Archive for the ‘methadone’ Category

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

Methadone Dosing, Part 1

“Doc, I need a dose increase. The last time I went up 5mg, I felt it for a few days, but now I don’t feel it anymore.”

I’ve worked in opioid treatment centers for around ten years, and I often hear this kind of statement. It’s worrisome, because it doesn’t fit with the pharmacokinetics of methadone. I have to ask the patient exactly what he means when he says he “feels it.” Does he mean he feels a bit of enjoyable euphoria? Or does he mean he feels relief of nighttime physical withdrawal symptoms? If he means the latter, I’d expect those symptoms to be improving on the fourth or fifth day, because of the long half-life of methadone.

 We see from the graph of the steady state of methadone that it takes at least four or five days to see the full effect from a dose change. However, a person on methadone sometimes does feel a bit of a buzz, or euphoria, for the first few days after a dose increase. That euphoria, which some people experience as increased energy, always wears off, no matter how high we take the dose. In fact, that’s one reason why we use methadone. Patients at a maintenance dose don’t feel high. 

Some patients exaggerate symptoms, or say what they think is expected, because they’re anxious they’ll never get enough methadone to help them feel physically back to normal. I think it’s important to reassure patients that we really want to give them enough methadone to feel stable. And we also have to tell them that they need to tell us the truth about how they are feeling, because they may be chasing a feeling from methadone that’s not going to last, no matter how high the dose.

 Many patients don’t know what normal feels like. It’s part of my job to educate them that on the ideal dose of methadone, you should feel the same all day. Ideally, they feel the same before dosing as after dosing: no withdrawal symptoms, and no euphoria or sedation.

The Story of a Recovering Addict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JB: Wow

KS: Yeah.

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

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

JB: Was that unusual for methadone clinics to do?

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

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

JB: Big things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JB: So it wasn’t a blocking dose?

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

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

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

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

JB: So you obviously enjoy it.

KS: Oh yeah.

JB: What did you like about it?

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

JB: That’s a precious gift.

KS: I agree.

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

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

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

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

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

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

KS: Right. Right.

JB: That’s sad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Facts About Methadone

methadone

The treatment of opioid addiction (heroin or prescription pain pills) with methadone still has an unwarranted stigma attached to it.  I wanted to devote at least one blog entry to a summary of the most well-known studies that support this evidence-based treatment. When people speak against methadone, they usually say they don’t “believe” in it, without being able to give any scientific basis for their stance. 

Well, this is why I do “believe” in it. It’s not opinion. It’s science.

 Amato L, Davoli, et. al., An overview of systematic reviews of the effectiveness of opiate maintenance therapies: available evidence to inform clinical practice and research. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment 2005; 28 (4):321-329. In this overview of meta-analyses and other reviews, they conclude that methadone maintenance is more effective in the treatment of opioid addiction than methadone detoxification, buprenorphine, or no treatment. Higher doses of methadone are more effective than low or medium doses. 

Bale et. al., 1980; 37(2):179-193. “Therapeutic Communities vs Methadone Maintenance” Archives of General Psychiatry Opioid-addicted veterans who presented to the hospital for treatment were assigned to either inpatient detoxification alone, admission to a therapeutic community, or to methadone maintenance. One year later, patients assigned to therapeutic communities or methadone maintenance did significantly better than patients whose only treatment was detoxification. Patients in these two groups were significantly more likely to be employed, less likely to be in jail, and less likely to be using heroin, than the patients who got only detox admission. Patients in the therapeutic communities needed to stay at least seven weeks to obtain benefit equal to patients assigned to methadone maintenance. 

Ball JC, Ross A., The Effectiveness of Methadone Maintenance Treatment. New York, NY: Springer-Verlag Inc., 1991. This landmark study observed six hundred and thirty-three male patients enrolled in six methadone maintenance programs. Patients reduced their use of illicit opioids 71% from pre-admission levels, with the best results (no heroin use) seen in patients on doses higher than 70 milligrams. Longer duration of treatment with methadone showed the greatest reductions in heroin use. Of patients who left methadone maintenance treatment, 82% relapsed back to intravenous heroin use within one year. This study also found a dramatic drop in criminal activity for addicts in methadone treatment. Within one year, the number of days involved in criminal activity dropped an average of 91% for addicts maintained on methadone. This study showed that methadone clinics vary a great deal in their effectiveness. The most effective clinics had adequate dosing, well-trained and experienced staff with little turnover, combined medical, counseling and administrative services, and a close and consistent relationship between patients and staff.

