A Letter to Law Enforcement About Medication-assisted Treatments

aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaapopo

Dear Officer Zealous:
First of all, thank you for patrolling our streets and highways and your efforts to keep them safe. I know you have a hard job and I deeply appreciate your willingness to take on this responsibility.

However, please stop arresting my patients for whom I’ve prescribed methadone and buprenorphine (better known under the brand names Suboxone, Subutex, or Zubsolv). You mistakenly think all people taking these medications have no right to be driving, and you are wrong. I’m writing this letter to give you better information that you can use to do your job better.

Our nation is in the middle of a crisis. Opioid addiction is an epidemic, and too often its sufferers die of overdoses. Medication-assisted treatment with methadone and buprenorphine works very well to prevent overdose deaths, and it’s been proven to help patients have a better quality of life in recovery.

I doubt you’ve been provided any information about medication-assisted treatment, so I want to help you learn some facts. Methadone has been around for fifty years and has a proven track record. It’s been studied more than perhaps any other medication, and we know it does a great job of treating opioid addiction. Buprenorphine has only been available in the U.S. for about 13 years, but has been used in Europe for decades.

With both methadone and buprenorphine, the proper dose of medication should make the patients feel normal. Patients should not feel intoxicated or high, and should not feel withdrawal symptoms. Methadone and buprenorphine are both very long-acting opioids, and they both give the opioid addicts a fairly steady level of opioid, compared to short-acting opioids usually used for intoxication. Therefore, using methadone to treat opioid addiction is not “like giving whiskey to an alcoholic,” as has incorrectly been asserted. The valid difference lies in the unique pharmacology of methadone. Opioid addicts can lead normal lives on this medication, when it is properly dosed.

In addition, both of these medications block other opioids at the opioid receptor. When a patient is on an adequate dose, she won’t feel euphoria from another opioid. Both methadone and buprenorphine deter use of other opioids for the purpose of getting high.

Treatment of opioid addiction with methadone and buprenorphine is endorsed by the CSAT (Center for Substance Abuse Treatment) branch of SAMHSA, by the U.S.’s Institute of Medicine, by ASAM (American Society of Addiction Medicine), by AAAP (American Association of Addiction Psychiatry), and by NIDA (National Institute of Drug Addiction. In study after study, methadone has been shown to reduce the risk of overdose death, reduce days spent in criminal activities, reduce transmission rates of HIV, reduce the use of illicit opioids, reduce the use of other illicit drugs, produce higher rates of employment, reduce commercial sex work, and reduce needle sharing. Medication-assisted therapy is also high cost effective.

Indeed, the current debate of government officials at the highest levels has been how best to expand medication-assisted treatment with methadone and buprenorphine, not to make it less available. So please don’t do anything which may discourage opioid addicts from receiving life-saving treatment.

Over the years, many studies have been done on methadone and buprenorphine to see if patients are able to drive safely on either of them. In study after study, data show patients on stable doses of both medications can safely drive cars, operate heavy equipment, and perform complex tasks. Please see the list of references at the bottom of this letter if you wish to investigate for yourself.

I’m not saying, however, that patients on methadone or buprenorphine can’t become impaired. Impairment can occur if patients are given too high a dose of methadone or buprenorphine, which most often occurs during the first two weeks of treatment. For that reason, patients are warned not to drive if they ever feel sedated or drowsy.

Patients on medication-assisted treatment can also become impaired if they mix other drugs or medications with their methadone or buprenorphine. In fact, benzodiazepines (like Xanax, Valium, Klonopin) and alcohol act synergistically with maintenance opioids. They can cause impairment with smaller amounts of alcohol or benzos than expected. And of course, patients can still become impaired with other drugs, such as marijuana.

As you probably know, a urine drug screen isn’t adequate to detect impairment. The urine screen only tells you if the person has taken a given drug or medication over the last few days to weeks. Drugs are detectable in the urine long after the impairing effect wears off, so you must demonstrate the presence of drugs with a blood test at the time of the questioned impairment.

My family and I drive these roads too, and I don’t want impaired drivers on our highways any more than anyone else. I just think you have mistakenly targeted patients on medication-assisted treatment for the disease of opioid addiction.

I know you have formed bad opinions about methadone and buprenorphine patients from seeing both drugs misused on the street. I hate that, because you probably rarely get to see more typical patients on medication-assisted treatments.

The vast majority of my patients have jobs, families, and responsibilities that they meet, despite having this potentially fatal illness of opioid addiction. If you are fortunate enough to encounter one of my patients on a random traffic stop, please don’t give them a hard time. Please congratulate them on having the courage to find recovery from addiction, and tell them to do what works for them. In some patients, that’s medication.

Thanks for reading this long letter and thanks for all you do in the name of keeping our roads safe. If you want to know more about how we treat opioid addiction at our facility, please call our program manager at xxx-xxx-xxxx and we would be happy to provide you with an after- hours tour and lots of information.
Sincerely,

Jana Burson M.D.
Member of the American Society of Addition Medicine
Board certified in Internal Medicine
Certified by the American Board of Addiction Medicine

P.S. And please don’t attempt to intimidate patients from coming to get help for this fatal illness of opioid addiction by parking your squad car just outside our facility’s entrance. Some of these patients may have old warrants, but by stalking them where they come for help, you discourage people who want to escape addiction and want to better their lives. If you do park near us, you should expect a staff member to approach you with a smile, a cup of coffee, and a pile of information about opioid addiction and its treatment.

