Archive for the ‘medical treatment of methadone patients’ Category

QT Intervals and Methadone: The Cochrane Group Weighs In

Torsade de Pointes

Torsade de Pointes

Over the past five years, doctors and other interested parties have debated methadone’s safety concerning its potential to cause cardiac arrhythmias. Methadone can cause a prolongation of the QT interval. This is calculated from a patient’s electrocardiogram (ECG) as illustrated above. The QT interval corresponds to the length of time it takes the ventricle of the heart to depolarize and re-polarize. When the QT interval exceeds a certain level, scientists believe the patient is at increased risk for a fatal heart rhythm called “torsade de pointes” (often abbreviated TdP). This is the French term for “a twisting of the points.” It’s a fitting description,as you can see above.

An episode of TdP can be fatal. Some scientists thought the increase in death rates seen in patients taking methadone were not all from overdose, but rather from the potentially fatal heart rhythm. It’s still a topic of much controversy. Should opioid treatment programs and pain medicine doctors get ECGs on all patients on methadone, to look at the QT interval? Who bears the cost of getting this ECG, opioid treatment programs or their patients? Who reads them if the OTP doctor is a psychiatrist who is no trained to interpret at ECGs?

What should we do if we find a long QT interval, particularly in a patient who is doing well on methadone to treat opioid addiction? Given the fatal nature of the disease of opioid addiction (about 50% dead at 30 years), what is riskier…stopping the methadone or continuing the methadone? Should a cardiologist (heart specialist) be consulted?

The Cochrane Review Group is internationally recognized for their reports, which are based on all existing primary research on a topic. Their reports are recognized as the highest standard in evidence-based health care, and they cover all sorts of topics on prevention and treatment of diseases, and disease testing. The Cochrane Review Group recently reviewed all available evidence dealing with methadone and the risk of TdP.

Their June 2013 report on ECG testing of patients on methadone said, “…it is not possible to draw any conclusions about the effectiveness of ECG-based screening strategies for preventing cardiac morbidity/mortality in methadone-treated opioid addicts.” The Cochrane Group made this statement because there were no quality studies looking at the specific issues. The group did recommend quality studies looking at the specific issues be done in the future.

I have long suspected that the risk of untreated opioid addiction far outweighs the risk of death from cardiac arrhythmias in most opioid addicts, but this is not what the Cochran Group says. They say there’s no good evidence one way or the other. The lead sentence of the Cochrane Review on this topic is, “No evidence has been found to support the use of ECG for preventing cardiac arrhythmias in methadone-treated patients.”

Which is not, I think, the same as saying we don’t need to do ECGs, just that there’s no evidence one way or the other.

For me, this report reassures me I’m not flying in the face of good medical practice if I do not get an ECG on a patient entering treatment on methadone, particularly if the patient is young and at low risk. For higher risk patients, I still feel ambivalent. I plan to look to my colleagues in the American Society of Addiction Medicine to see what they are doing since this Cochrane report has been released.

More will be revealed.

News From the World of Addiction Medicine Research

aaa

The latest issue of the Journal of Addiction Medicine, Vol. 7 (2) March/April 2013 had several interesting articles relating to opioid addiction and its treatment. Here’s my quick summary and thoughts on one of them, “Promethazine Misuse among Methadone Maintenance Patients and Community-Based Injection Drug Users,” by Brad Shapiro et al, pp. 96-1001.

This study attempted to get an idea of the prevalence of promethazine (better known under its brand name Phenergan) use in opioid addicts both in and out of treatment.

I was interested in this article because I’ve had methadone patients misuse promethazine. Most of these patients say that Phenergan gives them sedation with methadone, but most say it’s not a true euphoria, so I’m puzzled as to why they mix the two. Since promethazine can be sedating in many people, obviously I worry about overdose deaths when it’s mixed with methadone.

The authors of this study tested for promethazine in the patients enrolled in a county hospital methadone clinic in San Francisco. Twenty-six percent were positive for promethazine and only 15% had a prescription for this medication. Also, promethazine use was associated with benzodiazepine use.

The authors then recruited two hundred intravenous drug users, and discovered that only 139 were opioid addicts. Of those 139 addicts, seventeen percent reported promethazine use in the past month. However, of the addicts who had been on methadone in the past, twenty-four percent reported promethazine use in the past month.

What does this study tell us? The authors’ conclusion was that promethazine needs to be investigated further as a drug of abuse in opioid addicts.

