Archive for the ‘cultural norms’ Category

The State of Denial (Tennessee) gets Another Chance

aaaprejudice and ignorance

If you read my blog, you know Tennessee is a frequent target of my ire. I’ve been aghast and distressed at Tennessee’s refusal to allow an opioid treatment program to open in the Eastern part of that state. Hopefully, that’s about to change.

Now a new opioid treatment program has applied for a certificate of need with Tennessee’s Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, asking for permission to locate a methadone clinic in Eastern Tennessee. Sources say this is the eleventh attempt to locate an opioid treatment program that prescribes methadone in that part of Tennessee. In 2002, approval was given but then withdrawn due to a technicality.

Even if the certificate of need is approved, this company faces stiff opposition from the modern-day equivalent of villagers with pitchforks, demanding that no treatment center be located near them. This is the ugly face of modern day NIMBYism, and it violates the American with Disabilities Act, a topic of a past blog. (See November 14, 2012) It’s illegal, and past federal court rulings have sent a clear message to towns that violated the ADA in this way, with high six-figure fines.

I’m surprised anyone wants to put a new clinic in Tennessee, given its recently passed anti-evidence-based regulations on methadone clinics, but I’m pleased. Eastern Tennessee probably has more untreated opioids addicts per acre than anywhere else in the nation. Tennessee has the 13th highest opioid overdose deaths per capita, compared to all other states, and is ranked number two in the kilogram of opioids prescribed per capita. [1]

Yet it has only a small number of opioid treatment programs. The nearest methadone clinic to Eastern Tennessee is located in Knoxville, and in bordering states. These states treat the opioid addicts Tennessee is neglecting. The certificate of need submitted by the petitioning opioid treatment program says that around one thousand opioid addicts are now traveling one or two hundred miles round trip each day for treatment. You know there are thousands more getting no treatment at all.

The state will make a decision about the certificate of need request this summer. Of course, any educated interpretation of data would conclude that the certificate of need should be approved forthwith. As I said, you can’t throw a rock in Eastern Tennessee without hitting an opioid addict. But so many people don’t know anything about the benefits of methadone.

Lack of knowledge about methadone does not prevent people in positions of authority from taking a strong stance against it. For example, this is a quote in the Johnson City Press from Roger Nave, committee chairman of the public safety committee of the county where Johnson City is located: “We have top-class medical facilities in this area to deal with any problem that our citizens have. The addicts do need help and support, but methadone is not the answer to their problems.”

Does Mr. Nave actually know any facts about methadone?? Does Mr. Nave know that the treatment of opioid addiction with methadone is one of the most strongly evidence-based medical treatments in all of medicine? Does he know that we have over forty years’ of studies that show the treatment of opioid addiction with methadone reduces overdose death rates and suicide rates? Does he know it improves employment rates and dramatically reduces crime rates? Does he know addicts treated with methadone have better physical and mental health? Does he know that for each dollar spent on methadone treatment, taxpayers save four dollars, mostly in reduced incarceration costs? Does he know that methadone treatment of opioid addiction significantly reduces the incidence of HIV in intravenous opioid addicts? [2,3,4]

Eastern Tennessee now has Suboxone providers, and these doctors have likely saved hundreds of lives. Buprenorphine is a great medication, and I prefer prescribing it rather than methadone because of its better safety record. It works on the same principle as methadone: both are long-acting opioids that can be dosed once daily to keep opioid addicts from having withdrawal or craving, thus freeing them to focus on changing their lives.

But buprenorphine is not strong enough for all opioid addicts. It doesn’t work for all opioid addicts. In fact, no treatment works for all opioid addicts, even medication-assisted treatment with buprenorphine and methadone. Some are too sick for these medications, and some aren’t sick enough.

Suboxone programs are too expensive for many addicts. Yesterday I called three programs in Tennessee to get an idea of their prices. A month’s worth of treatment is around $400, including doctors’ visits, group and individual counseling, and drug tests. The medication is not included in this cost, and can cost an additional $240 to $900 per month, depending on the dose of medication. Opioid addicts without health insurance can’t afford that kind of treatment. Methadone programs usually cost $9-$11 per day, and addicts can pay as they go.

At least one big Suboxone program in Johnson City doesn’t do maintenance treatment, but only a few months of detox, despite more studies showing greater benefit with longer treatment. Some addicts are forced to come off Suboxone before they are ready, a recipe for relapse.

Suboxone is a valuable option for opioid addicts, but let’s make all forms of evidence-based treatment available for opioid addicts. Why not let addiction specialist doctors decide which treatment is appropriate, rather than government officials without any medical training?

With so many untreated opioid addicts in Eastern Tennessee, all forms of evidence-based treatments need to be available. At present, health officials in Tennessee push patients into medication –free treatments. These can work, if patients are given long enough treatment and if they can afford it. In my experience, inpatient programs in Eastern Tennessee seem to keep patients for two or three weeks, instead of two or three months. This is understandable, since Medicaid isn’t known for generous reimbursement, and private insurance rarely pays for longer treatments. Patients with no insurance at all are often asked to bring money up front to pay for treatment. Asking an addict to bring a few thousand dollars with them to start inpatient treatment doesn’t work, for obvious reasons. Even treated patients are sent back home to the same living situation, and relapse quickly. Using inpatient detox alone for five to seven days has always given relapse rates of 92%, with most relapsing within the first week.

Tennessee state officials have a chance to save lives, if only they can put aside their personal biases and look at the science supporting medication-assisted treatments. It’s the right thing to do. It’s a bargain, too. Patients are mostly self-pay, so it doesn’t cost taxpayers anything. Even from a purely economic view, methadone treatment would save taxpayers money.