ATTACHMENT:

Methadone and Driving Article Abstracts
Brief Literature Review
Institute for Metropolitan Affairs
Roosevelt University 2/14/08

1. DRIVING RECORD OF METHADONE MAINTENANCE PATIENTS IN NEW YORK STATE
BABST, D., NEWMAN, S., & State, N. (1973). DRIVING RECORD OF METHADONE MAINTENANCE PATIENTS IN NEW YORK STATE. DRIVING RECORD OF METHADONE MAINTENANCE PATIENTS IN NEW YORK STATE,
When a comparison was made within specific age groups, it was learned that the accident and conviction rates were about the same for methadone maintenance clients as for a sample of New York City male drivers within the same period. The findings from other related studies discussed in this booklet are consistent with the results in this study.

2. The effects of the opioid pharmacotherapies methadone, LAAM and buprenorphine, alone and in combination with alcohol, on simulated driving.
Lenné, M., Dietze, P., Rumbold, G., Redman, J., & Triggs, T. (2003, December). Drug & Alcohol Dependence, 72(3), 271.
These findings suggest that typical community standards around driving safety should be applied to clients stabilized in methadone, LAAM and buprenorphine treatment.

3. Maintenance Therapy with Synthetic Opioids and Driving Aptitude.
Schindler, S., Ortner, R., Peternell, A., Eder, H., Opgenoorth, E., & Fischer, G. (2004). Maintenance Therapy with Synthetic Opioids and Driving Aptitude. European Addiction Research, 10(2), 80-87
Conclusion: The synthetic opioid-maintained subjects investigated in the current study did not differ significantly in comparison to healthy controls in the majority.

4. Methadone-substitution and driving ability
Forensic Science International, Volume 62, Issues 1-2, November 1993, Pages 63-66
H. Rössler, H. J. Battista, F. Deisenhammer, V. Günther, P. Pohl, L. Prokop and Y. Riemer
The formal assertion that addiction equals driving-inability, which is largely practiced at present, is inadmissible and therefore harmful to the therapeutic efforts for rehabilitation.

5. Methadone substitution and ability to drive. Results of an experimental study.
Dittert, S., Naber, D., & Soyka, M. (1999, May).
It is concluded that methadone substitution did not implicate driving inability.

6. Functional potential of the methadone-maintenance person.
Gordon, N., & Appel, P. (1995, January). Functional potential of the methadone-maintenance person. Alcohol, Drugs & Driving, 11(1), 31-37.
Surveys on employability and driving behavior of MTSs revealed no significant differences when compared to normal population. It is concluded that MM at appropriate dosage levels, as part of treatment for heroin addiction, has no adverse effects on an individual’s ability to function.

Book Review: “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic,” by Sam Quinones

aaaaaaaaaaadream

I’m happy to tell my readers of a great new book. Published in 2015, this book is about the pain pill epidemic in the U.S., and how black tar heroin from Mexico quietly filled the void when pain pills became less plentiful.

The story of how this nation found itself in the middle of an opioid addiction epidemic isn’t a new tale, but the scope of the story has rarely been told with the completeness found in this book. The author talked to, or attempted to talk to, key people in all the realms affected by addiction: pain management experts, drug company leaders, addicts, parents whose children died from opioid addiction, doctors who prescribed OxyContin, everyday members of drug rings, prominent leaders of drug rings, law enforcement personnel, and addiction treatment personnel.

This book covered the pain management movement of the late 20th century, and how pain management experts grossly underestimated the risks of prescribing opioids long-term for chronic pain. Those experts taught other doctors that the risk of triggering addiction was almost zero, and that physicians had an obligation to relieve pain in their patients. Pain was described as the “fifth vital sign,” with the implication that a patient’s reported pain level was as objective as their pulse, blood pressure, body temperature, and heart rate.

All of these recommendations were based on thin evidence. Some of the pain management experts were also employed by drug companies marketing powerful opioid pain relievers, creating at the least the appearance of a conflict of interest.

The author described the inappropriate marketing of pain medications in general, and then focused on Purdue Pharma’s criminally inaccurate promotion of OxyContin. Purdue taught its young and attractive drug representatives to say things about OxyContin that were not true. These drug reps pushed their product with fervor, using falsified material provided to them by their company (p. 265). Purdue wasn’t the only drug company to oversell its products, but they did the best job of it. Ultimately, their marketing strategy lead to a criminal case brought in Southwest Virginia, and resulted in Purdue Pharma, along with their three top executives, pleading guilty to a felony count of misbranding. They were ordered to pay a fine of $634.5 million…but the company’s profits have been estimate to exceed three billion dollars thus far.

For me, the most interesting part of the book described the Mexican drug dealers. In a relatively small, agricultural area of Mexico, sugar cane farmers switched to growing opium poppies. The crop was easier to harvest, and much more profitable. Then young men from the area were recruited to travel north to the U.S. to sell the semi-processed heroin known as black tar. This was not a centralized drug unit, but rather multiple small organizations of growers, transporters, and driver-salesmen. Many of these groups were from Xalisco, a city in the Mexico state of Nayarit.

