Archive for the ‘Naltrexone’ Category

Each State Gets a Report Card

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You have got the check this out…an organization called Trust For America’s Health, or TFAH, supported by the Robert Wood Johnson foundation, has released a report called, “Prescription Drug Abuse 2013: Strategies to Stop the Epidemic.” You can find the report at their website at: http://www.healthyamericans.org

This report grades each state on its policies for managing the prescription pain pill epidemic.

The report begins with a description of the scope of the problem: current estimates say around 6.1 million U.S. citizens are either addicted to or misusing prescription medications. Sales of prescription opioids quadrupled in the U.S. since 1999, and so have drug overdose deaths. In many states, more people die from drug overdoses than from motor vehicle accidents. The costs of addiction and drug misuse are enormous; in 2011, a study estimated that the nonmedical use of prescription opioids costs the U.S. around 53.4 billion dollars each year, in lost productivity, increased criminal justice expenditures, drug abuse treatment, and medical complications.

The report identifies specific groups at high risk for addiction. Men aged 24 to 54 are at highest risk for drug overdose deaths, at about twice the rate of women, although the rate of increase in overdose deaths in women is worrisome. Teens and young adults are at higher risk, as are soldiers and veterans. (Please see my blog of October 19th for more information about veterans.) Rural residents are twice as likely to die of an overdose as urban residents.

TFAH’s report declares there are ten indicators of how well a state is doing to fix the opioid addiction epidemic. This report grades each of the fifty states by how many of these indicators each state is using. TFAH says these ten indicators were selected based on “consultation with leading public health, medical, and law enforcement experts about the most promising approaches.”

Here are their ten indicator criteria:
 Does the state have a prescription drug monitoring program?
 Is use of the prescription drug monitoring program mandatory?
 Does the state have a law against doctor shopping?
 Has the state expanded Medicaid under the ACA, so that there will be expanded coverage of substance abuse treatment?
 Does the state require/recommend prescriber education about pain medication?
 Does the state have a Good Samaritan law? These laws provide some degree of immunity from criminal charges for people seeking help for themselves or others suffering from an overdose.
 Is there support for naloxone use?
 Does the state require a physical examination of a patient before a prescriber can issue an opioid prescription, to assure that patient has no signs of addiction or drug abuse?
 Does the state have a law requiring identification to pick up a controlled substance prescription?

 Does the state’s Medicaid program have a way to lock-in patients with suspected drug abuse or addiction so that they can get prescriptions from only one prescriber and pharmacy?

I thought several of these were bizarre. Several are great ideas, but others…not so much. For example, I think a law against doctor shopping leads to criminalization of drug addiction rather than treatment of the underlying problem. The addicts I treat knew that doctor shopping was illegal, but still took risks because that’s what their addiction demanded of them. Such laws may be a way of leveraging people into treatment through the court system, however.

And where are the indicators about addiction treatment? Toward the very end of this report, its authors present data regarding the number of buprenorphine prescribers per capita per state, but make no mention of opioid treatment program capacity per capita for methadone maintenance. Buprenorphine is great, and I use it to treat opioid addiction, but it doesn’t work for everyone. And there’s no data about treatment slots for prolonged inpatient, abstinence-based treatment of opioid addiction.

Expanded Medicaid access for addiction treatment is a nice idea… but not if doctors opt out of Medicaid because it doesn’t pay enough to cover overhead. If expanded access is not accompanied by adequate – and timely! – payment to treatment providers for services rendered, having Medicaid won’t help patients. Doctors won’t participate in the Medicaid system. I don’t. I have a few Medicaid patients whom I treat for free. It’s cheaper for me to treat for free than pay for an employee’s time to file for payment and cut through red tape.

In one of the more interesting sections in this report, each state is ranked in overdose deaths per capita, and the amount of opioids prescribed per capita.

The ten states with the higher opioid overdose death rates are: West Virginia, with 28.9 deaths per 100,000 people; New Mexico, with 23.8 deaths per 100,000; Kentucky with 23.6, then Nevada, Oklahoma, Arizona, Missouri; then in eighth place is Tennessee, with 16.9 deaths per 100,000. In ninth and tenth places are Utah and Delaware. Florida came in at number 11, with 16.4 deaths per 100,000.