If you support medical treatment of opioid addiction with evidence-based therapies, please write to the state and let them know. If you are an addict who has been helped by methadone, send a letter to the below address. If you are a family member who has seen the benefits of methadone treatment in your loved one, tell the people in government. This is the time to act. Don’t let this opportunity to slip by. Send your letter to:

Tennessee Health Services and Development Agency
Melanie M. Hill, Executive Director
Frost Building, 3rd Floor
161 Rosa L. Parks Boulevard
Nashville, TN 37243

1.http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6043a4.htm?s_cid=mm6043a4_w
2.http://international.drugabuse.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/methadoneresearchwebguide.pdf
3.California Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, 2004, California drug and alcohol treatment assessment (CALDATA) California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs. California Drug and Alcohol Treatment Assessment (CALDATA), 1991-1993 [Computer File]. ICPSR02295-v2. Ann Arbor, MI: Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research [distributor], 2008-10-07. doi:10.3886/ICPSR02295
4.http://www.asam.org/docs/publicy-policy-statements/1methadone-rev-10-061.pdf?sfvrsn=0#search=”methadone

Officially an Epidemic

 

It’s official. Prescription drug abuse in the U.S. is now called an epidemic by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In November, CDC officials released a new report of prescription drug addiction. http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6043a4.htm?s_cid=mm6043a4_w

It’s really interesting reading.

The CDC points out that prescription opioid overdose deaths now outnumber heroin and cocaine overdose deaths combined and prescription opioids were involved in 74% of all prescription drug overdose deaths.

The breakdown of their data by state is particularly interesting. The states with the highest rates of opioid overdose deaths are, in descending order: New Mexico, with a rate of 27 deaths per 100,000 people, then West Virginia, Nevada, Utah, Alaska, Kentucky, Rhode Island, Florida, Oklahoma, and Ohio. Tennessee missed the top ten, but was still 13th highest in overdose deaths, with a rate of 14.8. North Carolina’s rate was 12.9 per 100,000 people, which put North Carolina 24th out of 50 for prescription overdose deaths. That’s too high, but much improved since 2005, when North Carolina was in the top five states for prescription opioid overdose deaths. The lowest opioid overdose death rate was seen in Nebraska, with 5.5 deaths per 100,000 people.

The CDC also analyzed information about the amount of opioids prescribed in each state. They measured kilograms of opioid pain relievers prescribed per 10,000 people in each state. The state with the highest rate had over three times the rate of the state with the lowest rate. It’s no surprise that Florida had the highest amount, at 12.6 kilograms per every 10,000. Illinois had the lowest amount, at 3.7 kilograms per 10,000 people.

The big surprise: Tennessee has the second highest amount of opioids prescribed, adjusted by population. (OK, they tied for second place with Oregon). Yep. Tennessee, the state that refuses to allow more opioid treatment centers to be built within its borders, has 11.8 kilograms of opioids prescribed per every 10,000 people.  But since I want to devote an entire blog entry to Tennessee’s backward outlook on addiction and its treatment, I’ll defer further comments about that state.

Sales of prescription opioid quadrupled from 1999 to 2010. According to the CDC, enough opioids were sold last year to provide a month of hydrocodone, dosed 5mg every four hours, for each adult in the U.S.

The CDC estimates that for every prescription overdose death, there are at least 130 more people who are addicted or abuse these medications, and 825 who are “nonmedical users” of opioids. (I’m still not sure how nonmedical users differ from abusers. To me, if it’s nonmedical, that’s abuse.) Not all of the 825 are addicted or will become addicted – but they are certainly at risk.

Just like what was found in other studies, people who abuse opioids are most likely to get them for free from a friend or relative. So if you are giving pain pills to your friends or family members, you are part of this large problem.

In 2008, 36,450 people died from prescription overdose deaths. That was nearly equal to the number of people who died in auto accidents, at 39,973. In fact, in seventeen states, the number of overdose deaths did exceed auto accident deaths.

The CDC authors conclude that the prescription opioid addiction isn’t getting any better, and in measurable ways, it’s worsened, with some states worse than others. The worst areas, not surprisingly, have higher rates of opioid prescribing that can’t be explained by differences in the population. To me, this means doctors in some states are overprescribing, or at least aren’t taking proper precautions when they do prescribe opioids.

In my next blog entry, I’ll explain how people and organizations in North Carolina have been working hard to deal with the prescription pain pill addiction problem. Based on information from the CDC, it appears my state has made some major progress, at least compared to one of our neighboring states.

Cotton Fever

An addict still using heroin recently asked me what “cotton fever” was, and how he could tell if he was sick with it.

 Cotton fever is caused by bacteria commonly found on cotton plants, initially named Enterobacter agglomerans, later changed to Pantoea agglomerans. Most intravenous drug addicts filter heroin through cotton filters, to remove particles that could clog both their injection needle and their veins. Sometimes fibers of cotton break off from the filter, carrying the bacteria with it. These bacteria in the bloodstream cause fever and chills, but in a healthy person, this usually resolves on its own. It’s rare to see it cause serious infection. However, doctors still recommend addicts with cotton fever seek medical care and receive appropriate antibiotics. (1)

At least one study isolated an endotoxin produced by this bacteria, so it’s possible that the fever is actually caused by this toxin, released from the bacteria, and not from an actual infection.

 Enterobacter species, while found in feces of both animals and humans, are also found in the plant world. Usually, these bacteria aren’t a particularly vicious, which is why they rarely cause sepsis (overwhelming infection) unless the individual has an impaired ability to fight infection. In the 1970’s, some medical products (blood, IV fluids) were found to be infected with this species, and caused significant infections, but this was probably due to a large amount of the bacteria infused into patients.

