Archive for the ‘methadone’ Category

The MOTHER trial – New Information about Buprenorphine and Methadone in Pregnancy

 The long-awaited MOTHER trial is done, and the data just published. (1) MOTHER (Maternal Opioid Treatment: Human Experimental Research) was one of the first studies to follow pregnant opioid-addicts during pregnancy and up to 28 days after they delivered their babies.

 The purpose of the study was to compare the use of buprenorphine during pregnancy with the use of methadone. For the past forty years, methadone has been the treatment of choice for opioid-addicted pregnant women. This is because it prevents withdrawal in the mother and fetus. With short-acting, illicit opioids like heroin or OxyContin without the time release coating, the mother and baby get high peaks of opioid followed by periods of withdrawal.

 Healthy adults get very sick while in withdrawal, but they usually don’t die. However, the developing fetus can die during opioid withdrawal, and miscarriage or preterm labor are more likely to occur. Methadone, since it’s a long-acting opioid, can keep both mother and baby out of withdrawal for twenty-four hours, when properly dosed. Compared with opioid-addicted mothers left untreated, or treated with non-opioid means, methadone-maintained mothers have fewer complications, better prenatal care, and higher birth weight babies.

 Now for the bad part: about half of the infants born to moms maintained on methadone have opioid withdrawal symptoms. No one wants to see a newborn having symptoms of opioid withdrawal. And yet, it’s still better than the alternatives.

 But now, it appears that the use of buprenorphine during pregnancy gives as much benefit as methadone, but less severe withdrawal in the newborns. The percentage of babies with opioid withdrawal was similar in the methadone and buprenorphine groups, but the severity and duration of the babies’ withdrawal were markedly less.

 If a woman addicted to heroin or pain medications discovers she’s pregnant, her best choice is to get into treatment with buprenorphine. But if that’s not available, methadone is still better than other alternatives.

 1. “Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome after Methadone or Buprenorphine Exposure,” by Hendree Jones, Karol Kaltenbach, et. al., New England Journal of Medicine, December 9, 2010, 363;24: pages 2320-2331.

Tennessee, the State of Malignant Denial

 

For the last ten years, local officials in the small towns of Eastern Tennessee have been denying the presence of opioid addiction in their midst. Ironically, as the map shows, Eastern Tennessee has one of the very highest rates of opioid addiction in all of the U.S.

National Survey of Drug Use and Health

   

Over the last ten years, various treatment centers, wanting to treat these addicts with methadone and/or buprenorphine programs, have tried to open in this area. In a show of NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard), town officials vote for zoning changes meant to make it essentially impossible to get approval to open such clinics. Tennessee officials say it will bring drug addicts to the area.

From the Kingsport, Tennessee Times-News, 3/18/09,

“The Church Hill Board of Mayor and Aldermen unanimously approved the first reading Tuesday of an ordinance which, in essence, makes it almost impossible for a methadone clinic to locate within the city limits.

Earlier this month, the Planning Commission recommended the ordinance, which restricts methadone clinics and drug treatment facilities to areas of the city that are zoned M-1 (manufacturing). Without the ordinance, methadone clinics and drug treatment facilities would be permitted in any area of the city zoned to allow medical uses.”

“I think we’re all in the consensus that we don’t want it anywhere,” the alderman said (name deleted).

Similar laws have been passed in Johnson City, Tennessee.

So what happens to untreated pain pill addicts?

There aren’t any studies following pain pill addicts long-term, but we do have studies of heroin addicts.

They die.

Methadone maintenance has been shown to reduce death rates by factors ranging from three fold to sixty-three fold. (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)

In one study, heroin addicts enrolled in methadone treatment were one-quarter as likely to die by heroin overdose or suicide as were heroin addicts not in methadone treatment. This study followed 296 heroin addicts for more than 15 years. In another study, a group of heroin addicts were followed over twenty years. One-third died within that time. Of the survivors, 48% were enrolled in a methadone program for treatment. The authors of the study concluded that heroin addiction is a chronic disease with a high fatality rate, and that methadone maintenance offered a significant benefit.

We suspect, but don’t know for sure, that pain pill addicts will have similar rates of death, since both groups are addicted to opioids. Studies are being done now, following pain pill addicts to see if their outcome will be similar to heroin addicts.

The young addicts of Eastern Tennessee are paying a heavy price for the denial of local officials.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3.  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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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).
  6. 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.