Each group had a handful of drivers located in smaller U.S. cities, ready to deliver black tar heroin to young addicts who called them on the phone. By delivering the product, middle and upper class addicts didn’t have to travel to bad neighborhoods for their drug. The drivers carried only small amounts of black tar heroin with them, in balloons which they carried in their mouth. If stopped by the police, they could swallow the evidence. Even if they were caught, the amount of heroin was so small that they were only deported, not jailed.

The drivers-dealers didn’t use the product, so they weren’t tempted to dilute the product for personal use. Drivers were paid by the hour, so that also gave no financial incentive to dilute the product. These young Mexican men were polite, and taught to give the best possible customer service, to keep the business of the addicts. In fact, they frequently ran sales on their product, as an incentive for customer loyalty.

This heroin was cheap and potent. Opioid pain pill addicts who were desperate to avoid opioid withdrawal switched to heroin because they could get high with less money. Because the tar could be snorted, the stigma of IV use was avoided – at first. Ultimately as the addiction progressed, addicts who started using intranasally eventually switched to IV use.

Groups of heroin sellers competed with each other to sell the most heroin, but they didn’t engage in violence. Since they were all from the same relatively small area of Mexico, and violence in the U.S. would bring repercussions from relatives back home. The drivers delivering the product were cautioned to stay away from blacks, since the Mexicans believed blacks to be more violent.

Because these heroin-selling groups avoided all violence, they were able to concentrate of profits. They didn’t call attention to themselves, making it easier to pass under the radar of law enforcement.

Groups of heroin dealers from Nayarit settled in mid-sized cities. They avoided cities where established drug cartels controlled the sale of heroin, such as New York City, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Baltimore, or Detroit, fearing there would be violence from the cartels. Instead, they settled into cities like Salt Lake City, Portland, Oregon; Columbus, Ohio; and Charlotte, NC. They needed cities where other Mexicans worked in order to blend in with the populace. The book tells of opioid addiction in Huntington, WVA; Denver, Colorado; Boise, Idaho; Santé Fe, New Mexico; Nashville, TN; and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

These Mexican farm boys returned home with money and spent ostentatiously in order to impress their neighbors and friends. They hired bands, threw parties, and built houses with the money they earned from selling heroin. In a relatively poor area, young men saw there was a way to make their fortunes, so recruiting new drivers wasn’t difficult. In fact, the supply appeared to be inexhaustible.

The author makes the point that all of this happened slowly and without much publicity, but I question this conclusion. He says that it was only when Phillip Seymour Hoffman died that the U.S. sat up and took notice.

Maybe I have a different view since I’ve been treating opioid addicts since 2001, and saw a rapid rise of opioid addiction in my state since then. At conferences we seem to talk little about anything else – but then, I go to Addiction Medicine conferences.

The book has its flaws. It was a little repetitive, and many chapters were short, giving the book a choppy feel, but this was because the author described events chronologically, and described what was happening in multiple areas to multiple people.

He described drug abuse in Portsmouth, Ohio, which he called the birthplace of the pill mill. I don’t agree with this. Ever since doctors could prescribe medications that caused euphoria, there have been pill mills. Sadly there are always a handful of unscrupulous doctors who prescribe freely to patients willing to pay. I don’t think Portsmouth was the location of the first pill mill, and sadly it won’t be the last.

The most distressing thing that I read was how the Mexican drug families would move into a new city and go to the methadone clinics to recruit its first customers. From there, word of mouth via the addict grapevine resulted in plentiful business for the Mexicans.

That’s appalling. I’m sure it seems like no big deal to people wanted to make money off of addicts, but to target people who are in treatment to get well, and then tempt them into a relapse…that is low down. The book also describes how drug rings would pay more attention to an addict if he said things about quitting heroin. The dealers would offer this person an exceptional deal to remain a customer.

I know this is good business. But this business breeds death and misery.

I struggle with how to provide security at opioid treatment programs. I don’t like it when an armed guard in the parking lot makes it feel like a police state, but then I want our facility to be safe, and free from interlopers such as these described in the book.

I was also disappointed about the lack of information about treatment. Granted, the title implies only coverage of how the opioid epidemic emerged and evolved, but it would have been nice to add even a small section to readers who are addicted themselves, or who have relatives who are addicted.

Aside from the few nit-picky flaws, this book is great – it’s well-written, informative, and entertaining. It’s one of the best books I’ve read about this country’s story of opioid addiction. It picks up where “Pain Killers,” by Barry Meier left off.

This book should be read by anyone interested in our pain pill epidemic. Addicts should read it so they can realize where their money goes. Families of addicts should read it to better understand the compulsion of addiction. Law enforcement personnel should read it to hear the stories of the addicts, and come to see them as people with a disease, not just as criminals. Every doctor should read it, to better understand risks to patients who are prescribed heavy opioids. Treatment center personnel should read it to get a better idea of the milieu of addiction in the U.S.

In Praise of Opioids

Tibia xray

Some readers of my blog mistakenly think I’m opposed to all opioids, all of the time. That’s not true at all. I’m only opposed to the misuse or addiction to opioids, which can cause undue suffering. I’m a big fan of opioids, when used cautiously and in the right setting.

The benefit of opioids was driven home to me personally when I fell and broke my leg several years ago. Here’s the post from several years ago, describing my experience. Far from opposing opioids, I was thankful for them.