 Cotton filters become more fragile with use, so addicts using new filters probably have a lower risk of cotton fever. After cotton filters are used, they remain moist and can become colonized with all sorts of bacteria, especially if they are kept warm, as happens when they are stored in a pocket, close to the body. This bacteria can cause infection when injected. Cotton filters can transmit hepatitis C and possibly other infections, if they are shared with other drug users. (2)

 Filters also retain some of the injected drug, making them of some value in the world of intravenous addicts. It’s considered a gesture of generosity to offer another addict your “cottons” because the addict will get some small amount of the drug. (3)

 Even in view of all of the above, it’s still better to use a filter than to use unfiltered heroin. A new cotton cigarette filter has been shown to remove up to 80% of particulates in heroin, and reduces the risk of thrombosis of the vein from particles. Other makeshift filters are made from clothing, cotton balls, and even tissue paper.

 Syringe filters are manufactured for medical and laboratory use. They can be designed to filter particles down to 5 micrometers. Besides being more expensive and difficult to obtain, studies show these filters retain more of the drug than other makeshift filters, making them less desirable to some addicts. (2)

 Cotton fever itself usually isn’t fatal. The biggest challenge is knowing if the addict has cotton fever or something worse, like sepsis. Sepsis is an infection of the blood stream, and even heart valves can become infected, causing serious and life-threatening problems. 

I asked a former IV drug addict about his experience with cotton fever.

 Me: What does cotton fever feel like?

 Former Addict: You get a fever that kind of feels like withdrawal. You know there’s something bad wrong, and you don’t know what to do about it. I’ve laid on the floor and thought I was going to die. A lot of times people get it when they’re rinsing, and that means they’re coming down anyway. When the dope got short and I was rinsing cottons, that’s when I got it.

 Me: How long does it last?

 FA: It seems like it lasts a long time, but the intensity is bad maybe an hour or two. You shake, you sweat; it feels just like the flu.

 Me: Ever go to the hospital with cotton fever?

 FA: No, no! (said emphatically) I was usually wanted by the police. Only time I went to the hospital is with severe trauma.

Me: I don’t understand what you mean by rinsing.

 FA: Rinsing’s when you squeeze that last little bit of drug out of the cotton [filter]. You rinse the spoon and cotton with a little water. I would save all my cottons. That was my rathole for when the dope ran out. I would actually load the cottons into the barrel of a syringe then draw water in to the barrel of syringe, then squeeze until they were bone dry. I squirted that on to a spoon, and used a new cotton to draw that into a syringe.

 Me: Why do you use cotton filters? Do you use it with every drug you injected?

 FA: I used cotton to strain any dirt that may be in the product, that might get up in the syringe. I didn’t want no dirt. Didn’t have to be cotton. [If you don’t use a filter, you] shoot a bunch of trash up in yourself, and get trash fever.

 I used an itty bitty cotton. Some people would use a quarter of cigarette butt. That was wasteful to me. It got too saturated, could hold too much residue, or dope.

 I didn’t have to use cotton with quarter gram morphine or Dilaudid. Not enough trash to stop it up. If there’s trash in the syringe, I used a cotton.

 Thankfully, this person has been in recovery from addiction for more than thirteen years. When I asked him how he was able to stop, he said Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

 Recovery is the best way to avoid cotton fever. You never have to go through that again.

  1. Rollinton, F; Feeney, C; Chirurgi, V; Enterobacter agglomerans-Associated Cotton Fever,  Annals of Internal Medicine 1993; 153(20): 2381-2382.
  2. Pates, R; McBride, A; Arnold, K; Injecting Illicit Drugs, (Oxford, UK, Blackwell Publishing, 2005) pp. 41-43.
  3. 3.       Bourgois, Phillippe; Schonberg, Jeff; Righteous Dopefiend,(Berkeley, California, University of California Press, 2009) pp8-9, 83-84.

The Story of a Recovering Addict

Following is an interview with a successfully recovering opioid addict. He received treatment at methadone clinics off and on for years, and finally achieved medication-free recovery after going to an inpatient treatment program for 42 days. Later, he began to work in the field of addiction treatment as a methadone counselor. He was promoted multiple times over the years to his present position as director of the narcotic treatment program at his clinic. This is his perspective about his own experience and what he’s seen with methadone treatment.

JB: Can you tell me your title at the opioid treatment clinic where you work?

KS: Director of Narcotic Treatment, which is our opioid treatment program. [He supervises counselors working at multiple clinic sites, with a total census of around thirty-four hundred methadone patients]

JB: Can you please tell me about your own opioid addiction, and how you got into recovery, including what kind of substances you may have used, what kind of treatments, and your experiences with them?

KS: I started out using pain killers, mostly Percodan tablets, back in the late 70’s, which lead me to using heroin. Heroin wasn’t easy to get [where I lived], so I started using Dilaudids [a name brand of the drug oxymorphone]. I started using Dilaudid on a regular basis in the county I lived in. That was the primary drug I used for quite a few years.

[My] first experience with methadone treatment started in 1978, with a brief episode of treatment, a matter of a month or so, with no success. Pretty much during the 1980’s, I was on and off methadone programs with little or no success, because I refused to participate in group or individual sessions. At the time, there was very limited counseling going on [at methadone clinics]. If there was a problem, you saw your counselor, and that didn’t happen a whole lot. Patients were simply trying to get more methadone. At that point, the methadone dosages were very low. I think the average dose back then was somewhere between forty and fifty milligrams. And we [patients on methadone] didn’t know that. We didn’t know that. We just found out through….

JB: You didn’t know what dose you were taking?