The Narcotic Farm: A Bit of History

We don’t have to keep re-inventing the wheel.

We can investigate the success rates of addiction treatment methods used over the past century, see what worked, and what didn’t work. We can use programs of proven benefit or we can continue to spend money on programs repeatedly shown to have little benefit.

From 1935 until 1962, drug addicts were treated at a unique facility, part jail and part treatment hospital. Initially named the United States Narcotic Farm, it was later changed to the U.S. Public Health Service Narcotics Hospital. Even after this name change, most people still called it the Narcotic Farm.

This facility was located on twelve acres of Kentucky farmland. The facility was created by the Public Health Service and the Bureau of Prisons, meant to serve a dual purpose. It was a treatment hospital, where drug addicts could voluntarily be admitted for treatment of their addiction, and it was also a federal prison, where drug offenders were sent to serve their sentences. About two thirds of the inpatients were prisoners and the other third were addicts, voluntarily seeking help for opioid addiction. Both types of patients were treated side by side. For over forty years, it was the main drug addiction treatment center in the United States, along with a similar facility in Ft. Worth, Texas, which opened in 1937.

            The Narcotic Farm was a massive institution for its time. It had fifteen-hundred beds, and housed tens of thousands of patients over its forty years of operation. It was located in a rural area of Kentucky, which gave it space for numerous operations to engage the prisoners – now called patients – in all types of job training. (1)

             The Narcotic Farm really was a farm. Besides growing many types of vegetables, there was a working dairy, and livestock including pigs and chickens. These operations provided food for the patients and staff of the facility and provided work for the patients. The patients provided the labor to keep the farm going and it was hoped they would simultaneously learn useful trades. In addition to farming, they learned skills in sewing, auto repair, carpentry, and other trades. Besides teaching new job skills, it was hoped that fresh air, sunshine, and wholesome work would be beneficial to the addicts. (1)

            For its time, the Narcotic Farm was surprisingly progressive in its willingness to try multiple new treatments. For the forty years it operated, many different treatments were tried for opioid addicts. It offered individual and group talk therapies, job training, psychiatric analysis, treatment for physical medical issues, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, art therapy, shock therapy, music therapy, and even hydrotherapy, with flow baths to soothe the nerves. Despite these options, the Farm apparently retained many of the characteristics of a prison, with barred windows and strict security procedures. (1)

             The Narcotic Farm had its own research division, the Addiction Research Center (ARC), which became the forerunner of today’s National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). The Narcotic Farm did pioneering work, using methadone to assist patients through withdrawal, and helped establish the doses used to treat opioid addiction. Methadone was used only short term, for the management of withdrawal symptoms, and not for maintenance dosing at the Narcotic Farm. The Farm also trained a dedicated group of doctors and nurses, who were pioneers in the field of addiction treatment. It provided new information on the nature of addiction.

             Admission to the Narcotic Farm allowed an opioid addict some time to go through opioid withdrawal, eat regular meals, work in one of the farm’s many industries, and have some form of counseling. However, after leaving the hospital, the addicts were entirely released from care and supervision, with no assistance to help re-enter their communities. Most times, they returned to their same living situation and old circumstances encouraged relapse back to drug use and addiction. As a result, two follow up studies of the addicts treated at the Narcotic Farm showed a ninety-three percent and ninety-seven percent relapse rate within six months, with most of the relapses occurring almost immediately upon returning home. Many addicts cycled through the Public Health Hospital multiple times. (1)       

            The Narcotic Farm was eventually turned over to the Bureau of Prisons in 1974, as the treatment for addiction was de-centralized. Since the studies found high relapse rates for addicts returning to their previous communities, it was hoped by moving treatment centers into communities, these addicts could have ongoing support after they left inpatient treatment.

  1. Nancy P. Campbell, The Narcotic Farm: The rise and fall of America’s first prison for drug addicts, (New York, Abrams, 2008)

 

This is an excerpt from my new book, “Pain Pill Addiction: Prescription for Hope.” 