While walking my dog, I fell and broke my tibia and fibula (both bones of the lower leg). The break was obvious; I had to hold my foot to keep it from moving to an odd and painful angle. I sat on the ground, thinking, “Oh shit. This is going to hurt, and I’m going to have to go to the hospital emergency room on a Friday night to get a cast.”

And of course it did hurt. It was the worst pain I’ve ever had. I couldn’t get into a car to go to the hospital, since both hands were busy holding my foot. If I let go, my foot drooped to a sad angle. I wasn’t going anywhere without additional help. So my fiancé called 911.

First to arrive was a huge fire truck, with ladders, hoses, etc. One of three or four firemen took my blood pressure, asked me a few questions, and said EMS would be there soon. When EMS arrived, three or so more young men sprang from their vehicle. They asked the same questions all over again. At one point there were five or six burly young men who all responded to the 911 call, standing around me in a semi-circle. It felt like a bit of overkill, but I didn’t mind.

The worst part of my whole ordeal was when EMS workers tried to splint my leg with a device obviously meant for a much taller person. Putting the splint on caused my foot to move to an angle that God did not intend. The grinding of my bones made me sick to my stomach, to the dismay of EMS personnel. I’m told I gave my neighbors quite a show.

Once I finally got inside the ambulance, the EMS worker easily slid an IV into my arm and gave me a dose of fentanyl.

I have never taken any IV opioids, to my knowledge. Immediately, I felt hot all over, and then started weeping with relief. I wouldn’t say I felt euphoria, so much as a profound relief that the pain no longer hurt. That also sounds odd; I still had pain… but it didn’t bother me, and I felt like everything was going to be OK. In that moment, I had a better idea what my opioid-addicted patients describe when they tell me of the allure of opioids. Under the influence, I felt like nothing would bother me, physically or emotionally.

Then my eyes felt like they were spinning around in my head like pinballs, but I didn’t care about that, either. Then I got very chatty and talked nonstop to the hospital. I remember I told the EMS worker about how traffic lights looked like candy – lime, lemon, and cherry – so I may have been a little out of it.

The emergency room doctor ordered X-rays that showed the tib/fib fracture. I thought I would get a cast, and then go home. Wrong. The nurse told me I was being admitted for surgery on my broken leg. I wasn’t happy about this, especially since I hadn’t even talked to the orthopedic surgeon who would operate. I had questions. Why couldn’t I go home with a cast? What was he going to do at surgery, and why was it better than a cast?

So I stayed in the hospital that night, edgy about what surgery was proposed and full of questions. My leg hurt, but the emergency room staff had placed a plaster-type splint, or partial cast, on my leg, which kept the bones from moving around. As long as I kept it still and elevated, the pain wasn’t too bad. I had several shots of morphine through the night. I didn’t feel high from the morphine, but the shots put me to sleep, a good thing.

The surgeon came into my hospital room mid-morning, and talked to me about the advantages of having an intramedullary rod place through the center of my tibia to hold the broken sections together. This sounded extreme, but the surgeon said in “someone your age,” with simple casting the bones would take longer to heal. At my age, there was a relatively high rate of non-union, which would result in surgery at a later date anyway.

It took me longer to process the information than it should; I was stuck on that “someone your age” comment. I’m a young-looking 52, and finally realized I had to be much older than this young surgeon, who could have passed for twenty-five… Maaaaaybe the comment fit.

Anyway, I agreed to the surgery. Pre-op, the anesthesiologist gave me fentanyl, and again I had the feeling my eyeballs were spinning in circles and I got chatty. Then he must have given me something else that put me out completely, because the next thing I remember I was waking up back in my hospital room. I was upset when I didn’t see a cast, because I thought that meant I didn’t have the surgery. I didn’t know that an intramedullary rod takes the place of a cast…kind of like having a cast on the inside.

Since that surgery, I haven’t had much pain. I took my last morphine injection the night after surgery.
I’m no martyr. If I have pain, I want pain medication. The surgeon, knowing what I do for a living, asked me if I wanted to go home with any opioids. I said yes. I told him please prescribe what you would for anyone else. He prescribed twenty-five Percocet. I took two the morning after I got home, and they relieved the pain, but left me a little groggy and sleepy. I’d had enough of that in the hospital, and was eager to do some reading and writing, so that was the last dose of opioids for my broken leg. After making it a week with no opioids, I flushed the remaining twenty-three pills.

I had one bad spell after falling on my crutches, twisting the broken leg a little. The rod held my tibia in place, but the fibula hurt intensely for about twenty minutes before I was able to calm the pain with elevation, ice, and ibuprofen.

I think I’ve done well during my recovery from the broken leg. This surgery allowed me to heal much faster. It’s now almost six weeks since my surgery, and the above x-ray was taken today. My leg hurts only when I walk around. Ibuprofen and Tylenol have worked fine. I’ve been careful, especially during the first few weeks, to keep my leg elevated and use ice for swelling. I’m convinced elevation and ice helped a great deal.

This week I can walk with the help of a cane. It does hurt to walk, but it’s the kind of hurt that’s necessary to build back my muscles. If the pain gets too bad, I sit down and elevate my leg again.