Well, yeah.

My clinical experience gave me some thoughts about the study. For one thing, pregnant addicts were excluded. But in my experience, pregnant patients are the ones most likely to be prescribed Phenergan because of morning sickness during pregnancy. And this study doesn’t tell us much about the overdose risk when methadone and Phenergan are combined. Early in their article, they do provide some data: In Kentucky, over 14% of decedents from methadone toxicity overdose deaths also had promethazine present in their system. In Seattle, 2.5% of fatal overdoses had promethazine present.

Promethazine, along with many other medications, prolongs the QT interval just like methadone does. I haven’t seen any studies of methadone patients comparing QT intervals before and after promethazine, which may be helpful to further assess risk.

Hepatitis C: What’s New?

A fair number of my patients screen positive for the Hepatitis C virus. Obviously, they want to know what a positive screening test means, and what they should do next. Since a positive screen doesn’t necessarily mean an infection with Hep C, I’d like to explain more about this test, about the virus, and what’s new in the treatment of Hep C.

Hepatitis C is a virus that mainly affects the liver, as its name implies. There are other viruses that affect the liver, creatively named Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, and so on. But Hepatitis C is the biggie, with an estimated 3.4 million people in the U.S. with the infection. In fact, it’s the most common chronic blood-borne viral infection in the U.S.  Around the world, 180 million people are estimated to be infected with Hep C.

Anyone with a history of intravenous drug use should be screened for hepatitis C. In the U.S., this is the most common way of contracting the virus. Even if you didn’t share needles, if you shared cookers, water, spoons or other material, you may have contracted the virus. Even people who shared straws to snort drugs appear to be at risk, and should be tested.

It’s a blood-borne illness, so it can also be transmitted through tattoos with unclean needles, re-used medical supplies, and blood transfusion with tainted blood. However, risks of infection through transfusion in the U.S. are very low since testing for the virus became available in 1992.

Most people who have hepatitis C got it from another person’s blood, but it can be transmitted through sex. In monogamous couples with one infected partner, the virus is transmitted to the uninfected partner in only about 1 – 5% of cases. However, multiple sexual partners and high risk sexual activities result in higher transmission rates. You can’t transmit Hep C by hugging, kissing, sharing eating utensils or ordinary household contact, though a person with Hep C shouldn’t share razors or toothbrushes.

In May of this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended one-time testing for Hepatitis C in all baby boomers, meaning people born between 1945 and 1965. About one in thirty baby boomers have hepatitis C, according to the CDC. Because newer treatments can cure chronic Hep C infection, the CDC hopes to save an estimated 120,000 lives by uncovering infections in people who don’t know they’re infected.

The screening test for Hep C is relatively inexpensive, and screens only for antibodies to the Hepatitis C virus. If you screen positive with this test, it means you have been exposed to the Hep C virus. It does not tell us if you have chronic Hepatitis C infection. Up to 20% of people who contract Hepatitis C infections are able to clear the virus on their own, and will not have chronic infection. However, they will remain positive on this screening test, because they will carry antibodies against the virus for the rest of their lives. Patients diagnosed, treated, and cured of Hep C infection will also remain positive for Hep C on this antibody screening test, so it’s not helpful to screen these patients again. In fact, it may be confusing if the provider doesn’t understand what this antibody test means, and explain it adequately to patients.

There are six specific types, called genotypes, of Hepatitis C. Even if you clear the infection to one genotype, you can be re-infected with another genotype of hepatitis C. If you have active Hep C and continue to share needles, it’s possible to become infected with more than one subtype.

There’s no vaccine available for Hep C like there is for Hep A and B. Much like HIV, the Hep C virus undergoes frequent changes, so it’s like making a vaccine against a moving target.

If you test positive on screening for Hep C, you need to have further testing to see if you have Hepatitis C infection. The next step is a qualitative test for hepatitis C. At around $100 at the cheapest, it’s difficult for patients without insurance to afford the proper testing.  If this qualitative test is positive, you should then see a specialist to see if you need a liver biopsy. Most specialists base the decision to treat on a liver biopsy. There are other tests, but biopsy is still the gold standard.