Available at http://prescriptionforhope.com

 and on Amazon and Ebay

and many bookstores

Interview with a Methadone Counselor

I met a skilled drug addiction counselor, previously addicted to heroin, who became abstinent from all drugs, by going to meetings of Narcotics Anonymous. She had been a patient of methadone clinics off and on for many years, prior to getting clean. I met her after she had more than ten years of completely abstinent recovery, yet she happily works at a methadone clinic, helping opioid addicts. I interviewed her because of her personal experience and her striking open-mindedness to different approaches to the treatment of addiction. Here is what she had to say about her experiences with methadone, and her perspective:

JB: Can you please tell me your personal experience of opioid addiction?
RJ: Well, my personal experience began at the age of…probably eighteen….and I was introduced by some people I was hanging out with. I was basically very ignorant about those kinds of things. I wasn’t aware of that kind of stuff going on, ‘cause I was raised in this real small town and just didn’t know this kind of stuff happened.
My first experience was with a Dilaudid. Somebody said we had to go somewhere else to do it, and I really didn’t understand that, because I certainly didn’t know that it would be injected. That was my first experience with a narcotic, with opiates, and….I fell in love!
I loved it. I injected it, and the feeling was…..like none I had ever felt. And even though I did get sick, I thought it was what I was looking for. It was the best feeling in the world.
Obviously, they didn’t tell me about getting sick, [meaning opioid withdrawal] and that after doing it for some days consecutively, when you didn’t have any, you’d get sick. I never will forget the first time I was sick from not having any.
And that lead to a habit that lasted twenty-some years. My experience and my path led me down many roads… with addiction, going back and forth to prison, because I obviously didn’t make enough money to purchase these drugs that I needed to have in my body, to keep from being sick. This lasted for twenty four years. I ended up doing heroin and I liked it, because it tended to be stronger. Morphine I liked a lot, but it wasn’t easily accessible, so I switched over to heroin at some point. Which I liked a lot.
JB: What role did methadone play in your recovery?
RJ: I’ve been in numerous methadone clinics. I typically would get on methadone when I got a charge [meaning legal problems] and I wanted to call myself being in treatment. I never ever got on methadone with any expectations, hopes, or thoughts of changing my life. I got on because it kept me from being sick. And it kept me off the street for a period of time. If I had a charge, I was in treatment and I always thought that would help me in my journeys with the legal systems. That was the part methadone played in my life, it was just to help me get through it.
JB: Did it help you?
RJ: At the time, it did. My problem with methadone was, when I would get on methadone, I would tend to do cocaine, because I could feel the cocaine, and I wasn’t about changing anything. I just wanted temporary fixes in my life. I’d switch to cocaine while I was on methadone. And it [methadone] worked for a time. I never got any take homes, because I continued to test positive for other substances while I was on methadone, but I thought I was doing better, ‘cause I was not doing narcotics. In that aspect it did help.
JB: And you’ve been in recovery from addiction now for how long?
RJ: It will be fifteen years in June.
JB: Wonderful!
KS: Yes, it is wonderful.
JB: And tell me where you work now.
RJ: I work at a methadone treatment facility.
JB: How long have you been working there?
RJ: I’ve been there for almost fourteen years and in this [satellite] clinic for a little over two years, and I’ve been in methadone [as a counselor] for five years.
JB: How do you feel about methadone and what role it should play in the treatment of opioid addiction?
RJ: I believe in methadone. Our [her clinic’s] philosophy certainly is not harm reduction but I believe that’s what it’s about. And I do believe that those people on methadone, and are doing well, have a home, have a life, I think that’s all they aspire to. For them that’s enough, you know, they’re not out ripping and running the roads, they’re not looking for drugs on a daily basis. They come and get their methadone, they go to work, they have a life, they have a family, they have a home, and for them that’s good enough.
JB: Do you think it keeps them from getting completely clean [I purposely chose to use her language to differentiate being in recovery on methadone from being in recovery and completely off all opioids]?
RJ: No. I think they know they have a choice.
JB: OK
RJ: I really believe that a lot of them don’t think that they can ever do anything differently, and I know from personal experience that can be very true. I think that you just get so bogged down in your disease that you don’t see any way out. I think if you can find a place where you can get something legally and you’re not using the street drugs, and you’re not out copping [buying drugs] and you’re working and basically having a life, then that becomes OK, and that becomes good enough.