KS: Oh, no. We didn’t know what dose we were taking, for a number of years. As a matter of fact, that didn’t change until right before 2001.

JB: Wow

KS: Yeah.

JB: Could the patient find out if they wanted to? [the dose they were taking]

KS: We were blind dosed then. That didn’t change until just before 2001.

JB: Was that unusual for methadone clinics to do?

KS: To my knowledge, I think we [the clinic where he now works, and previously was a patient] were one of the last ones to keep doing that. It was just something we had done over the years and never changed it. [The patients] didn’t know what their dose was.

Through the 1980’s, I was on and off methadone programs, sometimes for a few years at a time, and sometimes had some success. The biggest benefit I had from taking methadone and being on the program was that I was able to work. I held a job the entire time, and I wasn’t doing anything criminal.  It served the purpose it was supposed to serve there, because I had to work, and I was able to function fairly normally. But I never moved into actual recovery, and still used some opiates from time to time. So that was pretty much the 80’s. Two good things happened in the 80’s. In 1981 my son was born, and in 1989, I got clean.

JB: Big things.

KS: Two monumental things in my life. So, I went through that period of time I had talked about, when I started using opiates, in about 1974. Then I started getting on the methadone programs, on and off, [starting] from ’78, but I continued to use. I was using Dilaudids on a daily basis for a number of years. When I got on the methadone program, I would curtail that, but always wanted to go back to Dilaudid. That [Dilaudid] became my drug of choice.

I was on the methadone program in 1989, and having some problems with alcohol. Prior to getting on the program, I was told, “We’re not going to allow you on the program, unless you go on Antabuse.” So I did that and I was successful at stopping drinking, and had some success with methadone. I decided I wanted off the methadone, started detoxing off, and had a series of positive drug screens for a variety of opiates: morphine, Dilaudid, and several different things I had access to. The methadone center said, “We’re going to make a recommendation that you enter residential treatment.” And I said, “Sounds great to me, I’ll do that in a couple months.” And they said, “No. We’re going to make a recommendation you do that… pretty quickly.”

And that’s what happened. I said, “I don’t think I can do this. I’ve got some things to do.” And I remember it like it was yesterday. The counselor got up and walked out of the room and he left me sitting there by myself. Then he walked back in, said, “We’ve got you a bed.” And that’s what lead me to [inpatient treatment].

So I went to forty-two days of residential treatment, and actually entered that program ready to quit using and get into recovery. And from that point on, recovery has been the most important thing in my life….family, of course…but I’ve pursued recovery since May 3, 1989. I followed all the suggestions. [I’m] still really involved with 12- step meetings, and still really involved with some of the same things I did when I first came in [to recovery]. Obviously, I don’t go to as many meetings, but still go to meetings on a regular basis

JB: Do you have any regrets about either type of treatment? The forty-two day inpatient or the methadone?

KS: I do believe that in my case, I needed to be taken away from my environment, simply because of the people I was associated with. That’s not the case for everyone. In my case, I needed to be away from my environment. So the detoxing from the methadone and going into a residential program, that’s what worked for me. Obviously, people can do that other ways. But I still had people in my life that were negative influences.

JB: If you had an opioid addict who presented for treatment for the first time, what would you recommend? If money were no object?

KS: I’d recommend that individual seek inpatient treatment. Now, if they had an extended history of opiate dependency, then that person’s success rate in residential treatment is obviously going to be limited….and…it would just depend on the individual. Methadone treatment might be the way for them to go. I know that’s kind of teetering on the fence. I’m going to be somewhat….I’m going to hold on to how powerful residential treatment was for me. But I had failed at methadone treatment. And, there again, it was a different time, the methadone doses weren’t enough at the time.

JB: Did you feel normal on your dose of methadone or did you [still] feel withdrawal?

KS: I was feeling normal, however, I could still feel drug use [other opioids].

JB: So it wasn’t a blocking dose?

It was not a blocking dose. You knew if you got medicated at 7:00 am, at 5:00 pm you could fairly well feel somewhat of a rush and feel the effects of [other opioids].

JB: How did you get started working in the field of addiction treatment?

KS: I came out of treatment, worked for a family business for a couple of years, and always, from day one, I thought, “What a fascinating thing….if I could somehow do this…to get into that line of work [meaning addiction counseling].

 I started, after two years, as an evening counselor at a residential treatment program, and saw that I really wanted to do that. There was an avenue for non-degreed people to come in to a counselor position. You didn’t have to have a degree in substance abuse or anything like that, so I pursued that, and followed the certification process. I didn’t work in residential treatment but nine months, and then moved to methadone counseling. From that point on, I had found what I wanted to do. And I’ve been offered a promotion at the treatment center to another department when I was over the methadone program, and turned it down to stay with that population [meaning opioid addicts in treatment on methadone].

JB: So you obviously enjoy it.

KS: Oh yeah.

JB: What did you like about it?

KS: I think my ability to relate to that population, without having any thought or putting any real effort…I don’t have to think about it. I know I can talk to that population, and I know I can make them feel normal, by just holding a conversation with them….it might not be about drug use. It might not be about anything pertaining to the treatment episode, but I feel like…that I know exactly where they’re coming from, and I can give them some hope that they don’t have to keep living that way. Just an identification with that population.

JB: That’s a precious gift.

KS: I agree.

JB: Do you believe that your background in addiction helps you when you talk to patients?

KS: I do. I believe wholeheartedly that you can’t teach that. I’ve had some people work for me who had a graduate degree, have never personally had an incidence of opioid addiction or any addiction in their family, and they’re absolutely fantastic clinicians. And you know they’re in that line of work for a reason. So [personal experience with addiction] does not need to be a criterion; in my case, it helps. I find it fascinating to watch someone work who has no self-history of addiction. They can be very effective.