 Caplehorn JRM, Bell J. Methadone dosage and retention of patients in maintenance treatment. The Medical Journal of Australia 1991;154:195-199. Authors of this study concluded that higher doses of methadone (80 milligrams per day and above) were significantly more likely to retain patients in treatment.

 Caplehorn JR, Dalton MS, et. al., Methadone maintenance and addicts’ risk of fatal heroin overdose. Substance Use and Misuse, 1996 Jan, 31(2):177-196. In this study of heroin addicts, the addicts in methadone treatment were one-quarter as likely to die by heroin overdose or suicide. This study followed two hundred and ninety-six methadone heroin addicts for more than fifteen years. 

Cheser G, Lemon J, Gomel M, Murphy G; Are the driving-related skills of clients in a methadone program affected by methadone? National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, University of New South Wales, 30 Goodhope St., Paddington NSW 2010, Australia. This study compared results of skill performance tests and concluded that methadone clients aren’t impaired in their ability to perform complex tasks.

 Clausen T, Waal H, Thoresen M, Gossop M; Mortality among opiate users: opioid maintenance therapy, age and causes of death. Addiction 2009; 104(8) 1356-62. This study looked at the causes of death for opioid addicts admitted to opioid maintenance therapy in Norway from 1997-2003. The authors found high rates of overdose deaths both prior to admission and after leaving treatment. Older patients retained in treatment died from medical reasons, other than overdose.

 Condelli, Dunteman, 1993: examined data from TOPS, the Treatment Outcome Prospective Study, assessed patients entering treatment programs from 1979 – 1981 and found data on improvement similar to DARP; longer duration of treatment in methadone maintenance shows lower use of illicit opioids. 

Dole VP, Nyswander ME, Kreek, MJ, Narcotic Blockade. Archives of Internal Medicine, 1966; 118:304-309. Consisted of thirty-two patients, with half randomized to methadone and the other half to a no-treatment waiting list. The methadone group had much higher rates of abstention from heroin, much lower rates of incarceration, and higher rates of employment.

 Faggiano F, Vigna-Taglianti F, Versino E, Lemma P, Cochrane Database Review, 2003 (3) Art. No. 002208. This review article was based on a literature review of randomized controlled trials and controlled prospective studies that evaluated the efficacy of methadone at different doses. The authors concluded that methadone doses of 60 – 100mg per day were more effective than lower doses at prevention of illicit heroin and cocaine use during treatment.

 Goldstein A, Herrera J, Heroin addicts and methadone treatment in Albuquerque: a year follow-up. Drug and Alcohol Dependence 1995 Dec; 40 (2): p. 139-150. A group of heroin addicts were followed over twenty years. One-third died within that time, and of the survivors, 48% were on a methadone maintenance program. The author concluded that heroin addiction is a chronic disease with a high fatality rate, and methadone maintenance offered a significant benefit.

 Gordon NB, Appel PW., Functional potential of the methadone-maintained person. Alcohol, Drugs and Driving 1995; 11:1: p. 31-37. This is a literature review of studies examining performance and reaction time of patients maintained on methadone, and confirms that these patients don’t differ from age-matched controls in driving ability and functional capacity.

 Gowing L, Farrell M, Bornemann R, Sullivan LE, Ali R., Substitution treatment of injecting opioid users for prevention of HIV infection. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2008, Issue 2, Ar. No. CD004145. Authors reviewed twenty eight studies, concluded that they show patients on methadone maintenance have significant reductions in behaviors that place them at risk for HIV infection.

 Gronbladh L, Ohlund LS, Gunne LM, Mortality in heroin addiction: Impact of methadone treatment, Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica Volume 82 (3) p. 223-227. Treatment of heroin addicts with methadone maintenance resulted in a significant drop in mortality, compared to untreated heroin addicts. Untreated addicts had a death rate 63 times expected for their age and gender; heroin addicts maintained on methadone had a death rate of 8 times expected, and most of that mortality was from diseases acquired prior to treatment with methadone. 

Gunne and Gronbladh, 1981: The Swedish Methadone Maintenance Program: A Controlled Study, Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 1981; 7: p. 249 – 256. This study conducted a randomized controlled trial on inpatient opioid addicts to methadone maintenance with intensive vocational rehabilitation counseling, or a control group that were referred to drug-free treatment.  Over 20 years, this study consistently showed significantly higher rates of subjects free from illicit opioids, higher rates of employment, and lower mortality in the group maintained on methadone than the control group.