If treatment is contemplated, it will be necessary to have genotype testing, to find out what specific type of Hep C you have. Treatments are different for different subtypes. Two new medications are used in the treatment of type 1, the most frequent type in the U.S., and give cure rates up to 75%. On the other hand, genotypes 2 and 3 are more easily treated and don’t require treatment to be as long as type 1. Quantitative Hep C testing, called viral counts, isn’t needed unless treatment is going to be done, when it is used to follow the response to treatment. Outside of that, the viral count provides little information.

Liver function tests, called LFT’s, are relatively cheap, and are often done at the same time as the first Hep C screening test. If they are elevated, it usually means there’s inflammation in the liver. Many things can cause an increase in LFTs. Alcohol is the most common cause, but all viral hepatitis infections can cause elevations too. However, it’s possible to have normal LFT’s and still have active Hepatitis C. We can’t assume you don’t have Hep C infection even if your LFT’s are normal.

If you have Hepatitis C, you should NEVER drink alcohol. Even patients infected with Hep C but with no problems on liver biopsy will go downhill fast if they drink alcohol. The dangers of alcohol in patients with Hep C cannot be overstated. Don’t. Drink. Ever. Not even a cold beer after mowing the lawn.

In my next blog post, I’ll talk about the exciting new treatment developments.

Smuggling Suboxone

I was intrigued by an article I saw on my internet homepage. It was titled: “When Children’s Scribbles Hide a Prison Drug”

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/27/us/27smuggle.html?_r=1&hpw

 This article describes unique ways Suboxone is being smuggled into jails. Law enforcement officials associated with both state and county jails from Maine and Massachusetts were interviewed. They say prisoners and their accomplices make Suboxone into a paste and smear it over the surfaces of papers sent to prisoners from their families. The article mentions the paste being spread over children’s coloring book pages, and under stamps. Suboxone films have been placed behind stamps or in envelope seams. Correctional officers now have to inspect material coming in the mail to prisoners much more closely.

 I had several thoughts. First, yet again, I’m struck by the creativity and cleverness of addicts. If only they could channel this energy in the right direction, amazingly good things could come to them, instead of the continued hardships brought by addiction.

 Then I felt sad that such actions described in the article would taint the reputation of a medication that has the potential to save lives, when used appropriately. Such illicit use of Suboxone gives ammunition to those who would prefer that office-based treatment with Suboxone didn’t exist.

 Then I wondered, how many of these prisoners have a legitimate prescription for Suboxone, but are denied their medication by prison officials? How many are legitimate patients of methadone clinics, also denied their medication while imprisoned, who know that Suboxone will alleviate some of the opioid withdrawal they are feeling? How many of these people are addicted to opioids, not in any kind of treatment, but who know Suboxone will treat their withdrawals?

At least one study supports the idea that many people use Suboxone illicitly not to get high, but to prevent withdrawal. Dr. Schuman-Olivier studied 78 opioid addicts entering treatment. Nearly half said they had used Suboxone illicitly prior to entering treatment. Of these people, 90% said they used to prevent withdrawal symptoms. These addicts also said they used Suboxone illicitly to treat pain and to ease depression.

Many law enforcement personnel and members of the legal community have strong biases against medication-assisted treatments. They don’t understand that addiction is a disease, and that methadone and buprenorphine are legitimate, evidence-based treatments. They have difficulty letting go of their idea that addiction is a choice that deserves blame, and have a punitive stance towards addicts. They have low opinions of addicts who are using drugs, but often have no better opinion of a recovering addict who has sought treatment and is doing well on replacement medications, like methadone or buprenorphine.

 But no matter what law enforcement personnel think they know, when they deny prescribed, life-saving medications, I believe they’re practicing medicine without a license.

The article mentions one woman who, with the aid of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, sued because her Suboxone treatment had not been continued while she was in jailed for a traffic violation. She settled out of court, but her lawyer made the excellent point that if inmates are denied their medications, they will try unlawful means to get it.

Other patients and their families have brought successful lawsuits against the jail facilities. In at least two cases, in the same Orange County, Florida jail, patient/prisoners were allowed to go through withdrawal for so long that they died. The estate of one person won a three million dollar judgment against the county. (1, 2)

I’m glad to see these lawsuits. I’ve heard appalling stories from many methadone patients, who were denied their medication while incarcerated. I’ve heard tales of jailers taunting these prisoners, when they became sick. There is no defense for such cruelty.