JB: What are the biggest challenges you face now at your work?

KS: That would be…documentation. [The demand for] documentation in this field has really overcome the interpersonal relationship. I can’t help but think as time goes on, that’s going to continue. We don’t have twenty or thirty minutes to sit down with a client, and get into one issue after another, or whatever [the client] may have on their plate. And in opioid treatment, a lot of times it’s brief therapy. They [patients] don’t want to talk to you for twenty or thirty minutes. But you don’t have time to do that, because of the documentation. [The counselor has] three people waiting in the lobby, and you’re kind of selling that person short.

The documentation standards continue to rise, and in methadone treatment, I don’t know how that can go hand in hand with a fifty to one case load. Whereas, someone else might have the same documentation required in the mental health field, but they might have sixteen people they’re seeing.

JB: So you’re saying that the state and federal regulations about documentation actually interfere with the amount of counseling the patients get?

KS: Right. Right.

JB: That’s sad.

The clinic where you work has eight different sites. Can you tell me about what sort of interactions you’ve had with the community leaders, local police, and medical community?

KS: Overall, with any opioid treatment program [methadone clinic], there’s going to be a negative stereotype associated with it in the community, as you well know. Local law enforcement has a bias [against] the [methadone] program. What we’ve found is, any interaction we have with them, and the better understanding that they have [of what we do], the better. And I believe we can make a difference in what law enforcement, and other areas of the community [think about methadone programs].  It’s going to have to happen one person at a time.

An example of that would be when I got a call, a couple of weeks ago, to one of the clinics at ten o’clock at night. An alarm is going off. So I meet the police out there, and we go in, make sure nobody’s in the building. I’m trying to give him some information about it [the methadone program].

He says, “Is it true they come in every day and ya’ll shoot ‘em up?” (laughter) So he thinks that’s what happens.

            So, I educated him on what we do and followed that up with, “Why don’t you stop by and get coffee any time you want to and we’ll give you information.” They were very receptive to that. That’s how you’ve got to approach it. Be willing to talk to people and give them information. [Do the] same thing with community leaders. They’re just not educated in outpatient opioid treatment. Once they get some information, they seem to have a different take on it.

JB: Can you tell me what you’ve seen, particularly over the last seven years, about the types of populations that are coming to the clinics, and if that’s changed any?

KS: I started working in methadone treatment seventeen years ago. We used to have statistics on the methadone program. The average age of a person coming on the program was thirty-four years old, at that time. We had eighty or ninety people on the program and that was it. And they were long term users, primarily heroin as drug of choice. We’ve seen what’s happening over the years.

Heroin has decreased somewhat. Prescription medications went wild. I just read information that forty-four percent of patients entering methadone programs in the nation were on prescription opioids. The age of the person coming on the program has dropped from thirty-four into their late twenties. I don’t have that exact number. But we’ve seen them get younger, and we’ve seen prescription drugs take the place of heroin, in driving people into treatment.

JB: What seems to be the main type of prescription drug, or is there one?

KS: OxyContin changed the landscape in our setting. It’s still a driving force, as far as putting people into treatment. We have an increase in heroin here, but the western part of the state…OxyContin and morphine are on the scene….and any painkiller.

JB: Do you have any opinion about why that happened? Why the incidence of pain pill addiction seemed to rise over the last seven to ten years?

KS: If there’s a reason for it….I think it’s generational. It’s passed down. It’s easy. You’ve got doctors giving the mother and the father painkillers for whatever reason, legitimate or not. It gets passed on…obviously there’s a genetic link for some kinds of addiction or alcoholism. I think you know what you’re getting there [meaning a prescription pill]. People addicted to opioid drugs have very few avenues to get quality heroin in those regions of the country. [Pain pills] are a sure bet. Patients say, “I know what I’m getting when I get that pill.”

JB: If you had the ear of policy makers in Washington D.C., what would you tell them? What would you like to see happen in the treatment field for opioid addiction?

KS: I’m going to refer back to what I said earlier. In methadone treatment, there should be some kind of review, as far as what needs to be documented. Obviously, there needs to be accurate documentation, but not to put methadone or opioid treatment into the same mental health arena for documentation requirements. Because you’re dealing with a different environment, a different population, and a different caseload.

JB: Would you like to see buprenorphine play a role [at the methadone clinic]?

KS: Yes, there’s a need for it. You’ve got such a stereotype against methadone facilities, that’s another avenue for people to be in treatment [meaning buprenorphine]….whether it’s administered in the methadone facility or [community] doctor-based, there’s a need for that.

This interview was with one of the many wonderful people I’ve had the honor of working with at methadone clinics. In my years of work in the medical field, I’ve never been surrounded by as many quality people, who had passion for their work, as I have in addiction medicine. I don’t know if I’ve been extremely lucky, or if all addiction treatment centers draw dedicated individuals to work within their systems. Many of these workers try hard to dispel the stigma and social isolation that addicts feel.

The Pain Management Movement

 In the late 1990’s, organizations like the American Pain Society and the American Academy of Pain Management declared that doctors in the U.S. were doing a lousy job of treating pain, and were under-prescribing opioid pain medications, due to a misguided fear of causing addiction. As a result, there was a national push to treat pain more aggressively. Some states even passed pain initiatives, mandating treatment for pain. Lawsuits were brought against doctors who didn’t adequately treat pain. The Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JACHO), the organization that inspects hospitals to assess their quality of care, made the patient’s level of pain the “fifth vital sign,” after body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, and respiratory rate. Pain management specialists encouraged more liberal prescribing of pain medication. These experts told their primary care colleagues that the chance of developing addiction from opioids prescribed for pain was about one percent.