 Hartel D, Selwyn PA, Schoenbaum EE, Methadone maintenance treatment and reduced risk of AIDS and AIDS-specific mortality in intravenous drug users. Abstract number 8546, Fourth Annual Conference on AIDS, Stockholm, Sweden, June 1988. This was a study of 2400 opioid addicts followed over fifteen years. Opioid addicts maintained on methadone at a dose of greater than 60mg showed longer retention in treatment, less use of heroin and other drugs, and lower rates of HIV infection. 

Hubbard RL, Marsden ME, et.al., Drug Abuse Treatment: A National Study of Effectiveness. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989. Shows decreased use of illicit drugs (other than opioids) while in methadone treatment, and increased again after discharge.

 Kosten TR, Rounsaville BJ, and Kleber HD. Multidimensionality and prediction of treatment outcome in opioid addicts: a 2.5-year follow-up. Comprehensive Psychiatry 1987;28:3-13. Addicts followed over two and a half years showed that methadone maintenance resulted in significant improvements in medical, legal, social, and employment problems.

 Lenne MG, Dietze P, Rumbold GR, et.al. The effects of the opioid pharmacotherapies methadone, LAAM and buprenorphine, alone and in combination with alcohol on simulated driving. Drug Alcohol Dependence 2003; 72(3):271-278. This study found driving reaction times of patients on methadone and buprenorphine don’t differ significantly from non-medicated drivers; however, adding even a small amount of alcohol (.05%) did cause impairment.

 Marsch LA. The efficacy of methadone maintenance in reducing illicit opiate use, HIV risk behavior and criminality: a meta-analysis Addiction 1998; 93: pp. 515-532. This meta-analysis of studies of methadone concludes that methadone treatment reduces crime, reduces heroin use, and improves treatment retention.

 Mattick RP, Breen C, Kimber J, et. al.,Methadone maintenance therapy versus no opioid replacement therapy for opioid dependence. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews,  2003; (2): CD002209. This is a meta-analysis of studies of methadone treatment. The authors concluded that treatment of opioid dependence with methadone maintenance is significantly more effective than non-pharmacologic therapies. Patients on methadone maintenance are more likely to be retained in treatment and less likely to be using heroin. This study did not find a reduction in crime between the two groups. 

Metzger DS, Woody GE, McLellan AT, et. al. Human immunodeficiency virus seroconversion amoung intravenous drug users in- and out- of- treatment: an 18-month prospective follow up. Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome 1993;6:1049-1056. Patients not enrolled in methadone maintenance treatment converted to HIV positivity at a rate of 22%, versus a rate of 3.5% of patients in methadone maintenance treatment.

 Powers KI, Anglin MD. Cumulative versus stabilizing effects of methadone maintenance. Evaluation Review 1993: Heroin addicts admitted to methadone maintenance programs showed a reduction in illicit drug use, arrests, and criminal behavior, including drug dealing. They showed increases in employment. Addicts who relapsed showed fewer improvements in these areas. 

Scherbaum N, Specka M, et.al., Does maintenance treatment reduce the mortality rate of opioid addicts? Fortschr Neurol Psychiatr, 2002, 70(9):455-461. Opioid addicts in continuous treatment with methadone had a much lower mortality rate (1.6% per year) than opioid addicts who left treatment (8.1% per year).

 Sees KL, Delucchi KL, et.al. “Methadone maintenance vs 180-day psychosocially enriched detoxification for treatment of opioid dependence” Journal of the American Medical Association, 2000, 283:1303-1310. Compared the outcomes of opioid addicted patients randomized to methadone maintenance or to180-day detoxification using methadone, with extra psychosocial counseling. Results showed better outcomes in patients on maintenance. Patients on methadone maintenance showed greater retention in treatment and less heroin use than the patients on the 180 day taper. There were no differences between the groups in family functioning or employment, but maintenance patients had lower severity legal problems than the patients on taper.

 Sells SB, Simpson DD (eds). The Effectiveness of Drug Abuse Treatment. Cambridge, MA: Ballinger, 1976: This was an analysis of information from DARP, the Drug Abuse Reporting Program, which followed patients entering three types of treatment from 1969 to 1972 and showed that methadone maintenance was effective at reducing illicit drug use and criminal activity. This study also demonstrated that addicts showed more improvement the longer they were in treatment. 