Orange County now works with local methadone clinics. If a prisoner is a current patient of a clinic, his clinic will send a week’s worth of medication in a locked box via courier. Nurses at the jail have the key to the box, and administer each day’s dose. The jail doctor consults with the medical director at the methadone clinic. Prisoners still have to pay out of pocket to get the medication, so the only cost to the jail is the time required for personnel to administer the medication. It’s certainly much cheaper than paying three million to the estate of a dead prisoner, not to mention much more humane.

I wish the county jails around the methadone clinic where I work would approach the problem of opioid addiction and treatment in a collaborative way. Sadly, only seven state prison systems offer medication-assisted treatment with methadone or buprenorphine.

Rikers Island, in New York City, gives us another example of how such a system could work. There, opioid-addicted prisoners charged with misdemeanors or low grade felonies can be enrolled in a program known as KEEP (Key Extended Entry Program). This program treats opioid addicts with methadone and counseling. Upon release from Rikers Island, these patients are referred to methadone treatment centers in the community. Seventy-six percent have followed through with their treatment, post-release. The results of this program show significant reduction in reincarceration and significant reduction in criminal activity. (3)

Drug courts trying to save money would be well-advised to look at the Rikers Island program. Studies have shown a cost savings of at least four dollars for every one dollar spent on methadone treatment. This money is saved because methadone patients require fewer days of hospitalization and other healthcare costs, and also because of reduction in criminal activity and incarceration costs. (3, 4)

I know from comments written to this blog that there are many more people abusing Suboxone than I previously imagined. For sure, some of the prisoners getting smuggled Suboxone are misusing it. But I don’t think the majority are using for anything other than prevention of withdrawal, since they are usually not offered any other effective treatment for this medical condition.

  1. “Outrageous: the death of Susan Bennett raises serious questions about the competence and quality of the jail’s nursing staff” Orlando Sentinel, editorial, March 27, 1998.
  2. Doris Bloodsworth, “Inmate begged for methadone” Orlando Sentinel July 12, 2001.
  3. Par`rino, Mark, “Methadone Treatment in Jail,” American Jails, Vol: 14, 2000, issue 2, pp 9-12.
  4. California Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, 2004, California drug and alcohol treatment assessment (CALDATA) California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs. California Drug and Alcohol Treatment Assessment (CALDATA), 1991-1993 [Computer File]. ICPSR02295-v2. Ann Arbor, MI: Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research [distributor], 2008-10-07. doi:10.3886/ICPSR02295

 

Great Book About Opioid Addiction!!!

I orginally started this blog to promote the book I wrote about pain pill addiction. As it’s turned out, the blog has been much more popular than the book (it isn’t exactly flying off the shelves), so I’d like to remind blog readers – again – that if you like the blog, you’ll love my book.

You can order it from Barnes & Noble, or Amazon. But I’m selling it for a much-discounted rate of $13.95 on EBay. That’s with shipping included.

http://shop.ebay.com/i.html_from=R40&_trksid=p5197.m570.l1313&_nkw=pain+pill+addiction&_sacat=See-All-Categories

Tramadol, AKA Ultram, Ultracet

I just returned from the American Society of Addiction Medicine’s spring conference, held in Washington, D.C. I go to at least one of their meetings every year, to stay current with the latest research and developments in Addiction Medicine. It was impossible to attend all of the sessions, since four or five meetings are often conducted at the same time. This makes it the intellectual equivalent of a three ring circus. I think I learned some new stuff, and will share some of this in my blog over the coming weeks.

The first day, I went to a day-long course called “Pain and Addiction: Common Threads.” I think this is the fourth time I’ve attended that particular seminar over the last eight years. I hear something new every year.

 It’s striking how much this meeting has changed. The first year I went was 2005. At that time, pain medicine specialists still debated with the addiction medicine specialists about the risk of addiction in patients who were prescribed opioids long-term for chronic non-cancer pain. By 2010, I didn’t hear any debates about the risk of addiction. I heard lectures about how to manage chronic pain without opioids, and about the risk of hyperalgesia in patients on long-term opioids. Hyperalgesia is an increased sensitivity to pain, sometimes seen in patients prescribed opioids for months or years. The human body accommodates to the presence of these prescribed opioids, which adjusts the pain threshold, making a patient on opioids paradoxically more sensitive to pain.

This year, the Pain and Addiction conference had lectures on several interesting topics, but one that captured my interest was about the not-so-safe “safe” medications. Included were carisoprodol (Soma), zolpidem (Ambien), butalbital (found in Fioricet and Fiorinal), and tramadol (Ultram). These are all medications that many doctors think are safe for addicts, but really aren’t all that safe.