And addicts by nature are scared of change, and they get in that role and they get comfortable and that’s good enough for them. So I don’t believe they think that they can do any better.
JB: What percentages of your patients have already used street methadone by the time they get to the clinic?
RJ: I’d say seventy-five percent. Very rarely do I do an assessment [on a new patient] that somebody hasn’t already used methadone on the street. Very rarely.
JB: What are your biggest challenges where you work?
RJ: Actually my biggest challenges where I work are internal challenges. Fighting that uphill battle of no consequences for clients. There’s no consequences. We allow them to do basically what they want to do. [She is speaking of her methadone clinic’s style of interaction with patients].
JB: Do you think patients did better when there were a few consequences?
RJ: Oh yeah. Yeah. I mean, when certain clients can continue to have the same behaviors, like use benzos [meaning benzodiazepines like Valium and Xanax] and there are no consequences, certainly they are going to continue doing those behaviors. And those are the things that are challenges now, for us, for me.
I can’t enforce any consequences because we’re not allowed to, because it’s called punishment. The powers that be, they see it as punishment, where I work. Being that I come from living a life of doing the wrong thing always, I’m a big believer in consequences. And I believe that if you don’t have any, you continue to do those things. That’s the kind of stuff, the inadequacies where I work at.
JB: What do you like most about your job?
RJ: (pause) The light…. in somebody’s eyes every now and again. It might not happen much, but now and again the light comes on, and you have that “ah ha” moment. They have it, and you’re like, yes! Or when somebody comes and tells you they have that little spark of hope. Yep. That’s what I like most about my job.
JB: If you could make changes in how opioid addiction is treated, what would you do? If you could tell the people who make the drug laws, what would you recommend? How would you change the system, or would you?
RJ: I don’t know that I would change the system. I think the system works. I think it’s individual facilities that don’t work sometimes. Yeah. I think – methadone’s been around a long time – I mean, obviously it’s worked for a lot of years or it wouldn’t still be in existence. I think methadone maintenance programs work, but each individual facility maybe needs to make changes. You know, that’s just my opinion.
JB: If you were the boss of a methadone treatment center, how would you handle benzodiazepine use by patients?
RJ: They wouldn’t be tolerated. At all.
JB: Why is that?
RJ: Because I think they kill people. I know they kill people.
JB: How about alcohol?
RJ: Alcohol wouldn’t be tolerated either. I mean, obviously you would be given a chance to straighten it and rectify it and clean it up, with help, if you need it. But that would be it. You would get that opportunity and then [if the patient couldn’t stop using alcohol] you would be detoxed from that program. I believe that’s the route to go. We’ve had too many deaths. And there’s nothing to say that it’s not going to continue to happen…so, yeah, if I had a facility it would not be tolerated. There would be zero tolerance, period. There just wouldn’t be any.
JB: What do you say to people that say that’s keeping people out of treatment?
RJ: There are other types of treatment; maybe you need a different level of care. Maybe methadone’s not the answer.
JB: So you don’t think methadone’s the answer for every opioid addict?
RJ: No. No I don’t.
JB: What do you think about people on methadone coming to Narcotics Anonymous?
RJ: I think they have a right to come to Narcotics Anonymous.
JB: Do you think they should share?
RJ: I wish they could share, but I know, there again from personal experience, how methadone is viewed by people in Narcotics Anonymous. And I think that if that person does share [that they are on methadone], they are treated differently.
JB: Do you tell your patients to go to NA?
RJ: I do.
JB: What do you tell them about picking up chips?
RJ: That’s their personal call, because I feel like it is. But then I don’t view methadone as using. See, I look at it as treatment, and somebody taking medication because they’re sick, and trying to get better. So I don’t view that as getting up and doing dope. Therefore if I were on methadone and going to meetings, I’d pick up chips.
JB: Can you think of anything else [you’d like to say]?
RJ: I believe in methadone. I really do. I just believe that it works. I know people who have been on our program for twenty years, and granted, those people will never get off methadone, but they have a life today. And twenty years ago they didn’t have one. They’re not perfect but I’m not either, you know, just ‘cause I don’t use dope any more. But they’re still suffering addicts, just like I am. So I just believe that methadone works, and if you want to make changes in your life, that there are people at every facility who are willing to help you make those changes.