North Carolina placed 30th in overdose death rates. We’ve had a big problem with prescription drug overdose deaths. From 1999 until 2005, the death rate rose from4.6 per 100,000 to 11.4 per 100,000. But at least our rate has not increased since 2005. The rate in 2010 was still 11.4. It’s still way too high, but many agencies have been working together over the past six years to turn things around. In a future blog, I intend to list the factors I think helped our state.

Use of the ten indicators does appear to correlate with reduced rate of increase of overdose deaths. In other words, states with more laws and regulations have had a slower rise in overdose deaths than states with fewer laws and regulations, though there are some exceptions.

This report also compares states by the amount of opioids prescribed per year, in kilograms of morphine equivalents per state per 10,000 people. Florida, not surprisingly, came in at number one, with 12.6 kilograms per 10,000 people. Tennessee and Nevada tied for second and third place, with 11.8 kilos per 10,000 people. The next seven, in order, are: Oregon, Delaware, Maine, Alabama, West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Washington. Kentucky was 11th, with 9.0 kilos per 10,000. North Carolina doctors prescribe 6.9 kilos of opioids per 10,000 people per year, in 27th place and less than the national average of 7.1 kilos.

It appears to me that amount of opioid prescribed per capita does correlate, somewhat, with overdose death rates.

Let’s look closer at Tennessee, the state who, just a few months ago, rejected a certificate of need application for an opioid treatment program to be established in Eastern Tennessee. In 1999, Tennessee had an overdose death rate that was relatively low, at 6.1 per 100,000 people. By 2005, it zoomed to 10.4 per 100,000 people, and by 2010, rocketed to 16.9 per 100,000 people, to be in the top ten states with highest overdose death rates. Furthermore, Tennessee is now second out of fifty states for the highest amount of opioids prescribed per 10,000 people. Only Florida beat out Tennessee. And lately Florida has made the news for its aggressive actions taken against pill mills, which may leave the top spot for Tennessee.

West Virginia is no better. It was the worst state, out of all fifty, for overdose deaths, at 28.9 per 100,000 people in 2010. Wow. If you think lawmakers are asking for help from addiction medicine experts…think again.

West Virginia legislators recently passed onerous state regulations on opioid treatment programs. That’s right, lawmakers with no medical experience at all decided what passed for adequate treatment of a medical disease. For example, they passed a law that said an opioid addict had to be discharged from methadone treatment after the fourth positive urine drug screen. In other words, if you have the disease of addiction and demonstrate a symptom of that disease, you will be turned out of one of the most evidence-based and life-saving treatments know to the world of medicine. West Virginia passed several other inane laws regulating the medical treatment of addiction.

Getting back to the TFAH study, the report calculates that there are 21.6 million people in the U.S. who need substance treatment, while only 2.3 million are receiving it. This report identifies lack of trained personnel qualified to treat addiction as a major obstacle to effective treatment.

This report makes the usual recommendations for improving the treatment of addiction in the U.S… They recommend:

 Improve prescription monitoring programs. Nearly all states have them, except for Missouri and Washington D.C.

States should be able to share information, so that I can see what medication my North Carolina patients are filling in Tennessee. Right now, I have to log on to a separate website to check patients in Tennessee, so it takes twice as much time. Tennessee is already sharing data with several other states, but not with North Carolina, or at least not yet.

TFAH also recommends linking prescription monitoring information with electronic health records.

 Easy access to addiction treatment.

Duh. The report accurate describes how underfunded addiction treatment has been, and says that only one percent of total healthcare expenditures were spent on addiction treatment. We know how crazy that is, given the expense of treating the side effects of addiction: endocarditis, alcoholic cirrhosis, hepatitis C, gastritis, cellulitis, alcoholic encephalopathy, emphysema, heart attack, stroke, pancreatitis, HIV infection, gastrointestinal cancers, lung cancer…I could go on for a page but I’ll stop there.

Access to treatment is limited by lack of trained addiction professionals. Doctors abandoned the field back in 1914, when it became illegal to treat opioid addiction with another opioid. Even with the dramatic success seen with methadone and buprenorphine treatment of opioid addiction, there are relatively few doctors with expertise in this treatment.