I know I’m very lucky. The fracture happened in a place where help was readily available. It was less than thirty minutes from the time I broke my leg until I got a shot of a powerful opioid, fentanyl. This medication was a godsend to me.

I have health insurance, and could afford to get the surgery to help my leg heal quickly. My surgeon did a wonderful job, even if I do have underwear older than he is. I was able to take several weeks off work to keep my leg elevated for better healing and less pain. I have a loving fiancé who didn’t mind being my legs for a few weeks. Some people don’t have any of those things, so I’m very grateful.

What is the point of this blog, other than to blather on about my surgery and broken leg? It’s this: opioids are great when used the in the right situation. For acute pain, they are truly a blessing to mankind. But these drugs produce pleasure, and anyone can get addicted to that intensely good feeling.
Doctors have to find a balance between empathy and caution. Let’s not be stingy with opioids during acute medical situations with intense pain. Even in a patient with known addiction, opioids shouldn’t be withheld for an acutely painful medical situation, because that would be unethical.

But we can’t ignore the dangers of addiction, particularly if opioids are used for more than a few weeks. Even if we feel uncomfortable talking about addiction, we have to have those conversations with our patients. And please, fellow doctors, see patients with addictions as people with a treatable disease, who deserve the same respect as patients with any other disease. You don’t need to kick them out of your practice; you do need to refer them for help.

Mandating Physician Education

aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaadoc

In May of this year, Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey proposed a new bill titled the Safe Prescribing of Controlled Substances Act. This Act, among other things, calls for mandatory education of the nation’s physicians about, as the name implies, safer prescribing of controlled substances. It also calls for mandatory education about identifying patients with substance use disorders.

Physicians get very little education about this tremendously important problem. Some medical schools and residencies have added addiction trainings, but change happens slowly. Plenty of doctors in the U.S. are still mis-prescibing

Physicians are not going to like this legislation. We hate being told we have to do anything, especially by politicians. But obviously, the present generation of physicians is NOT able to prescribe controlled substances properly, as evidenced by our epidemic of prescription drug addiction.

The bill extends to any prescriber of controlled substances, meaning that physician assistants and nurse practitioners will also be required to take this training, at least in states where they are allowed to prescribe controlled substances.

Senator Markey’s bill says the Department of Health and Human Services is responsible for producing this training and that it will be free and available online.

The bill specifies the training should include, “methods for diagnosing, treating, and
managing a substance use disorder, including the use of medications approved by the Food and Drug Administration and evidence-based non-pharmacological therapies.”

If everyone interprets this paragraph as I do, this would mean all doctors who want to prescribe controlled substances should be educated about medication-assisted treatments of opioid addiction, among other things.

That would be wonderful. How nice it would be for my patients to go to their other doctors, and hear, “So glad you are on methadone for the treatment of addiction. Good job.” instead of the usual insults about being on of MAT. How nice for me to be able to call other doctors who don’t think I’m a drug pusher for prescribing MAT!

Also, Senator Markey sent letters to the VA, Defense Department, and IHS, urging them to included prescribing information to their patients on their state’s prescription monitoring program. Many patients being cared for by these agencies are prescribed controlled substances, but doctors outside those systems have no way to know what is being prescribed. Presently, they don’t report to the prescription monitoring programs. I hope these military agencies chose to participate in the PMPs. It would be a way to keep those patients safer when they seek care outside the military system.

On May 15, 2015, the Huffington Post had an online article about another bill, the Recovery Enhancement for Addiction Treatment Act, also sponsored by Senator Markey and Senator Rand Paul. This legislation would lift the one-hundred patient limit placed on office-based buprenorphine doctors.

In the past, I supported lifting the one-hundred patient cap, but I’ve come to believe the cap isn’t all that relevant, at least in my area. Around here, I think the only physicians who honor the cap are conscientious doctors who would do a good job without legislation.

Around here, physicians have more than one hundred buprenorphine patients, and skirt the regulations by saying some of them are prescribed it “for pain.” Physician extenders without DEA “X” numbers already prescribe buprenorphine in this state. When the North Carolina medical board was notified about this, they declined to take any action.

In other words, the present regulations are flouted without consequence, so lifting them isn’t going to make a big difference. (That may not be the case in all areas of the country.) But mandating education about addiction and its treatment may help treatment providers deliver better care.

Life Stories

aaaaaaaacray

I have half-finished blog posts about important topics like the refusal of jails to continue medication-assisted treatments during incarcerations, expanding access to buprenorphine and methadone treatment, and DUI arrests for patients on stable doses of methadone. And yet, today I feel the need for narrative.

Patients with addiction are fascinating survivors. They come from all backgrounds, and many have been through hell and back. Often, I’m amazed at how they make it through episodes of sheer destruction. Occasionally, I hear such weird stories that as soon as I get home, I write them down. I feel these stories should be recorded, for some reason. They are entertaining, they are peculiar, they are poignant, and they can be sad. These narratives describe the demolition of life, due to drug use, in an almost casual way.

Here’s one I just had to share, due to its weirdness. Names have been changed, but nicknames are the same. There’s some mention of drug use, of course, so don’t read this if you are triggered by such. However, the negative consequences are also described, so maybe that helps reduce any cravings.

“I remember my friend Billy. He had a snake pit. He’d go out on the river with a croaker sack and a light and catch water moccasins. He sold the venom, and made hat bands from the skins. He also robbed Indian graves.