Treatment professionals can also make the mistake of dismissing non-medication treatment of opioid addiction as ineffective, when clearly this is not true. Though treatment with methadone and buprenorphine can provide enormous benefit, so can the other medication-free forms of treatment. And as we have seen, methadone can cause great harm when used inappropriately, and some opioid addicts don’t do well on methadone.
There’s no one best treatment path for every addict. Every evidence-based treatment helps some addicts.

Which is better, Suboxone or methadone?

 

Patients often ask which medication is better to treat opioid addiction: methadone or Suboxone? My answer is…it depends.

 First of all, the active drug in Suboxone is buprenorphine, and I’ll refer to the drug by its generic name, since a generic has entered the market. We’re no longer just talking about one name brand.

 The principle behind both methadone and buprenorphine is the same: both are long-acting opioids, meaning they can be dosed once per day. At the proper dose, both medications will keep an opioid addict out of withdrawal for 24 hours or more. This means instead of having to find pain pills or heroin to swallow, snort, or shoot three or four times per day, the addict only has to take one dose of medication. Addicts can get back to a normal lifestyle relatively quickly on either of these medications. Both methadone and buprenorphine are approved by the FDA for the treatment of opioid addiction, and are the only opioids approved for this purpose.

Buprenorphine is safer then methadone, since it’s only a partial opioid. A partial opioid attaches to the opioid receptors in the brain, but only partially activates them. In contrast, methadone attaches to opioid receptors and fully stimulates them, making it a stronger opioid. Because buprenorphine is a partial opioid, it has a ceiling on its opioid effects. Once the dose is raised to around 24mg, more of the medication won’t have any additional effect, due to this ceiling. But with methadone, the full opioid, the higher the dose, the more opioid effect.

 Because buprenorphine is a safer medication, the government allows it to be prescribed in doctors’ offices, but only if the doctor has taken a special training course in opioid addiction and how to prescribe buprenorphine, or can demonstrate experience with the drug. This office-based treatment of addiction has a huge advantage over treatment at a traditional methadone clinic. Treatment in a doctor’s office doesn’t have to follow the strict governmental regulations that a methadone clinic must follow. Methadone clinics have federal, state, and even local regulations they must follow, and patients have to come to the clinic every day for dosing, until a period of months, when take home doses can be started for weekends.

 The law allowing buprenorphine to be prescribed for opioid addicts from offices instead of clinics was passed in 2000. It was hoped that relatively stable opioid addicts would get treatment at doctors’ offices, and addicts with higher severity of addiction would still be treated at methadone clinics.

 But it hasn’t worked out quite like that. Because buprenorphine is relatively much more expensive than methadone, addicts with insurance or money go to buprenorphine doctors’ offices, and poor addicts without insurance go to methadone clinics. Rather than form of treatment being decided by severity of disease, it’s decided by economic circumstance. This means that some of the opioid addicts being treated through doctors’ offices really aren’t that stable, and have been selling their medication, making it a desirable black market drug. Most of the addicts buying illicit buprenorphine have been trying to avoid withdrawal or trying the drug before paying the expense of starting it.

 Treating opioid addicts for the last nine years, I’m continually surprised at how people’s physical reactions to replacement medications are dissimilar. Some patients don’t feel well on buprenorphine, but feel normal on methadone. For other patients, it’s just the opposite. For many, either medication works well.

 Addicts (and their doctors) tend to assume that all opioid addicts will be the same in their physical reactions to these replacement medications, but they aren’t. For example, last week I saw a lady who insisted she’s never had physical withdrawal symptoms from methadone. But most patients find methadone withdrawal to be the worst of all opioids.

 And sometimes I have a patient I expect will do very well on buprenorphine, but they don’t. they feel lousy.

 So the answer to question of which medication is best – buprenorphine is safer, and not as strong an opioid, so it’s the preferred medication. It’s also more convenient, but much more expensive at present. But a great deal depends on the patient, and how she reacts to medications.

 Neither medication is meant to be the only treatment for opioid addiction. Best results are seen when these medications are used along with counseling, to help the addict make necessary life changes.

Methadone Clinics Behaving Badly

Not all methadone clinics are equal. We know what qualities are associated with the best outcomes, and hopefully every clinic is trying to improve.

First, many clinics should be called “opioid treatment centers,” because they offer more than methadone; they also prescribe and dispense buprenorphine. In the future, buprenorphine will likely be the first line treatment for opioid addiction replacement medication, with methadone saved for people who don’t do well on buprenorphine, usually because it’s not strong enough. In the very near future, buprenorphine may replace methadone as the treatment of choice for opioid-addicted pregnant patients.

Besides the ability to offer buprenorphine, the best clinics have well-trained staff with low turnover. This seems obvious. It’s difficult for a patient to participate in counseling with enthusiasm when they’ve had three different counselors within four months. Sadly, this is an area of counseling that has difficulty retaining counselors.