This reports shows that two-thirds of the states have fewer than six physicians licensed to treat opioid addiction with buprenorphine (Suboxone) per 100,000 people. Iowa has the fewest, at .9 buprenorphine physicians per 100,000 people, and Washington D.C. had the most, at 8.5 physicians per 100,000 people.

North Carolina has 3.2 buprenorphine physicians per 100,000 people, while Tennessee has 5.3 physicians per 100,000. This makes Tennessee look pretty good, until you discover than many of Tennessee’s physicians only prescribe buprenorphine as a taper, refusing to prescribe it as maintenance medication. If these doctors reviewed the evidence, they would see even three month maintenance with a month-long taper gives relapse rates of around 91% (1)

I’m really bothered by the lack of attention to the number of methadone treatment slots per capita. That’s information I’d really like to have. But the authors of this report did not deign to even mention methadone. Even with forty-five years’ worth of data.

**Sigh**

 Increased regulation of pill mills.

 Expand programs to dispose of medications properly. In other words, make sure citizens have a way to get rid of unused medication before it’s filched by youngsters trying to experiment with drugs.

I know many tons of medications have been turned in on “drug take-back” days. But I’ve never seen any data about how much medication is addictive and subject to abuse, versus something like outdated cholesterol lowering pills.

 Track prescriber patterns. Another benefit of prescription monitoring programs is that officials can identify physicians who prescribe more than their peers. Sometimes there’s a very good reason for this. For example, a doctor who works in palliative care and end-of-life care may appropriately prescribe more than a pediatrician.

I get uneasy about non-physicians evaluating physicians’ prescribing habits, though. I think this is best left up to other doctors, enlisted by the state’s medical board to evaluate practices. Other doctors are better able to recognize nuances of medical care that non-physicians may not understand.

 Make rescue medication more widely available. In this section, the report’s authors make mention of Project Lazarus of Wilkes County, NC, a public health non-profit organization dedicated to reducing opioid overdose deaths, not only in that county, but state-wide. Project Lazarus is well-known to me, since I work at an opioid treatment program in Wilkes County.

 Ensure access to safe and effective medication, and make sure patients receive the pain medication they need. Obviously, we want opioids available to treat pain, especially for acute pain. Hey, you don’t have to convince me – read my blog from this summer about how grateful I was for opioids after I broke my leg. Opioids were a godsend to me in the short-term, and knowing what I do about opioids, I didn’t use them after the pain subsided.

It was an interesting report, though I saw some unfortunate gaps in their information, particularly regarding opioid addiction treatment availability.

But at least this is another agency looking at solutions and making some helpful recommendations.

1. Weiss et al, “Adjunctive Counseling During Brief and Extended Buprenorphine-Naloxone Treatment for Prescription Opioid Dependence,” Archives of General Psychiatry, 2011;68 (12):1238-1246.

Another Life Saved by Project Lazarus Naloxone Kit

Back to Life

Last week I talked to a young person, a patient at an opioid treatment program, who saved someone with her Project Lazarus naloxone kit. As you know if you read this blog regularly, Project Lazarus is a non-profit organization that started in Wilkes County, North Carolina, dedicated to reducing drug overdose deaths. As part of the project, Project Lazarus pays for naloxone kits for patients entering medication-assisted opioid addiction treatment. The patients are given a prescription for a kit that will be filled for free at a local pharmacy.

These kits are ingenious, because the naloxone is already packaged in a syringe with a spray attachment. There’s no needle. The person administering the drug pushes the plunger of the syringe to spray the medication into a nostril. Naloxone is absorbed through the skin of the nostril and into the bloodstream, reversing the effect of all opioids. In this way, naloxone immediately brings the person out of opioid-induced sedation or coma.

I talked to this person who used her kit, to get the full description of events. I’ve changed some details to prevent anyone from recognizing her.