“Mae and Billy lived together; she was his mama. Every year he’d root for the Crimson Tide University of Alabama, and she’d root for the Auburn War Eagles. U of A and Auburn would play every year around Thanksgiving.

“Mae was with her nephew Bob that year, watching the game on TV at his place, drinkin’ and smokin’ dope. Bob lived on a place near the Tuskegee National Forest. He grew tenth generation Pakistani/Afghanistani reefer there. People came all the way from New York for that reefer. It was so bushy that a pound went into a grocery bag. He had a barn, and would pull it up by the roots and hang it upside down in there. He fertilized that reefer with shit from his fighting roosters. He had Ruble Neck Red fighting cocks. He’s been in prison for a long time. Married a girl from Trinidad, had two beautiful children. Got on a bus with a suitcase full of meth, geeked out, got arrested, and got federal time of 46 years.

“Anyway, Mae was watching the ball game, raisin’ hell and getting’ drunk. Alabama was favored to win, and Auburn, who had been losing all season, actually beat Alabama. You never know.

“Now Mae and Billy lived in a little house in East Tallassee. Billy watched the game, got drunk, and passed out on their living room floor. Mae came back home from the forest, playfully kicking Billy, shouting “War Damn Eagle!”

“Billy kept a 410 shotgun in the corner of the living room, like the majority of people living in Tallassee do. Billy woke in a drunken stupor. He and his mama were alike and would get in your face and holler, and have big verbal altercations with no follow through. But this time he got up, grabbed the 410 shotgun, pulled the trigger and blew his mama’s head off. Duck shot, squirrel shot. Bits of hair and skull and brains splattered all over the wall. Billy set the gun down, called the Tallassee police, and said “Come get me. I just shot my mama’s head off.” He was sentenced to forty years and died a few years ago.

“He’s the one that turned me onto Mepergan red capsules.

“That boy would shoot anything. He used those jelly reds, Placidyls…they had a terrible taste. You’d pull that thick syrup out, try to mash the plunger, but it was so thick…

“One time Billy and I were cruising around, and he pulled the keys out of my car, trying to be funny. I lost power steering and skidded to a stop, mad as hell. I pulled him out of the car, and told him I was gonna whip his ass. So he pulls a knife and cuts me on my left arm, aiming for my head. I grabbed the knife and started chasing him. I was high on a combination of Budweiser and Placidyl and I got mean. My hand was bleeding but I wanted to catch him. Somebody grabbed a hold of me and took me to the hospital, or I’d have bled to death. Billy came to the hospital to see if I was OK. He thought he’d killed me.

“Billy didn’t carry a knife for a long time after that because I told him if I ever see you with a knife again I’m gonna kill you.

“We were both young then, about nineteen or twenty. You may think we were bad kids, but we weren’t. We got into our share of mischief but it was all in fun. Except that about his mama, but he was at least forty years old by then.

“I don’t think Billy meant to kill his Mama. He loved his mama.

“Sissy opposed his parole. She was one of a group of four people who stole gold from a gold show at the civic center. They were arrested at the Florida border. They looked suspicious, with their Uhaul draggin’ the ground. She flipped and got a little jail time.

“She was with two guys and another girl when they were caught. Benny the bondsman was the other girl’s father. He probably masterminded that gold theft. He was a shady character.

“When I was in jail, a guy got busted in Montgomery for trafficking coke, and it turned out he was in a car owned by Benny. Benny was actually a Montgomery police officer for years before he became a bondsman. I think he might have been in the Klan. Benny was 5 foot two and bald. My initial knowledge of him was through my ex-brother in law. Benny financed part of his cocaine business.

“My ex-brother in law was called Hatchet, because of his face. He always had a whole bunch of pretty women following him around with his Corvette and boats. I went to his houseboat once and there must have been a dozen beautiful women. I don’t care what anybody says, that money will bring them in.

“Anyway, Hatchet ended up in prison. They seized all his houses. He had a little bit in his mama’s name, but they ended up seizing millions of dollars of property.

“It turned out that he became the warden’s boy at Kilby. That means he did yard work for the warden, washed his car, stuff like that. But they found a big plot of marijuana close to the swamp by the wardens’ house. They couldn’t prove it was Hatchet that planted it, but…he couldn’t go back out to the warden’s house after that. He served five years of a fifteen year sentence and got out. I don’t know if he’s ever worked. He gambles a lot.

Hatchet’s the one who turned me onto IV cocaine. I hauled dope out of Miami a few times with him. He’s the one who taught me how to shoot coke. After I shot that cocaine for the first time, I got sick. I was runnin’ around in the back yard, puking and gagging. Me with this long hair, in the middle of the night. Hatchet says “Come on back in here, man. You’re gonna call attention to us, makin’ all that noise out there.” It was loud.

“Most of those guys I ran with back in those days are either dead or in prison. There’s a few like me who were lucky enough to find recovery.”

…and more from the same recovering addict…

“Uptight Miller was an old heroin addict form the Vietnam era, and he could play some blues on the piano. He worked at the Coates’ funeral home at night and we’d all go in there and do dope and drink. I assisted with embalmings. You had the needle thing that busted the organs and you suck all the organs out, poke the big needle and the hose in, and put formaldehyde in them.