 And while we always need to be open to learn from our patients, a counselor should already know the basics about opioid addiction and its treatment with replacement medications before he sees the first patient. I’ve heard the occasional counselor voice doubts about the benefits of replacement medications. If the counselor can’t wholeheartedly support their patients, they need to go back and read the basic research, or move on to a different field. An ambivalent and uninformed counselor can taint the treatment milieu at an otherwise good clinic.

Doctors prescribing the methadone or buprenorphine should be willing to give adequate doses. Clinics who were stingy with dosing had worse patient outcomes in many studies. In the past, clinics were reluctant to dose above 60 or 70mg, but we know now that patients do better at adequate doses, and there’s a wide variation between patients as to what’s an adequate dose. Most patients stabilize on between 80 to 120mg, but some need much more and some need much less. Cookie cutter dosing isn’t best practice.

Counselors shouldn’t have overwhelming caseloads. The regulations say each counselor should have no more than 50 patients, but even that’s too many with the growing documentation requirements.

Clinics shouldn’t let a few patients, not doing well and causing chaos in the community, to remain in the clinic, dosing daily with methadone or buprenorphine. The reputation of opioid treatment centers is too important and too fragile. In many communities, laws have been passed to limit the number and type of drug addiction treatment centers, because of the community’s perception that the patients will create havoc locally. In reality, very few patients behave like this, but the ones that do create the illusion that all patients will drive while impaired, or shoplift at local stores. Some patients are too sick or too unwilling to do well at an opioid treatment center. These centers owe it to their other patients and their community to refer patients doing poorly to other options.

Now for the number one most important factor that determines how well a patient will do while in treatment at an opioid treatment center…a warm and empathetic relationship with treatment center staff. This means all staff, not just their counselor. It includes the nurses and doctors and clerical staff.

It appears that behavioral change with addiction is more likely to occur when the people trying to help are caring and compassionate.

What an epiphany of the obvious.

Buprenorphine, Part 2

Changing a patient’s medication from methadone to buprenorphine is trickier than from other opioids, because of methadone’s long duration of action. Patients need to stop the methadone at least seventy-two hours before starting buprenorphine. Since methadone is also a much stronger opioid, the patient should be stable on methadone forty milligrams per day or less. Otherwise, dropping from a higher dose of methadone to buprenorhpine often leaves the patient with feelings of low-grade withdrawal for the first few weeks of buprenorphine.

I’ve had a few strongly motivated patients make the switch from higher doses of methadone than I would recommend, to buprenorphine. One patient was dosing at 70mg of methadone, stopped it for about five days, and then started buprenorphine. He didn’t have a very pleasant first week. I worried it would be too difficult, but he did it. By two weeks he felt pretty good, and he’s done great for the last three years, on a relatively low dose of buprenorphine. Because he also has chronic back pain, he’s decided to stay on buprenorphine as the best solution to both his chronic pain and opioid addiction.

Because buprenorphine is a partial opioid agonist, there’s a ceiling on its effects. This is why it’s now permitted to be prescribed through a doctor’s office, without all the regulations that methadone clinics have. After the buprenorphine dose reaches twenty-four (some say thirty-two) milligrams per day, further increases in the dose have no additional effects. This makes the drug much more resistant to overdoses. However, if mixed with sedatives like benzodiazepines (Xanax, Valium) or alcohol, it can still be fatal.

 Most patients say they “just feel normal,” after taking buprenorphine. When the drug works, many patients have returned to my office on the second visit saying, “It’s a miracle!” They say they feel just like they did before they got addicted. They don’t think about pain pills, don’t feel withdrawal, and don’t feel like they’re medicated. Patients who have been on both methadone and buprenorphine say the methadone is heavier, and they feel medicated, but on buprenorphine they feel lighter.

A dose of buprenorphine can stimulate opioid receptors anywhere from twenty-four to sixty hours, so some patients feel stable when they dose only every other day, though I think overall best results are seen with stable daily dosing. There is no impairment of thought processes or motor function in patients on a stable dose of buprenorphine. These patients can drive, work, and play with no limitations.

I try to temper patients from being overly enthusiastic about buprenorphine. Sometimes patients feel so good on this medication, they don’t realize how much psychological work needs to be done before they can taper and stay off of buprenorphine. Patients feel so good, they minimize their addiction, and are reluctant to get the counseling they need. One of my doctor friends says that the drug’s main problem is that it works so well.