I’ve seen many patients develop problems with tramadol, so the rest of this blog is about this medication.

Tramadol is a messy drug. It’s a pain reliever that has actions on several types of brain receptors: the mu opioid, serotonin, norepinephrine, NMDA, and other receptors. Because it stimulates the mu opioid receptors, it can cause feelings of pleasure as well as pain relief. Tramadol is far less active at the mu opioid receptors than its metabolite, and it takes time for the tramadol to be metabolized in the liver to its first metabolite. Because of this delay, some experts thought it wouldn’t appeal to addicts, who prefer an immediate high. Overall this is probably true, and tramadol has a much lower rate of addiction than other opioids, but it still causes addiction in some patients.

Some of tramadol’s pain relieving properties may also be produced by its actions on serotonin and norepinephrine receptors, since tramadol’s pain relieving capability is only partially reversed by a pure opioid antagonist like naloxone.

When this medication was first released, it wasn’t a controlled substance. That is, the DEA didn’t control it strictly like medications that can cause addiction. Now, it’s a Schedule IV drug, thought to have benefit but also some risk of addiction, though lower than that of hydrocodone, for example.

Tramadol is usually dosed in 50mg pills, one or two every six hours, giving the maximum dose of 400mg per day. Recreational use of this medication (to get high) is dangerous, since it causes seizures at doses higher than 400mg. In susceptible patients, it can even cause seizures at lower prescribed doses.

I’ve seen patients in tramadol withdrawal who were so sick it frightened me. This drug can produce a severe withdrawal. When it’s stopped suddenly, patients have opioid withdrawal symptoms like sweating, nausea, diarrhea, high blood pressure and heart rate, and severe muscle and joint pains. The sickest patient I’ve ever seen in opioid withdrawal had been using only tramadol, in doses of around 600mg per day. She had fever to 103 degrees, and dehydration from the diarrhea and vomiting. That patient needed hospitalization.

Besides the opioid-withdrawal symptoms, some of these patients also have withdrawal symptoms similar to those seen when certain serotonin-affecting antidepressants, like Paxil and Celexa, are stopped suddenly. They can have fairly severe anxiety, depression, mood swings, and restlessness. Many times they have weird sensory experiences, often called “brain zaps,” or the sensation of electric shocks throughout the body. They can have seizures during this withdrawal.

If the patient had only physical dependency and no addiction, the dose of tramadol can usually be tapered slowly over a few weeks to months, as an outpatient. But if the patient has not only physical dependency but also the disease of addiction, the obsession and craving for the medication will usually prevent a successful outpatient taper, unless a dependable non-addict holds the pill bottle, and dispenses it as prescribed.

Traditional treatment for tramadol addiction starts with detoxification. As above, that can rarely be done as an outpatient, so medical inpatient detoxification admissions for five to seven days can be helpful. However, since tramadol acts so much like an opioid, patients ready to leave detox probably need to go on to an inpatient residential treatment center for at least thirty days.  Intensive outpatient treatment probably isn’t enough support for these addicts. But that’s only my opinion, since I haven’t found any studies describing success rates with tramadol addicts.

Opioid maintenance medications like methadone and buprenorphine do stop the opioid-type withdrawal symptoms from tramadol, and patients probably benefit from medication-assisted therapy just like any other opioid addicts. Using these medications, they can be successfully treated as outpatients. However, as above, I can’t find any long-term studies of tramadol addicts on replacement medications. One of the addictionologists with whom I work doesn’t think it’s wise to put an addict who is addicted only to tramadol on methadone, given the lack of data. However, usually these addicts are using other opioids too, and physically addicted to them as well as tramadol.

Often, methadone patients at the opioid treatment centers where I work are given tramadol by their primary care doctors who think it’s a low risk medication for opioid addicts. It probably is lower in its risk for abuse, but it can cause withdrawal in patients on stable, blocking doses of methadone. (1)

Tramadol is a synthetic, pared-down version of codeine. Interestingly, a structurally similar medication, tapentadol, has just been released, and is now being sold under the brand name Nucynta. That medication is a schedule II drug, presumably because of a higher abuse potential than we’ve seen with tramadol. Tapentadol stimulates opioid mu receptors, and also acts as a norepinephrine re-uptake inhibitor, like some antidepressants. It will be interesting to follow abuse and addiction patterns with this medication.