With these limited facts, the pain management movement was off and running. Many pain management specialists, some of whom were paid speakers for the drug companies that manufactured powerful opioid pain medications, spoke at seminars about the relative safety of opioids, used long term for chronic pain. Pain management specialists taught these views to small town family practice and general medicine doctors, who were relatively inexperienced in the treatment of either pain or addiction.

The problem was…the specialists were wrong.

These specialists, in their well-intentioned enthusiasm to relieve suffering, used flawed data when reciting the risk for addiction. The one percent figure came from a study looking at patients treated in the hospital for acute pain, which is quite different from treating outpatients with chronic non cancer pain. (1) In other words, they compared apples to oranges.

To many addiction specialists, an addiction risk of only one percent seemed improbable, since the general population has an addiction risk estimated from six to twelve percent. Surely, being prescribed pain pills would not lessen the risk for addiction. Yet the one percent figure was often cited by many pain management professionals, as well as by the representatives of the drug companies selling strong opioids. 

Some pain management specialists even took a scolding tone when they spoke of some primary care physicians’ reluctance to prescribe strong opioids. They often muddied the waters, and grouped patients with cancer pain, acute pain, and chronic non-cancer pain together, and spoke of them as one group. This can feel insulting to doctors who, though reluctant to prescribe opioids endlessly for a patient with chronic non cancer pain, are adamant about treating end-of-life cancer pain aggressively with opioids. No compassionate physician limits opioids for patients with cancer pain or with acute, short term pain. However, chronic non-cancer pain is different, with different outcomes than acute pain or cancer pain.

 We didn’t learn from history, or we would have learned that when many people have access to opioids, many will develop addiction.  We are scientifically more advanced than one hundred years ago, but we still have the same reward pathway in the brain. The human organism hasn’t changed physiologically. The present epidemic of opioid addiction is reminiscent of the early part of the twentieth century, just after the Bayer drug company released heroin, which for a short period of time was sold without a prescription, before physicians recognized that over prescription of opioids caused iatrogenic addiction.

 Few pain patients intended to become addicted. Some addicted people blame their doctors for causing their opioid addiction, but most doctors were conscientiously trying to treat the pain reported by their patient, and the pain management experts had told these doctors the risk of addiction was so low they didn’t have to worry about it.

Certainly many patients made bad choices to misuse their medications, either from curiosity or peer influence, pushing them farther over the line into addiction. Patients need to recognize their own contribution to their addiction. But with opioid addiction, as the disease progresses, the addict loses the power of choice that he once had. If the addict is fortunate enough to have a moment of clarity, before the disease progresses too far, he may be able to stop on his own, without treatment.

 By their very nature, opioids produce pleasure. Any time doctors prescribe something that causes pleasure, we should expect addiction to occur. Some people, for whatever reason, feel more pleasure than others when they take opioids, and seem to be at higher risk for addiction. As discussed in previous chapters, genetics, environment, and individual factors all influence this risk.

Opioids treat pain – both physical and emotional. Many of the neuronal pathways in the brain for sensing and experiencing pain are the same for both physical and psychological pain. For example, the brain pathways activated when you drop a hammer on your toe are much the same as when you have to tell your spouse you spent the rent money while gambling. Opioids make both types of pain better. Chronic pain patients with psychological illnesses are at increased risk for inappropriate use of their pain medications.

 In a recent study, the rate of developing true opioid addiction in patients taking opioids for chronic pain was found to be increased fourfold over the risk of non-medicated people. (2) Instead of a one percent incidence, as estimated by pain medicine specialists in the past, it now appears eighteen to forty-five percent of patients maintained long-term on opioids develop true addiction, not mere physical dependency. (3) If this information had been available in the late 1990’s, doctors may have taken more precautions when they prescribed strong opioids for chronic pain.

 Researchers have identified the risk factors for addiction among patients who take opioids long-term (more than three months) for chronic pain. Studies now show that a personal past history of addiction is the strongest predictor of future problems with addiction, as would be expected.  A patient with a family history of addiction is also at increased risk for addiction, as are patients with psychiatric illness of any kind, and younger patients. (4)

However, at the height of the pain control movement, there were no good studies of the addiction risk when opioids were used for more than three months. The little information that did exist was misused, resulting in an incredible underestimation of the risk of addiction in patients with chronic pain, who were treated with opioid medications for more than three months.

 With the momentum of the movement for better control of pain, both acute and chronic, the number of prescriptions for opioid pain pills increased dramatically. In the years from 1997 through 2006, prescription sales of hydrocodone increased 244%, while oxycodone increased 732% during that same time period. Prescription sales for methadone increased a staggering 1177%. (5)

It’s not just patients who are at risk for abuse and addiction. The increased amount of opioids being prescribed meant there was more opioid available to be diverted to the black market. When an addicting drug is made more available, it will be misused more often.

  1. Porter and Jick, New England Journal of Medicine, 302 (2) (Jan. 10, 1980) p. 123.
  2. Michael F. Fleming, Stacey L. Balousek, Cynthia L. Klessig, et al. “Substance Use Disorders in a Primary Care Sample Receiving Daily Opioid Therapy,” Journal of Pain, 207; Vol. 8, issue 7: 573-582.
  3. 7. Steven Passik M.D., Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, Vol. 21 No. 5, (May 2001), pp.359 – 360.
  4. Chou, R, Fanciullo, G, Fine, P, et. al., “Opioid Treatment Guidelines: Clinical guidelines for the use of Chronic Opioid Therapy in chronic, non-cancer pain.” The Journal of Pain, 2009, Vol. 10, No. 2. pp. 113-130

5. Andrea Trescott, MD, Stanford Helm, MD, el. al., “Opioids in the Management of Chronic Non-cancer Pain: An Update of American Society of the Interventional Pain Physicians’ Guidelines,” Pain Physician 2008: Opioids Special Issue: 11:S5 – S 62.