Cindy said she was driving across town when she had the sudden urge to visit a relative, whom we will call Bob. Bob was on parole, and Cindy wanted to stop by and say hello. Bob isn’t an addict, but has occasionally experimented with illicit drugs, including opioids. When Bob opened the door for Cindy, his first words were, “I think I’ve just taken an overdose.” An acquaintance sold Bob some prescription opioid pills, and moments before Cindy stopped by he took all of them. Right away, he began to fear he’d taken too much.

Cindy wanted to take Bob to the hospital but he refused, fearing his parole officer would find out he’d used illegal drugs. Cindy agreed to stay with Bob, and warned him that if he passed out, she would call EMS, but Bob begged her not to do this.

At first they talked and watched TV, but within an hour Bob got sleepy and his head nodded. Initially Cindy could still wake him by shouting, but she was alarmed to see his breathing slow. She said his lips began to turn blue, and he was taking huge noisy breaths only a few times per minutes. She lived nearby, so she sent her boyfriend to get her naloxone kit. She pushed the plunger and sprayed the naloxone into Bob’s nostril. She said it took less than a minute for him to wake with a start. He even jumped out of his chair. He was standing up and breathing heavily. It was a few minutes before he felt like himself again. Cindy started to call 911 but Bob again pleaded with her not to do so because of his fears about what would happen with his parole situation.

Cindy was (correctly) worried the naloxone wasn’t going to last, so she sat with Bob through the whole night. Several hours after the first naloxone dose, she gave him a second dose, since he was again breathing slowly and heavily. It worked as well as the first. Thankfully, he was OK after that.

The next morning, Bob was grateful to Cindy for saving his life. He knew he had nearly died, and told Cindy he was never going to use drugs again. The event happened a week or so ago, and Cindy says as far as she know, Bob hasn’t used any drugs since.

Cindy saved Bob’s life because she had the Project Lazarus kit. I asked her what she would have done without it, and she said she would have called 911 even over Bob’s objections – she wasn’t going to watch him die.

This whole episode illustrates some of the problems that can contribute to overdoses. First, it isn’t only addicts who die from overdoses. Bob is a young adult who by Cindy’s report has only experimented with drugs. The trouble is that with opioids, your first experimentation can be the last thing you ever do. If Bob isn’t an addict, he may be able to stop using after this near disaster.

Second, it shows the new Good Samaritan law doesn’t go far enough. Bob was fearful about legal consequences of getting much-needed medical help. If Cindy hadn’t dropped by, this young man probably would have died. He had a brief period of time between realizing he may have taken an overdose and becoming so sedated he was unable to call for help, but he didn’t call, because he feared legal consequences. I think the Good Samaritan law should be broadened to include seeking help for oneself as well as for other people.

Third, would it have been better for Cindy to forget her kit and call the ambulance for Bob? Maybe, though not from Bob’s point of view. Stories like these travel fast along the drug addiction grapevine, so I’m hoping more people will get interested in having a kit that can reverse an overdose, if for no other reason than getting help without involving authorities.

I advocate making these kits available for anyone who wants one, if that’s financially possible. Over the period of a little more than a year, I’ve heard of two lives saved from opioid overdoses because other people used their naloxone kits. In both situations, the person saved was not the addict for whom the kit was prescribed, but a relative of that addict. This underlines the importance of getting these kits in the hands of friends and family members of all opioid users, even if the users are not addicts. Since the recent passage of the Good Samaritan law, it’s legal for physicians to prescribe naloxone for family member and friends of opioid addicts.

In the news last week we learned Project Lazarus of Wilkes County will get an infusion of $2.6 million over the next two years from both a private charity and government funds. The naloxone kits are only one part of the total program, and I hope to see funds for the kits expand so that any doctor can write a naloxone prescription for any opioid addict, friend or family of an addict that can be filled for free.

Hazelden Advances into the Twenty-First Century

In last week’s edition of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Weekly, I read that Hazelden’s addiction treatment center now plans to add medications to the treatment they provide for opioid addicts. Presently an abstinence-based, 12-step recovery center, Hazelden plans to have three treatment tracks available for opioid addicts: one offering buprenorphine (Suboxone), one offering naltrexone, and the traditional non-medication program that is now provided.

Better late than never.