The bottom line is this: if you are in recovery from addiction (alcohol or drugs) this medication should be used with caution. Let your doctor know that you’re in recovery from addiction. If you must take a potentially addicting medication, talk to your sponsor and your support network. Go to extra meetings. Let a dependable non-addict hold the pill bottle and dispense as prescribed. If you have to take the medication for more than a few weeks, have your doctor taper your dose instead of stopping suddenly.

I’ll have upcoming blog entries concerning Soma, Ambien, and Fioricet.

  1. Leavitt, MA, PhD, “Methadone-Drug Interactions,” Pain Treatment Topics, Addiction Treatment Forum, January 2006

Doctors Are Poorly Trained About Addiction and Recovery

Addiction? What addiction?

Most medical schools and residency programs place little emphasis on educating future physicians about addiction. A survey conducted by the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA) revealed that physicians are poorly trained to recognize and treat addictive disorders. (1)

CASA surveyed nine-hundred and seventy-nine U.S. physicians, from all age groups, practice settings, and specialties. Only nineteen percent of these physicians said they had been trained in medical school to identify diversion of prescribed drugs. Diversion means that the drug was not taken by the patient for whom it was prescribed. Almost forty percent had been trained to identify prescription drug abuse or addiction, but of those, most received only a few hours of training during four years of medical school. More shocking, only fifty-five percent of the surveyed doctors said they were taught how to prescribe controlled drugs. Of those, most had less than a few hours of training. This survey indicates that medical schools need to critically evaluate their teaching priorities.  

Distressingly, my own experience mirrors this study’s findings. My medical school, Ohio State University, did a better job than most. We had a classroom section about alcoholism, and were asked to go to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, to become familiar with how meetings work. But I don’t remember any instruction about how to prescribe controlled substances or how to identify drug diversion.

Is it possible that I’ve forgotten I had such a course? Well, yes. But if I can still remember the tediously boring Krebs cycle, then surely I would have remembered something juicier and more practical, like how to prescribe potentially addicting drugs. Similarly, less than half of the surveyed doctors recalled any training in medical school in the management of pain, and of those that did, most had less than a few hours of training.

Residency training programs did a little better. Of the surveyed doctors, thirty-nine percent received training on how to identify drug diversion, and sixty-one percent received training on identifying prescription drug addiction. Seventy percent of the doctors surveyed said they received instruction on how to prescribe controlled substances. (1)

This last finding is appalling, because it means that thirty percent of doctors received no training on how to prescribe controlled substances in their residency programs.  Could it be true that nearly a third of the doctors leaving residency – last stop for most doctors before being loosed upon the populace to practice medicine with little to no oversight – had no training on how to prescribe these potentially dangerous drugs? Sixty-two percent leaving residency had training on pain management. This means the remaining thirty-eight percent had no training on the treatment of pain.

Could it be that many of these physicians were in residencies or specialties that had no need to prescribe such drugs? No. The participating doctors were in family practice, internal medicine, OB/GYN, psychiatry, and orthopedic surgery. The study included physicians of all ages (fifty-three percent were under age fifty), all races (though a majority at seventy-five percent were white, three other races were represented), and all types of locations (thirty-seven percent urban, thirty percent suburban, with the remainder small towns or rural areas). This study reveals a hard truth: medical training programs in the U.S. are doing a poor job of teaching future doctors about two diseases that causes much disability and suffering: pain and addiction. (1)

 I remember how poorly we treated patients addicted to prescription medications when I was in my Internal Medicine residency program. By the time we identified a person as addicted to opioids or benzodiazepines, their disease was fairly well established. It didn’t take a genius to detect addiction. They were the patients with thick charts, in the emergency room frequently, loudly proclaiming their pain and demanding to be medicated. Overall, the residents were angry and disgusted with such people, and treated them with thinly veiled contempt. We regarded them more as criminals than patients. We mimicked the attitudes of our attending physicians. Sadly, I did no better than the rest of my group, and often made jokes at the expense of patients who were suffering in a way and to a degree I was unable to perceive. I had a tightly closed mind and made assumptions that these were bad people, wasting my time.

