiate detoxification using deep sedation with oral midazolam: short and long-term results. The authors conclude that patients still had withdrawal symptoms after the detoxification procedure, and withy percent had relapsed back to opioid use at the six month follow up. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 1998; 52(3) 243-250.