Naltrexone, as an opioid block, isn’t controversial, since it is an opioid antagonist and therefore gives no opioid sensation. However, it will block any other opioid from acting on the brain. I call naltrexone the “anti-opioid.” It’s useful as an insurance policy for opioid addicts because if they relapse while on it, they won’t feel any opioid effect. For patients struggling with opioid withdrawal, this medication will not help, and in fact may make their withdrawal worse. Frankly, I thought Hazelden was already using naltrexone.

Their chief medical officer, Dr. Marvin Seppala, said Hazelden decided to use medications to treat opioid addiction in response to the public health crisis of opioid overdose deaths. Now more common than fatalities in car crashes, Hazelden feels opioid overdose deaths, “Demand up-to-date, evidence-based treatment protocols that offer the brightest promise of recovery.”

He says using the buprenorphine will help stabilize patients so that they can better engage in counseling and 12-step recovery. He says the patients will be watched and monitored closely, and will be in outpatient treatment settings while they are on buprenorphine. He also says, “Ultimately, we’ll have people come off these medications.”

I have mixed feelings when I learned all of this.

Predominately, I feel happy and relieved. Finally, a respected big-name, 12-step abstinence based treatment center is going to use medication that’s been proven to prevent overdose deaths. Hazelden is taking a huge step by moving away even a little bit their anti-medication dogma. Hopefully their action will influence the rest of the treatment field that has so far rejected medication-assisted treatment for opioid addicts.

True, Hazelden’s press statement said they didn’t look at buprenorphine as a long-term solution, and set complete abstinence as the goal for opioid addicts, but it is movement movement in the right direction. They should be praised.

On the other hand…the cynic in me raised an eyebrow as I read the article. Really? Up-to-date??  I think not. Suboxone, approved in 2002, was available as of 2003. That’s nearly ten years ago. How many addicts have died because of the addiction treatment establishment’s anti-medication biases, which prevented them from endorsing buprenorphine as a viable option in a timely fashion?

I have buprenorphine (Suboxone) patients who say they wouldn’t be alive if not for this medication. Many of these folks cycled in and out of 28-day treatment programs, good ones, but that path didn’t work for them. Most weren’t told about buprenorphine as a treatment option by these addiction treatment programs. Most learned about buprenorphine from other addicts. That’s sad, and unprofessional.

Change is hard. Once an abstinence-only treatment provider myself, I know how hard it is to take a step back, and say wait a minute…here’s some real proof that this new method may be better, though it goes against my present mindset. But if doctors and other professionals treating addiction want to be taken seriously, we have to constantly re-evaluate what we are doing, to see if we are up-to-date with best practices. We must keep an open mind and a willingness to change. That’s important in all of medicine, but especially true for addiction medicine, where things change rapidly.

After all, isn’t an open mind and a willingness to change what we ask of our patients?

Kudos to Hazelden for taking a step forward.

Opioid Addiction in Youth

Parents who look the other way when their kid is using alcohol or marijuana are blindsided when they discover their young adult is addicted to opioids. Parents, unaware of the trends we’ve been seeing for the last decade, are often shocked to discover the prevalence of opioid addiction in youth. For some young people, opioids are the gateway drug, rather than nicotine, alcohol and marijuana as we’ve seen in the past. For some families, the first hint of drug use has been a fatal or near-fatal opioid overdose. For those kids whose first drugs of abuse are alcohol or marijuana, it’s often a short time until they progress to opioids.

Previously, so-called hard drug use was considered a problem of the inner city. But now, most opioid-addicted youngsters live in suburbs or rural areas, and mostly are non-minority.  The purity and availability of heroin has increased, and now that pain pills are slowly become less available, it’s being by some young adults. Many have the mistaken impression they can’t become addicted if they snort rather than inject heroin.

How young am I talking about? Typically, adolescents are described as 14 or 15 to age 18. However, the human brain continues to develop until around age 24, so people of legal age may still think and act like adolescents. The family milieu also influences maturity level. Some 19 year-olds have been functioning as adults for years, while some 24 year-olds may still be financially and emotionally dependent on their parents.

We don’t have much information to guide treatment for opioid- addicted adolescents. Unfortunately there aren’t many good long-term studies to show us which treatments give the best outcomes for this age group. We do know that rather than looking at a treatment episode as a one-time fix for an acute problem, we need to take a longer view. Opioid addiction behaves more like a chronic disease, and one episode of addiction treatment rarely resolves the problem for life.