Buprenorphine is ideal for patients with opioid addiction who have lower tolerances, who have relatively stable lives, or who have been using for shorter lengths of time. Buprenorphine is a better drug than methadone for patients who have been addicted less than one year, because methadone is more difficult to stop, once it’s started, for most patients.

 Buprenorphine has the same side effects as other opioids: constipation, sweating, decreased libido (sex drive), and possible weight gain. Usually, these side effects are much less pronounced in patients taking buprenorphine than in patients taking methadone. Unlike methadone, there is no increased risk for fatal heart rhythms, because it doesn’t affect the QT interval. Most patients do complain about the bad taste of the sublingual tablets.

 Buprenorphine doesn’t seem to cause lasting damage to the body, even if it’s continued indefinitely, though elevated liver function tests can be seen in some patients. Liver function blood tests should be checked periodically in patients who are infected with hepatitis C or B.

Buprenorphine can be fatal if taken by children. It can also be fatal in adolescents or adults not accustomed to opioids. Patients should always store their medication safely out of reach, and with a child proof cap. Since buprenorphine is absorbed through the oral mucosa, if a child puts a tablet in his mouth, some can be absorbed, even if the pill is retrieved fairly quickly. Any handling of a Suboxone pill by a child should be viewed as a possible overdose, and the child must be taken to the hospital emergency room immediately.

Why do people snort buprenorphine? I don’t know. I don’t think there’s any difference in the rate of absorption. If anything, buprenorphine probably crosses the thin mucus membranes of the mouth much more quickly than the thicker skin of the nasal mucosa. I suspect people who snort Suboxone and generic buprenorphine are actually more addicted to the act of snorting, rather than getting any true pharmacologic benefit (“high”) from snorting. That’s on my list of things to ask the Suboxone rep to find out for me. Anyone reading this have ideas about why people snort Suboxone?

Prescription Monitoring Programs

Most states now have electronic databases containing patient information, available to physicians, of all prescribed controlled substances, the date they were picked up at the pharmacy, and the prescribing physicians. The federal government has strongly encouraged states to form these databases to prevent patients from “doctor shopping.” The idea is that every physician will check this database before writing prescriptions for pain pills or other controlled substances, to make sure the patient in question isn’t getting pain pills from another doctor.

These programs have been incredibly helpful to me, since I treat people with addiction. Many of the patients are addicted to prescription pain pills. If a patient gets prescription opioids while I am treating them with methadone or buprenorhpine, my first step is usually to talk with them about what’s happening. If the patient is willing to give me permission to talk with the other doctor, and stop getting other opioids, the patient can usually stay in treatment with me. But if this happens more than once, I may decide it’s no longer appropriate to prescribe methadone or buprenorphine.

I’ve had some patients say that they don’t think it’s any of my business what their other prescriptions are. But I tell them that it’s only my business because they have asked me to prescribe medication to treat their addiction.

Most patients don’t fill any prescriptions without letting me know what they’re getting, but there are always a few patients who have mixed feelings about stopping their prescription opioids. Some patients are concerned that if I talk with their other doctor, they won’t be able to get more opioids from that doctor. I tell them that’s actually what I’m hoping for. It’s important to burn the bridges back to active addiction.

For now, state databases don’t connect with each other. Soon, a national prescription monitoring database may be accessible to physicians so that only one sources needs to be consulted, rather than multiple databases, for doctors who live near state borders.

I know the North Carolina prescription monitoring database has saved lives. Many people worry about their privacy with such a system, and I agree it’s a real concern, but hopefully the databases have adequate security systems to minimize risk.

What do Methadone Peak and Trough levels Mean?

 

In patients prescribed methadone to treat opioid addiction, the blood level of methadone peaks at around three hours after dosing. The methadone level is at its lowest at twenty-four hours after the last dose, just before the patient is due for their next dose of daily methadone. We can draw blood at the time of lowest methadone level, called a trough level, just before the next dose is due. Then we can draw blood at the time of the highest concentration of methadone in the blood, called a peak level, at about three hours after the last dose. These numbers provide some information about the adequacy of the patient’s dose, though they’re far from definitive.

Usually, patients need to have a trough blood level higher than 200 – 400 ngm/ml to stay out of withdrawal at the end of a dosing cycle. Some patients need higher levels. And a peak level that is more than two times the trough level indicates that the patient is metabolizing methadone quickly, and may need to increase the dose or consider split dosing.