Strain EC, Bigelow GE, Liesbon IA, et. al. Moderate- vs high –dose methadone in the treatment of opioid dependence. A randomized trial. Journal of the American Medical Association 1999; 281: pp. 1000-1005. This study showed that methadone maintenance reduced illicit opioid use, and more of a reduction was seen with the addition of psychosocial counseling. Methadone doses of 80mg to 100mg were more effective than doses of 50mg at reducing illicit opioid use and improving treatment retention. 

Stine, Kosten; Medscape Psychiatric and Mental Health eJournal: article reminds us that though it’s clear that better outcomes for methadone patients are seen with higher doses (more than 80mg), many opioid treatment programs still underdose their patients.

 Zanis D, Woody G; One-year mortality rates following methadone treatment discharge. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 1998: vol.52 (3) 257-260. Five hundred and seven patients in a methadone maintenance program were followed for one year. In that time, 110 patients were discharged and were not in treatment anywhere. Of these patients, 8.2% were dead, mostly from heroin overdose. Of the patients retained in treatment, only 1% died. The authors conclude that even if patients enrolled in methadone maintenance treatment have a less-than-desired response to treatment, given the high death rate for heroin addicts not in treatment, these addicts should not be kicked out of the methadone clinic.

 Do these studies mean that methadone works for every opioid addict? I don’t think so. Every medication has side effects and dangers. Methadone is no different. For a variety of reasons, methadone may not work for some addicts.  But this treatment has helped many addicts. At the very least, it can keep them alive until a better treatment comes along.

Great New Book to Recommend!

by Rebecca Janes, LMHC, LADC

So there I was, cruising Amazon.com, looking for new books about opioid addiction and treatment, when I saw an intriguing title: Methadone: The Bad Boy of Drug Treatment.

I ordered it, and just finished it.

I fully recommend this book for anyone interested in learning more about methadone treatment. It’s written by Rebecca Janes, LMHC, LADC. The book’s cover says she has around fifteen years’ experience working in methadone treatment centers. She’s obviously knowledgeable about the studies supporting treatment of opioid addiction, and she’s able to summarize this knowledge succinctly. She explains complicated ideas in simple ways that make sense.

 It’s a small book, at 120 pages, and doesn’t have many references, but it covers most essential areas. The price is $12.95, and it’s published by Outskirts Press. As I said, you can buy it on Amazon, where it’s also available as a Kindle edition for only $2.99.

 The first chapter is dedicated to correcting mistaken impressions the general public has about methadone treatment, and Chapter Two corrects myths addicts often tell each other. Chapter Three describes what does not work in treatment, and Chapter Four tells what does work. Chapter Five tackles more controversial aspects, such as appropriate treatment of pain and anxiety for patients maintained on methadone.

 Patients on methadone will find this an ideal book to give to important people in their lives who nag them about getting off methadone. It’s great for parents and other relatives. It would be ideal to give to doctors with negative or judgmental attitudes, since it’s a quick read, and doctors aren’t likely to want to spend much time reading about a treatment they don’t believe in. It would be a great book to recommend to probation officers and social workers who don’t have much knowledge about methadone and its use. 

The only criticisms I have of the book are its few references, and it doesn’t cover buprenorphine at all. But then, if you want more in-depth information about opioid addiction, methadone, and buprenorphine, complete with references, you should buy my book: Pain Pill Addiction: Prescription for Hope. You can get it for $13.95 on EBay, shipping included. Or have I mentioned this before?

Top Ten Books for Methadone Counselors

I have a fair number of methadone counselors who read my blog. I’m often asked by these counselors what books I recommend, which is like asking me what kind of dessert is good. The list is so long. But here are the ones all methadone counselors should read:

  1.  Medication-assisted Treatment for Opioid Addiction in Opioid Treatment Programs, by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. This is better known as “TIP 43,” because it’s the 43rd book in the series of treatment improvement protocols published by SAMHSA. You can get any book in the series for FREE! Yes, this book and several others are free resources. The website is: http://store.samhsa.gov. While you’re there, order TIP 40: Clinical Guidelines for the Use of Buprenorphine in the Treatment of Opioid Addiction, and TIP 35: Enhancing Motivation for Change in Substance Abuse Treatment. Then browse around, and see what else interests you. This is a great website, and all addictions counselors should be very familiar with it. There’s great material for counselors and their clients.
  2.   Pain Pill Addiction: Prescription for Hope, by….me. Hey, it’s my blog, so of course I’m gonna list my book. At least I didn’t put it at number one. But seriously, I do think my book describes what opioid addiction is, why this country is having such problems with opioid addiction now, and the available treatments for this addiction. I focus on medication-assisted treatments, which means treatments with methadone or buprenorphine, better known as Suboxone. After reading my book, any substance abuse counselor should be able to talk intelligently with patients and their families about the pros and cons of medication-assisted treatment. I tried hard to base this book on available research and not my own opinions, though I do state some of my opinions in the book. My book also has summaries of the major studies done using medication-assisted treatments, so that if you need resources to prove why methadone works, you’ll have them. OK. I’m done blathering. Order it on EBay and you’ll save some money.
  3.      Motivational Interviewing by William Miller and Stephen Rollnick. This is a book all addiction counselors should have… and read. I’ve learned so much about how to interact with people as they consider if, how, and when to make changes in their lives by reading this book. The authors demonstrate how the Stages of Change model easily fits with this style of counseling. There are some solid examples of how to incorporate MI techniques.
  4.      Cognitive Therapy of Substance Abuse, by Aaron Beck et. al. This is a venerable text describing cognitive therapy as it applies to substance abuse. The book is relatively concise, but it’s still dense reading. Get out your underliner because you’ll want to find some parts to read again. The dialogues in the book that serve as examples are instructive. This book has been around for some time, as texts go, since it was published in 2001.
  5.     Narcotics Anonymous Basic Text, by Narcotics Anonymous World Service. Now in its sixth edition, this is one of the books that serve as a foundation for 12-step recovery in Narcotics Anonymous. If you are a counselor who’s in recovery, you’ve probably already read it. If you’re not, you need to get it, read it, and be able to talk intelligently about the 12-step recovery program of this 12-step group. The AA “Big Book,” which is AA’s version of a basic text, has much of the original old-time words and phrases, and speaks mostly of alcohol. For these reasons, some addicts won’t like the Big Book as well as the NA Basic Text. However, the Big Book does have a certain poetry that will appeal to others. (….trudge the road of happy destiny…) You can order it at http://na.org or go to that site and download it as a pdf.
  6.  The Treatment of Opioid Dependence, by Eric Strain and Maxine Stitzer. Written in 2005, this is an update to a similar title written in the 1990’s. This book reviews the core studies underpinning our current treatment recommendations for patients in medication-assisted treatment of opioid addiction. I don’t know why more people haven’t read this book, because it’s relatively easy to understand. Don’t make the mistake of assuming it will be too advanced for you. Get it and read it.
  7. Addiction and Change: How Addictions Develop and Addicted People Recover, by Carlo DiClemente. This book describes the paths people follow as they become addicted and as they recover. It’s focused on the transtheoretical model of the stages of change, so named because it can be used with many counseling theories. I think this is a practical book, and easier to understand than some texts.
  8.  Diagnosis Made Easier: Principles and Techniques for Mental Health Technicians, by James Morrison M.D. This is an improvement of his earlier book, DMS IV Made Easy, written in 1992. At any work site, addictions counselors will have to be familiar with the criteria used to diagnose mental illnesses. Since around 30 – 50% of addicts have another co-occurring mental illness, you need to be familiar with the criteria used to diagnose not just addiction, but these other illnesses as well. And this book makes learning relatively painless. It’s practical and easy to read, and based on common sense. It contains many case examples, which keep it interesting.
  9. The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control, by David Musto. This book has been updated and is on its third edition, but so much has happened since this last edition in 1999 that the author needs to write an update. This is an interesting book, and it moves fairly quickly. This information puts our present opioid problem into the context of the last century or so. As an alternative, you can read Dark Paradise: A History of Opiate Addiction in America, by David Courtwright in 2001. I included this book, but be warned it’s heavier reading. This author is an historian, so maybe his writing style didn’t resonate with me as much. Still, he has much good information. You can’t go wrong with either book. You could also read The Fix by Michael Massing, which is another book about the history of addiction and its treatment in the U.S… This last book doesn’t focus on just opioid addiction, but still gives all the pertinent history. This book is written by a journalist and will keep your interest. It was written in 2000.
  10.  Hooked: Five Addicts Challenge Our Misguided Drug Rehab System, by Lonnie Shavelson. This book, written by a journalist, follows five addicts through the labyrinth of addiction treatment. You’ll see the idiotic obstructions addicts seeking help are asked to negotiate in our present healthcare system. I was angry as I read the book, seeing obvious simple solutions that couldn’t be enacted for one administrative reason or another. Let this book make you angry enough to demand change from our system. Be an advocate for addicts seeking treatment.

 Have I left out any? Let me know which book have helped you be a better counselor or therapist.

Description of Methadone Patients

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.