At the recent ASAM conference I attended in Atlanta, a two-hour session focused on treating opioid addiction in adolescents. Three doctors at that session spoke about their experience treating this age group for opioid addiction: Marc Fisher MD, Ann Bruner MD, and Sharon Levy MD

These doctors are finding that just like in adults, opioid addiction in adolescents behaves like a chronic disease with relapses and remissions. Parents should be advised to adjust their expectations of what treatment can do for their child. Parents shouldn’t expect one treatment episode to “fix” their child so that they will never have to worry again. Adolescents in opioid addiction treatments have high drop- out rates and high relapse rates, probably due to the opioids particular pharmacology. Many of these kids also have co-existing mental health problems which makes treatment more difficult.

Models of inpatient opioid detoxification followed by outpatient treatments alone show high relapse rates. The doctors presenting at this session reported their outcomes using medications in addition to outpatient counseling programs.

They are using both Suboxone and Vivitrol (naltrexone by monthly injection), and allow patient and family preference to decide which, if any, medication to use. Suboxone is prescribed without a clearly defined stop date; rather, the doctor counsels delaying taper until progress can be made in counseling. Vivitrol similarly has no pre-set stop date.

Suboxone, as an opioid agonist, alleviates physical withdrawal and also blocks euphoria from illicit opioids. However, Vivitrol does not alleviate physical withdrawal and in fact will put an opioid addict into withdrawal if started too soon. For that reason, patients are first started on oral naltrexone tablets and assuming they tolerate the medication well, are then given the injection, which lasts for one month. This opioid blocker prevents euphoria if illicit opioids are used, though it does not reduce opioid cravings.

Compliance was better with Vivitrol than Suboxone. This isn’t surprising, since it’s a once-a month medication. And the more weeks the kids were on Vivitrol, the fewer urine drug screens positive for opioids. With Suboxone, not only were there fewer UDS positive for illicit opioids, but also fewer urine drug screens positive for any illicit drug.

These doctors summarized their experiences by saying that treatment with the medications buprenorphine and naltrexone, in the form of Vivitrol, were well-tolerated, acceptable to patients, and easy to implement. Medications can be easily integrated with counseling as a part of a complete approach to treatment. The use of medication for relapse prevention increased treatment retention. And when kids show up for treatment, they have the opportunity to learn recovery skills.

It’s striking to me that an opioid antagonist is producing as good results as Suboxone. Maybe it’s due to the involvement of the parents of these young people. It’s likely many are financially dependent on their parents, and are therefore more accountable to them. Of course the best thing about Vivitrol is that it doesn’t cause physical dependence, and so can be stopped without difficulty when the patient is ready.

It’s not surprising at all to find Suboxone produces as much benefit in adolescents as it does in adults. The main downside of Suboxone is that it’s difficult to taper, and most patients intend to stop it at some point in their recovery.

During the session, and audience member asked the obvious question: how do we know for sure these medications aren’t going to be harmful in the long run, when used in this young age group? The answer: we don’t know. But we do know what happens to opioid addicts who aren’t treated at all, and to those who drop out of treatment. It isn’t good. With opioid addiction, about half of IV users are dead at 30 years, and the yearly death rate may be as high as 15%. When facing a disease with that mortality, what alternatives do we have? Most doctors think it’s worth taking the risk of possible harm in the future to prevent very bad outcomes now. As we gather more data, hopefully we’ll know more about both the long-term consequences and long-term benefits of medication use.

Opioid Addicts Have a New “Shot” at Treatment

Several patients last week asked me if I’d heard of the new “shot” for pain pill addiction. It became clear they were talking about Vivitrol, the brand name for the extended-release naltrexone.

This is not a new drug, but a newer formulation of an old drug. Naltrexone is an opioid antagonist that’s been used in tablet form both for alcohol addiction and opioid addiction.  Naltrexone attaches to opioid receptors, but doesn’t activate them, and prevent other opioids from activating the receptors.