“And of course anyone who works in a funeral home has to pass out in a casket at least once.

“Uptight went over there one night and a friend of his, Wade, was there and they were acting funny. I don’t know why, but Wade blindsided me and I turned around and grabbed him, and fell on the coffee table. It broke and I got that leg and bopped Wade in the head with it, and got out of the door. I got away.

“Well, I rode around for a few hours, and got to where we hung out up at the Big Bear shopping center, and Eddie Ray came by. He was a real badass. He could take down somebody twice his size. He just went crazy.

“He’s the one that was trying to wire some dynamite under his girlfriend’s hood and it blew his hand off. I don’t guess he liked her. He could still play the guitar by wrapping a clothes hanger around his nub and picked the guitar that way.

“Anyway, I told him I was at Uptight’s and he jumped on me. Well Eddie Ray went ballistic and said I’m gonna whip both their asses. He knew Uptight’s bed was beside the window. He went thru the window, grabbed him up and beat the hell out of him right there in his front yard.

“Eddie Ray, God rest his soul, died diving off a bridge into a creek. He jumped too far, landed on a stump, and broke his neck. It’s crazy for him to die by jumping in a swimming hole.

“Upright and I made up. I had a date with a girl named Rita, but I wasn’t really impressed. Then he went out with Rita, even though he was married. I don’t know what Rita did to him but it was a week and his wife was told to move out and he moved Rita in and they got married. Undoubtedly she did something for him.”I did not make up any of the above; I’m not that imaginative. It all came from recovering addicts.

Personally, I can’t get enough of the crazy stories of active addiction. Some people may call them war stories, and I guess that’s what they are. However, I think they can serve to teach us about the insanity of addiction, so long as we remember the endings, like the arrests, violent deaths, and fatal accidents.

The Benzo Conversation

Glass head full of pills

Not all of my patient interactions are easy. One of my colleagues, after reading my blog, remarked, “It sounds like you have really easy patients.” While that’s true for the most part, of course there are more difficult patients, as in any practice. Some patients, eager to get into treatment to stop opioid addiction, may not be at all ready to stop other drugs of addiction. That’s not a deal-breaker for me, unless those drugs could be fatal when mixed with methadone or buprenorphine. This means the use of alcohol, benzodiazepines, and sedatives of other kinds must be discussed in detail.

I’ve noticed a conversational merry-go-round that I call “the benzo conversation.” I’ve had versions of this conversation more times than I can remember.

This conversation occurs during my initial assessment of a new patient presenting for medication-assisted treatment. I always look on my state’s prescription monitoring program for each new patient on the day of admission. If they have prescriptions for benzodiazepines (like Xanax, Valium, or clonazepam), or other sedatives (Soma, Ambien, etc.) I need information about the pattern of use. Is my patient taking his prescribed daily dose? Is he then physically dependent on benzodiazepines? Is he selling them? Is he giving part of the prescription away, and taking the rest? Does he binge on benzos for the first few weeks of the month, and then run out for several weeks? Or is he bartering the benzos for opioids, and not taking any of them, despite filling a large prescription each month?

I really don’t care if the patient is breaking the law or not; I just want to get the complete picture of my patient’s health status.

Following is a typical conversation with a new patient whom I will call “Bob.”

Bob sought admission to our methadone maintenance treatment program for his opioid addiction. He had snorted pain pills for six years, and wanted help. He had little if any denial about his opioid addiction. He denied taking any prescription medications, saying he got all his opioids off the street, used no other drugs or medications, and had no other medical problems.

However, when I checked his name on my state’s controlled prescription monitoring program, he was filling a prescription for Xanax 2mg, ninety per month, from a local Dr. Feelgood. This prescription had been filled every month for the last four years. My patient’s admission urine drug screen also tested positive for benzodiazepines.

As part of my initial history and physical, I asked him about the Xanax prescription. I explained to Bob that benzos have the potential to cause a fatal overdose when mixed with opioids. I told him that benzos are especially risky with methadone, and I was concerned about his use of them.