Heroin addicts were not well treated. I recall a discussion with our attending physician concerning an intravenous heroin user, re-admitted to the hospital. Six months earlier, he was hospitalized for treatment of endocarditis (infected heart valve). Ultimately his aortic heart valve was removed and replaced with a mechanical valve. He recovered and left the hospital, but returned several months later, with an infected mechanical valve, because he had continued to inject heroin. We discussed the ethics of refusing to replace the valve a second time, because we felt it was futile.

I didn’t know any better at the time. We could have started him on methadone in the hospital, stabilized his cravings, and then referred him to the methadone clinic when he left the hospital. Instead, I think we had a social worker ask him if he wanted to go away somewhere for treatment, he said no, and that was the end of that. Small wonder he continued to use heroin.

At a minimum, the attending physician should have known that addiction is a disease, not a moral failing, and that it is treatable. The attending physician should have known how to treat heroin addiction, and how to convey this information to the residents he taught. Instead, we were debating whether to treat a man whose care we had mismanaged. Fortunately, he did get a second heart valve and was able to leave the hospital. I have no further knowledge of his outcome.

 Despite having relatively little training in indentifying and treating prescription pill addiction, physicians tend to be overly confident in their abilities to detect such addictions. CASA found that eighty percent of the surveyed physicians felt they were qualified to identify both drug abuse and addiction. However, in a 1998 CASA study, Under the Rug: Substance Abuse and the Mature Woman, physicians were given a case history of a 68 year old woman, with symptoms of prescription drug addiction. Only one percent of the surveyed physicians presented substance abuse as a possible diagnosis.  In a similar study, when presented with a case history suggestive of an addictive disorder, only six percent of primary care physicians listed substance abuse as a possible diagnosis. (2)

Besides being poorly educated about treatments for patients with addiction, most doctors aren’t comfortable having frank discussions about a patient’s drug misuse or addiction. Most physicians fear they will provoke anger or shame in their patients. Physicians may feel disgust with addicted patients and find them unpleasant, demanding, or even frightening. Conversely, doctors can feel too embarrassed to ask seemingly “nice” people about addiction. In a CASA study titled, Missed Opportunity, forty-seven percent of physicians in primary care said it was difficult to discuss prescription drug addiction and abuse with their patients, for whom they had prescribed such drugs. (2).

From this data, it’s clear physicians are poorly educated about the disease of addiction at the level of medical school and residency. Even when they do diagnose addiction, are they aware of the treatment facilities in their area? Patients should be referred to treatment centers who can manage their addictions. If patients are addicted to opioids, medications like methadone and buprenorphine can be a tremendous help.

  1. Missed Opportunity: A National Survey of Primary Care Physicians and Patients on Substance Abuse, Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, April 2000. Also available online at http://www.casacolumbia.org

2. Under the Rug: Substance Abuse and the Mature Woman, Center on Addiction and

Substance Abuse at Columbia University, 1998. Available online at http://www.casacolumbia.org

Side Effects of Methadone and Suboxone: Constipation

When I ask my patients about side effects of methadone and buprenorphine (active ingredient in Suboxone and Subutex), the most common one they report is constipation. Nearly all people on any opioids have constipation. This is because the bowels contain opioid receptors, and when they are stimulated with opioids, the bowels relax and don’t contract as much.

So what can be done?

Of course, drinking more fluids will help. Then, try adding more fiber to your diet. Either eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, or get some of the fiber-containing agents. Some brand names include FiberCon, Metamucil, and Citrucel.

If that doesn’t get things moving, try adding a stool softener. If no results after all of these, consider trying the Miralax powder. Some people need to take it on a regular basis to keep their bowels moving. Some patients use a teaspoon of mineral oil every morning to keep them moving.

It’s a good idea to see a primary care or gastrointestinal doctor at least once, to rule out causes other than medication. If you have blood in your stool, weight loss, or a family history of colon cancer, we don’t want to ignore the possibility that something more serious could be causing bowel problems.

And anyone over 50 years old is due for a colonoscopy, anyway. (They really aren’t too bad. I had one last year and it was fairly easy.)

Methadone and Suboxone Can Cause Sweating

All opioids can cause sweating and flushing. But methadone is perhaps worse than the other opioids, since we use doses high enough to block opioid receptors, to get the maximum benefit from methadone in the treatment of opioid addiction. Buprenorphine (active ingredient in the brand Suboxone and Subutex) can also cause sweating, but since it’s a weaker opioid, people don’t seem to be as badly affected by it.

 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.

 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.

 Anticholenergic 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.