Description of Methadone Patients

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 2 of my book, titled, “Pain Pill Addiction: Prescription for Hope.” In this chapter I’m describing the patients I saw at methadone clinics where I worked in the years 2001 through 2009.

 I was surprised how casually people shared controlled substances with one another. As a physician, it seems like a big deal to me if somebody takes a schedule II or schedule III controlled substance that wasn’t prescribed for them, but the addicts I interviewed swapped these pills with little apprehension or trepidation. Taking pain pills to get through the day’s work seemed to have become part of the culture in some areas. Sharing these pills with friends and family members who had pain was acceptable to people in these communities.

In the past, most of the public service announcements and other efforts to prevent and reduce drug use focused on street drugs. Many people seemed to think this meant marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin. The patients I saw didn’t consider prescription pills bought on the street as street drugs. They saw this as a completely different thing, and occasionally spoke derisively about addicts using “hard drugs.” Most addicts didn’t understand the power of the drugs they were taking.

 Some opioid addicts came for help as couples. One of them, through the closeness of romance, transmitted the addiction like an infectious disease to their partner. Most were boyfriend/girlfriend, but some were married. The non-addicted partner’s motives to begin using drugs seemed to be mixed. Some started using out of curiosity, but others started using drugs to please their partner. I was disturbed to see that some of the women accepted the inevitability of addiction for themselves as the cost of being in a relationship with an addicted boyfriend. Often, addicted couples socialized with other addicted couples, as if opioid addiction bound them like a common fondness for bowling or dancing. Addiction became a bizarre thread, woven through the fabric of social networks.

 We saw extended family networks in treatment for pain pill addiction at the methadone clinics. One addicted member of a family came for help, and after their life improved, the rest of the addicted family came for treatment too. It was common to have a husband and wife both in treatment, and perhaps two generations of family members, including aunts, uncles, and cousins. Many addicts who entered treatment saw people they knew from the addicted culture of their area, and sometimes old disputes would be reignite, requiring action from clinic staff. Sometimes ex-spouses and ex-lovers would have to be assigned different hours to dose at the clinic, to prevent conflict.

 When the non-profit methadone clinic where I worked began accepting Medicaid as payment for treatment, we immediately saw much sicker people. Over all, Medicaid patients have more mental and physical health issues. Co-existing mental health issues make addiction more difficult to treat, and these patients were at higher risk for adverse effects of methadone. However, data does show that these sicker patients can benefit the most from treatment.

 When I started to work for a for-profit clinic, I saw a slightly different patient population. I saw more middle class patients, with pink and white-collar jobs. Occasionally, we treated business professionals. The daily cost of methadone was actually a little cheaper at the for-profit clinic, at three hundred dollars per month, as compared to the non-profit clinic, at three hundred and thirty dollars per month. However, the for-profit clinic charged a seventy dollar one-time admission fee, to cover the costs of blood tests for hepatitis, liver and kidney function, blood electrolytes, and a screening test for syphilis. The non-profit clinic had no admission fee, but only did blood testing for syphilis. I believe the seventy dollars entry fee was enough to prevent admission of poorer patients, who had a difficult enough time paying eleven dollars for their first and all subsequent days.

The patients at the for-profit clinic seemed a little more stable. Maybe they hadn’t progressed as far into their disease of addiction, or maybe they had better social support for their recovery. This clinic didn’t accept Medicaid, which discouraged sicker patients with this type of health coverage. Both clinics were reaching opioid addicts; they just served slightly different populations of addicts. The non-profit clinic accepted sicker patients, which is noble, but it made for a more chaotic clinic setting. This was compounded by a management style that was, in a few of their eight clinics, more relaxed.

 For the seven years I worked for a non-profit opioid treatment center, I watched it expand from one main city clinic, and one satellite in a nearby small town, to eight separate clinic sites. The treatment center did this because they began to have large numbers of patients who drove long distances for treatment. This indicated a need for a clinic to be located in the areas where these patients lived. Most of this expansion occurred over the years 2002 through 2006.

 Three of these clinics were located in somewhat suburban areas, within a forty-five minute drive from the main clinic, located in a large Southern city. The other four clinics were in small towns drawing patients from mostly rural areas. One clinic was located in a small mountain town that was home to a modest-sized college. Nearly all of the heroin addicts I saw in the rural clinics were students at that college. But by 2008, we began to see more rural heroin addicts, who had switched from prescription pain pills to heroin, due to the rising costs of pills.

Within a few years, clinics near the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina were swamped with opioid addicts requesting admission to the methadone clinics. These clinics soon had many more patients than the urban clinic.

I saw racial dissimilarities at the clinic sites. In the city, we admitted a fair number of African Americans and other minorities to our program. Most of them weren’t using pain pills, but heroin. I don’t know why this was the case. Perhaps minorities didn’t have doctors as eager to prescribe opioids for their chronic pain conditions, or perhaps they didn’t go to doctors for their pain as frequently as whites. If they were addicted to pain pills, maybe distrust kept them from entering the methadone clinic. In the rural clinics, I could count the number of African-American patients on one hand. They were definitely underrepresented. The minorities we did treat responded to treatment just as well.