Bob said, “Oh, I don’t use benzos now. I haven’t used Xanax for years.
“But you’ve been prescribed it every month and picked up the last prescription of ninety pills just two weeks ago.”
“Yes, but I don’t take them. I quit them long ago.”
“And you do have benzos in the urine sample you gave us.”
“Well, that’s probably from a little piece of Valium I used four days ago.”
“Ummm…, Valium’s also a benzo, in the same family as Xanax, so when you say you’ve stopped, that doesn’t make sense to me.…”
“As I told you, I don’t take benzos anymore.”
“But four days ago is pretty recent.”
“No,” he said, getting a little worked up. “As I’ve already told you, I stopped benzos years ago!”
“So what do you do with the Xanax pills you pick up at the pharmacy every month?”
“I don’t know. They’re in the house somewhere. But I don’t take them.”
“So you have…how many bottles do you have at home?”
“Bunches, I don’t know.”
I could tell I was annoying him, but this as an important clinical issue, so I pushed on.
“Would you be willing to bring all those bottles in tomorrow so the nurse can watch you dispose of them?”
He sighed deeply, annoyed by my questions. “Yes. I suppose I can. Now can I get my dose?”
“No, I’ll leave an order for you to be able to start tomorrow after you bring in the medication to dispose, since you tell me you haven’t taken them. I worry about a fatal overdose if methadone were combined with all that Xanax you have at home.”
Now he was mad. “I don’t have any Xanax at home! I’m not going to overdose! I know what I’m doing.”
“Will you give me permission to call the doctor prescribing the Xanax, so we can talk about your entry into treatment here? Maybe your doctor would be willing to taper your dose so that we can make it safer for you to be in treatment with us.”
“No! I don’t want everybody to know my business. My doctor is friends with my ex-wife and if she finds out I’m being treated for addiction, she’ll cause trouble. He can’t find out.”
“I’m sorry, but that’s a deal-breaker for me. I’m not going to prescribe methadone for you unless I can talk to your other doctor. It’s just too risky. All of your doctors need to know all medications that you’re on.”
“So you’re telling me to go back out there and use drugs? That I can’t get help unless my ex-wife finds out I’m an addict?” The veins in his neck were standing out.
“No. I’m not telling you to use drugs. I’m telling you…
“I want my money back, since I’m gonna have to go buy dope again ‘cause you won’t help me. It’s just not right. I came here to get help.” He stalked off toward the receptionist, where I heard him demanding his money back, despite the hour he spent with a counselor and the time spent with me in an evaluation. (For some reason, patients who don’t get admitted to the program don’t feel they should have to pay for their evaluation)

This was a difficult, tense conversation, and one I’ve had too many times to count. This patient wasn’t a bad guy, but he was not ready to address his benzodiazepine use. The outcome wasn’t what I’d hoped, and this patient didn’t come into treatment.

There’s no way I could know what this patient was doing with his benzodiazepine prescription. I couldn’t tell if this patient was telling the truth, in denial, or lying. Without being able to talk to his prescribing doctor, I wasn’t willing to start medication-assisted treatment. This didn’t mean he didn’t need treatment, only that perhaps a different form of treatment will be safer for him. I wish I could have given him information about other treatments, but he left too quickly and too angrily.

Sometimes patients tell me I’m violating their privacy by looking at their information on the prescription monitoring database. I tell them I don’t see it that was at all, since they are asking me to prescribe a medication that could have a fatal interaction with other medications. Not only is it my business, it’s my responsibility.

Some doctors would fault me for not admitting this patient despite his refusal to allow me to talk to his prescribing doctor, given the increased risk of death for patients in active opioid addiction who are not in any treatment. But I would feel terrible if I’d admitted this patient and he died during the first few weeks of a methadone/benzodiazepine overdose. Either way, there’s a lot at stake, and I feel stress about these decisions.

Don’t Sweat It

aaaaaaaaaasweat

All opioids can cause sweating and flushing, but methadone is perhaps worse to cause sweating than other opioids. Buprenorphine also can cause sweating, but it is usually less of a problem than for patients on methadone.

We don’t know exactly why opioids make people sweat, but it is related to opioids’ effects on the thermoregulatory centers of the brain.
Excess sweating can also be caused by opioid withdrawal. If other withdrawal symptoms are present, like runny nose, muscle aches, or nausea, an increase of the methadone dose may help reduce the sweating.

At least half of all patients on methadone report unpleasant sweating, but some patients have sweats that are more than just inconvenient. These patients report dramatic, soaking sweats, bad enough to interfere with life.

What can we do about this sweating?

First, non-medication methods can be attempted. These methods include common sense things like wearing loose clothing, keeping the house cool, and losing weight. Regular exercise helps some people. Talcum powder, sprinkled on the areas that sweat, can help absorb some of the moisture. Antiperspirants can be used in the underarm area, but also in any area that routinely becomes sweaty. The antiperspirant can be applied at bedtime so sweating won’t interrupt sleep. There are prescription antiperspirants, like Drysol or Xerac, but these sometimes can be irritating to the skin. Avoid spicy foods, which can also cause sweating.

Make sure the sweating isn’t coming from any other source, like an overactive thyroid, and check your body temperature a few times, to make sure you don’t have a fever, indicating the sweating could be from a smoldering infection. A trip to the primary care doctor should include some basic blood tests to rule out medical causes of sweating, other than the dose of methadone.

Some prescription medications can help, to varying degree, with sweating.

Clonidine, a blood pressure medication that blocks activation of part of the central nervous system, blocks sweats in some patients.

Anti-cholenergic medicines, drugs block the effect of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine in the involuntary nervous system, block sweating. Anticholinergics tend to dry all secretions, causing such common side effects as dry mouth and dry eyes. These medications can cause serious side effects, so they must be prescribed by a doctor familiar with the patient’s medical history.

Some examples of anticholinergics include oxybutynin (also used for urinary leakage), bipereden (used in some Parkinson patients), scopolamine (also used for sea sickness), and dicyclomine (used for irritable bowel syndrome). All of these have been used for excessive sweating with various degrees of success, in some patients.

For unusually bad situations, Botox can be injected under the skin of the most affected areas, like armpits, palms and soles. Obviously, this is somewhat of a last-resort measure.

Patients affected with severe sweats, unresponsive to any of the above measures, need to decide if the benefit they get from methadone outweighs the annoyance of the side effects. In other words, if being on methadone has kept them from active drug addiction, which is a potentially fatal illness, it would probably be worth putting up with sweating, even if it’s severe.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 620 other followers