It’s used for alcohol addiction because it appears that in some alcoholics, part of the pleasure from drinking is mediated by the opioid receptors. When these alcoholics take naltrexone pills, it doesn’t make them sick, but takes all the fun out of drinking. Alcoholics taking daily oral naltrexone have fewer drinking days, and drink less if they do have a relapse back to drinking. It’s never meant to be used alone, but in combination with some sort of counseling and recovery program.

The problem with the oral form is that the alcoholic has to remember to take it each day, so when Vivitrol released, it meant there was a way to give the medication in shot form to last a month at a time. However, it’s significantly more expensive than oral naltrexone and it’s not a painless injection to receive, according to many patients.

For some reason, the patients I’ve seen lately who asked about the new injection for pain pill addiction seem to believe this injection will prevent opioid withdrawal or prevent cravings. It doesn’t do either. In fact, it can’t be taken until 7 to 10 days after the last opioid, or it will cause opioid withdrawal. Some sources say it can be started sooner, but people who have been on methadone may need to wait even longer.

Naltexone does work for opioid addiction, however. In the initial trials, patient on Vivitrol had significantly more opioid-free urine drug screens that patient receiving placebo injections.

In the past, medical professionals recovering from opioid addiction were often required to take naltrexone as a condition of their return to work. Doctors, pharmacists, and nurses may need to work around opioids, and if they relapse while taking naltrexone, the illicit opioids will have no effect. The antagonist thus serves as extra insurance against a relapse.

Non-opioid medications to treat opioid addiction

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

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

  1. Singh j, Ultra-rapid opioid detoxification: Current status and controversies, Journal of Postgraduate Medicine 2004; 50:227-232.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Opioid Blockers: Do They Take All the Fun Out of Life?

According to an interesting article in the most recent copy of the American Journal on Addictions, the answer appears to be, “No,” at least for some people. (1)

 This article described a study where researchers asked patients on the extended-release opioid blocker naltrexone to rate the amount of pleasure they obtained from things like eating good food, sex, and exercise. These patients were on naltrexone for the treatment of alcoholism, but of course, the information may be helpful for opioid addicts who are treated with opioid blockers to prevent relapse back to opioid use. The subjects were asked to rate, on a scale of 1 to 5, the amount of pleasure they obtained from activities such as sex, eating good food, exercise, talking with friends, and other usually enjoyable things in life. A score of 1 meant they felt no pleasure at all, and 5 meant they felt much pleasure.

 The good news is that pleasure scores for these patients were relatively high. For example, the average score for pleasure from eating good food was 4.14, out of a possible 5. For listening to music, it was 4.00 out of 5. For sex, it was 3.92. For drinking alcohol, it was only 2.57 out of 5, which supports the use of this medication for alcoholics.

 In summary, the study found that subjects on extended-release naltrexone still experienced a good amount of pleasure from life.

 There were limitations to this study, however. We don’t have a pre-naltrexone baseline for these patients. In other words, we know pleasure ratings were fairly high while on naltrexone, but it’s possible these subjects had even higher pleasure scores before naltrexone. Also, there was no placebo control in the study. Maybe people getting pretend, or sham, treatments would have had higher pleasure scores, but we don’t know. 

In my mind, the biggest weakness was that the study enrolled 187 patients, but only 74 completed the intended survey. That means about 60% of the subjects dropped out of treatment, and the article doesn’t say why they dropped out. Maybe the drop-outs were the ones to feel a lack of pleasure in their lives from being on naltrexone, and the ones who stayed on it didn’t have this same side effect. If so, this would obviously skew the results.

 But even with these admitted weaknesses, and even though the study was paid for by the company that manufactures the sustained-release naltrexone (Vivitrol), this article gives hope that Vivitrol may work for opioid addiction. It may help prevent relapses, without interfering with life’s pleasures. And we need every tool we can get to fight addiction.

  1. 1.      O’Brien, Charles; Gastfriend, David; Forman, Robert; Schweizer, Edward; Pettinati, Helen, Long-Term Opioid Blockade and Hedonic Response: Preliminary Data from Two Open-Label Extension Studies with Extended-Release Naltrexone, American Journal on Addictions, Vol. 20 (2), March/April 2011, pp106-112.
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