But the blood levels are only one piece of the pie that determines dosing. Dosing decisions are based on the patient’s symptoms, observable physical signs, urine drug screens, the patient’s other medical problems, and other prescription medications. Doctors are usually able to make dosing decisions based on these factors, without having to get blood peak and trough levels. But when the clinical picture doesn’t match with what the patient is saying, blood levels can help.

For example, if a patient dosing each day at one hundred and twenty milligrams says he feels fatigue and sweats starting ten hours after his dose, but he looks great in the mornings before he doses, a trough level can be drawn. If his trough level is adequate, he may be misinterpreting his physical symptoms. For example, he could have fatigue and sweating from a newly acquired hepatitis C infection.

Patients on replacement medications like methadone or buprenorphine – and their doctors – often forget that non-addiction related factors also affect the way patients feel. Pregnancy often causes physical symptoms that feel a bit like opioid withdrawal. Doctors working with patients on replacement medications need to remember to look at the patient as a whole, not just at the disease of addiction.

Urine Drug Screens for methadone and Suboxone (buprenorphine)

Many patients who are prescribed methadone or buprenorphine (better known to some as Suboxone) are concerned about their employment drug screens. Because of the stigma attached to opioid addiction and its treatment with methadone or buprenorphine, patients don’t want their employers to know about these medications, and thus about their history of addiction.

Most companies who do urine drug screening hire a Medical Review Officer (MRO), who is a doctor specifically trained to interpret drug screen results. This doctor is a middle man between the employer and the employee, and though this doctor may ask for medical information, and information about valid prescriptions, this doctor usually can’t tell the employer this personal information. The MRO reports the screen as positive or negative, depending on information given to her.

Most employment urine drug screens check for opiates, meaning naturally-occurring substances from the opium poppy, like codeine and morphine. Man-made opioids like methadone, buprenorphine, and fentanyl, to name a few, won’t show as opiates on these drug screens.

A few employers do drug screening that specifically checks for hydrocodone or oxycodone. This is infrequent. It’s rare for employers to screen for methadone, and they almost never screen for buprenorphine, unless the patient is a healthcare professional being monitored by a licensing agency. The screen for buprenorphine is pricey, so the only doctors who tend to screen for it regularly are the ones prescribing buprenorphine. These doctors want to make sure their patients are taking, not selling, their medication.

Patients ask if they should tell their employer they are on methadone or buprenorphine. In general, that’s probably a bad idea, unless it’s a special situation. So long as you can do your job safely, your medical problems aren’t any of your boss’s business.

The only exceptions to this are if you work in a “safety sensitive” job. This includes medical professionals, transit workers, pilots, and the like. These jobs may require disclosure of medical issues to protect public safety. For example, to get a commercial driver’s license (CDL), you have to be free from illnesses which may cause a sudden loss of consciousness behind the wheel.

The Dept. of Transportation still says that if you are taking methadone for the treatment of addiction, you can’t be granted a CDL. However, most of the studies done on methadone-maintained patients shows their reflexes are the same as a person not on methadone, so there’s no real scientific reason for the DOT’s decision. (1, 3, 4) Besides, since the urine drug screen for a driver’s physical doesn’t include methadone, they won’t know unless you tell them.

Patients can be impaired, and unable to drive safely, if they have just started on methadone, haven’t become accustomed to it, or are on too high a dose. These patients shouldn’t be behind the wheel until they are stable, even in a car, let alone an 18-wheeler. Methadone patients are likely be impaired and unable to drive if they abuse benzodiazepines. They shouldn’t drive any kind of vehicle. Ditto for alcohol. (2, 5)

1. Baewert A, Gombas W, Schindler S, et.al., Influence of peak and trough levels of opioid maintenance therapy on driving aptitude, European Addiction Research 2007, 13(3),127-135. This study shows that methadone patients aren’t impaired at either peak or trough levels of methadone.

2. Bernard JP, Morland J et. al. Methadone and impairment in apprehended drivers. Addiction 2009; 104(3) 457-464. This is a study of 635 people who were apprehended for impaired driving who were found to have methadone in their system. Of the 635, only 10 had only methadone in their system. The degree of impairment didn’t correlate with methadone blood levels. Most people on methadone who had impaired driving were using more than just methadone.

3.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.

4.Dittert S, Naber D, Soyka M., Methadone substitution and ability to drive. Results of an experimental study. Nervenartz 1999; 70: 457-462. Patients on methadone substitution therapy did not show impaired driving ability.

5.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.