A recent study of physicians’ prescribing habits suggested a disturbing possibility for the racial differences I saw in opioid addiction. (1) This article showed statistically significant differences in the rate of opioid prescriptions for whites, compared to non-whites, in the emergency department setting. Despite an overall rise in rates of the prescription of opioid pain medication in the emergency department setting between 1993 and 2005, whites still received opioid prescriptions more frequently than did Black, Asian, or Hispanic races, for pain from the same medical conditions. In thirty-one percent of emergency room visits for painful conditions, whites received opioids, compared to only twenty-three percent of visits by Blacks, twenty-eight percent for Asians, and twenty-four percent for Hispanic patients. These patients were seen for the same painful medical condition. The prescribing differences were even more pronounced as the intensity of the pain increased, and were most pronounced for the conditions of back pain, headache, and abdominal pain. Blacks had the lowest rates of receiving opioid prescriptions of all races.

This study could have been influenced by other factors. For example, perhaps non-whites request opioid medications at a lower rate than whites. Even so, given the known disparities in health care for whites, versus non-whites in other areas of medicine, it would appear patient ethnicity influences physicians’ prescribing habits for opioids. The disparities and relative physician reluctance to prescribe opioids for minorities may reduce their risk of developing opioid addiction, though at the unacceptably high cost of under treatment of pain.

Interestingly, we had pockets of Asian patients in several clinics. We admitted one member of the Asian community into treatment, and after they improved, began to see other addicted members of their extended family arrive at the clinic for treatment. Usually the Asian patients either smoked opium or dissolved it in hot water to make a tea and drank it. When I tried to inquire how much they were using each day, in order to try to quantify their tolerance, the patient would put his or her thumb about a centimeter from the end of the little finger and essentially say, “this much.” Having no idea of the purity of their opium, this gave me no meaningful idea of their tolerance, so we started with cautiously low doses.

One middle aged patient from the Hmong tribe presented to the clinic and when I asked when and why he started opioid use, in broken English and with difficulty, he told me he had lost eight children during the Vietnam War, and was injured himself. After the pain from his injury had resolved, he still felt pain from the loss of his family and he decided to continue the use of opium to treat the pain of his heart, as he worded it. I thought about how similar his history was to the patients of the U.S. and how they often started using opioids and other drugs to dull the pain of significant loss and sorrow. I thought about how people of differing ethnicities are similar, when dealing with addiction, pain, and grief.

1. Pletcher M MD, MPH, Kertesz, MD, MS, et. al., “Trends in Opioid Prescribing by Race/Ethnicity for Patients Seeking Care in US Emergency Departments,” Journal of the American Medical Association, 2008 vol. 299 (1) pp 70-78.

Pain Pill Addiction: Prescription for Hope

Finally, here’s the cover of my book about pain pill addiction and its treatment. It’s available at http://prescriptionforhope.com or you can order it from Amazon, and soon from Barnes and Noble.

My book contains much of what I’ve been blogging about. I wrote the book because there are so few sources of reliable information about the treatment of opioid addiction (pain pills). It seems  that abstinence-based programs don’t like to talk about medication-assisted programs, and some methadone clinics don’t let their patients know about other options. Methadone and buprenorphine can be life-saving when used appropriately, but they have some drawbacks, as well.

There’s not one single right answer for all opioid addicts. Some treatments work for some patients, but no treatment works for all patients. In my book, I present the data supporting treatment methods, so opioid addicts and their families can chose the best course.

If you like this blog, you’ll like my book. I also have a chapter in the book about the unjust stigma patients face when they are treated with medication-assisted methods. It takes a strong person to stay on a treatment that helps them, despite criticism from friends, family, law enforcement, and even unenlightened medical professionals.

Why are so many people addicted to prescription pain pills?

I was reading a great blog I’ve started visiting, http:addictionblog.org and came across an entry about why the U.S. has more pain pill addicts now than 10 years ago.

I couldn’t resist blathering on,  commenting on the blog. I wrote so much the software thought I was spamming. So I thought I’d repeat my comments here, on my blog.

This is an important issue. We now have an estimated 1.7 to 2 million people addicted to prescription pain pills. Many of the conditions that contributed to this wave of addiction have been changed – but not all.

Prescription opioid addiction has increased dramatically over the last decade, due to a combination of factors. First, there was the pain management movement, which emphasized the importance of adequate pain control. Of course that’s an admirable goal, but the risks of addiction were understated due to bad science and misinterpretation of limited data. Instead of a risk of addiction of about 1%, quoted by many pain management gurus, the true incidence is more like 10 – 45%, depending on which study you read.

Then against that backdrop, OxyContin was released and marketed to general practitioners and family docs with limited knowledge about how to identify and treat addiction. In general, medical schools and residencies have done a lousy job of educating doctors about proper prescribing of opioid medications, how to identify addiction, and where to refer people for treatment of their addiction.

 Then there was access to opioids via the internet, which actually seemed to be a bigger problem than it was. A small percentage of abused opioids came from the internet, but some people became addicted in that way. With the changing laws, these rogue internet pharmacies are less numerous.

States most heavily afflicted by pain pill addiction didn’t have prescription monitoring programs in place. These programs are essential tools to identify people who are getting pills from more than one doctor at a time, called “doctor shopping,” which is often an indication the person has an addiction that needs treatment. Fortunately, most states either have these programs now or are in the process of putting them into place.

But a big part of the problem is cultural. We share prescription medications, even controlled substances, with alarming frequency. Most people aged 18 – 24 who use pain pills nonmedically get them from friends or family, not from some nefarious dealer on the corner. Adolescents don’t realize how dangerous prescription pain pills are.

Anyone with pain pills in their medicine cabinet needs to lock them up to keep them safe, or dispose of medication when they are no longer needed. And we need to stop sharing our medications. It’s illegal, dangerous, and contributes to addiction.

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