Archive for the ‘Opioid Addiction’ Category

The Pain Management Movement

 In the late 1990’s, organizations like the American Pain Society and the American Academy of Pain Management declared that doctors in the U.S. were doing a lousy job of treating pain, and were under-prescribing opioid pain medications, due to a misguided fear of causing addiction. As a result, there was a national push to treat pain more aggressively. Some states even passed pain initiatives, mandating treatment for pain. Lawsuits were brought against doctors who didn’t adequately treat pain. The Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JACHO), the organization that inspects hospitals to assess their quality of care, made the patient’s level of pain the “fifth vital sign,” after body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, and respiratory rate. Pain management specialists encouraged more liberal prescribing of pain medication. These experts told their primary care colleagues that the chance of developing addiction from opioids prescribed for pain was about one percent.

With these limited facts, the pain management movement was off and running. Many pain management specialists, some of whom were paid speakers for the drug companies that manufactured powerful opioid pain medications, spoke at seminars about the relative safety of opioids, used long term for chronic pain. Pain management specialists taught these views to small town family practice and general medicine doctors, who were relatively inexperienced in the treatment of either pain or addiction.

The problem was…the specialists were wrong.

These specialists, in their well-intentioned enthusiasm to relieve suffering, used flawed data when reciting the risk for addiction. The one percent figure came from a study looking at patients treated in the hospital for acute pain, which is quite different from treating outpatients with chronic non cancer pain. (1) In other words, they compared apples to oranges.

To many addiction specialists, an addiction risk of only one percent seemed improbable, since the general population has an addiction risk estimated from six to twelve percent. Surely, being prescribed pain pills would not lessen the risk for addiction. Yet the one percent figure was often cited by many pain management professionals, as well as by the representatives of the drug companies selling strong opioids. 

Some pain management specialists even took a scolding tone when they spoke of some primary care physicians’ reluctance to prescribe strong opioids. They often muddied the waters, and grouped patients with cancer pain, acute pain, and chronic non-cancer pain together, and spoke of them as one group. This can feel insulting to doctors who, though reluctant to prescribe opioids endlessly for a patient with chronic non cancer pain, are adamant about treating end-of-life cancer pain aggressively with opioids. No compassionate physician limits opioids for patients with cancer pain or with acute, short term pain. However, chronic non-cancer pain is different, with different outcomes than acute pain or cancer pain.

 We didn’t learn from history, or we would have learned that when many people have access to opioids, many will develop addiction.  We are scientifically more advanced than one hundred years ago, but we still have the same reward pathway in the brain. The human organism hasn’t changed physiologically. The present epidemic of opioid addiction is reminiscent of the early part of the twentieth century, just after the Bayer drug company released heroin, which for a short period of time was sold without a prescription, before physicians recognized that over prescription of opioids caused iatrogenic addiction.

 Few pain patients intended to become addicted. Some addicted people blame their doctors for causing their opioid addiction, but most doctors were conscientiously trying to treat the pain reported by their patient, and the pain management experts had told these doctors the risk of addiction was so low they didn’t have to worry about it.

Certainly many patients made bad choices to misuse their medications, either from curiosity or peer influence, pushing them farther over the line into addiction. Patients need to recognize their own contribution to their addiction. But with opioid addiction, as the disease progresses, the addict loses the power of choice that he once had. If the addict is fortunate enough to have a moment of clarity, before the disease progresses too far, he may be able to stop on his own, without treatment.

 By their very nature, opioids produce pleasure. Any time doctors prescribe something that causes pleasure, we should expect addiction to occur. Some people, for whatever reason, feel more pleasure than others when they take opioids, and seem to be at higher risk for addiction. As discussed in previous chapters, genetics, environment, and individual factors all influence this risk.

Opioids treat pain – both physical and emotional. Many of the neuronal pathways in the brain for sensing and experiencing pain are the same for both physical and psychological pain. For example, the brain pathways activated when you drop a hammer on your toe are much the same as when you have to tell your spouse you spent the rent money while gambling. Opioids make both types of pain better. Chronic pain patients with psychological illnesses are at increased risk for inappropriate use of their pain medications.

 In a recent study, the rate of developing true opioid addiction in patients taking opioids for chronic pain was found to be increased fourfold over the risk of non-medicated people. (2) Instead of a one percent incidence, as estimated by pain medicine specialists in the past, it now appears eighteen to forty-five percent of patients maintained long-term on opioids develop true addiction, not mere physical dependency. (3) If this information had been available in the late 1990’s, doctors may have taken more precautions when they prescribed strong opioids for chronic pain.

 Researchers have identified the risk factors for addiction among patients who take opioids long-term (more than three months) for chronic pain. Studies now show that a personal past history of addiction is the strongest predictor of future problems with addiction, as would be expected.  A patient with a family history of addiction is also at increased risk for addiction, as are patients with psychiatric illness of any kind, and younger patients. (4)

However, at the height of the pain control movement, there were no good studies of the addiction risk when opioids were used for more than three months. The little information that did exist was misused, resulting in an incredible underestimation of the risk of addiction in patients with chronic pain, who were treated with opioid medications for more than three months.

 With the momentum of the movement for better control of pain, both acute and chronic, the number of prescriptions for opioid pain pills increased dramatically. In the years from 1997 through 2006, prescription sales of hydrocodone increased 244%, while oxycodone increased 732% during that same time period. Prescription sales for methadone increased a staggering 1177%. (5)

It’s not just patients who are at risk for abuse and addiction. The increased amount of opioids being prescribed meant there was more opioid available to be diverted to the black market. When an addicting drug is made more available, it will be misused more often.

  1. Porter and Jick, New England Journal of Medicine, 302 (2) (Jan. 10, 1980) p. 123.
  2. Michael F. Fleming, Stacey L. Balousek, Cynthia L. Klessig, et al. “Substance Use Disorders in a Primary Care Sample Receiving Daily Opioid Therapy,” Journal of Pain, 207; Vol. 8, issue 7: 573-582.
  3. 7. Steven Passik M.D., Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, Vol. 21 No. 5, (May 2001), pp.359 – 360.
  4. Chou, R, Fanciullo, G, Fine, P, et. al., “Opioid Treatment Guidelines: Clinical guidelines for the use of Chronic Opioid Therapy in chronic, non-cancer pain.” The Journal of Pain, 2009, Vol. 10, No. 2. pp. 113-130

5. Andrea Trescott, MD, Stanford Helm, MD, el. al., “Opioids in the Management of Chronic Non-cancer Pain: An Update of American Society of the Interventional Pain Physicians’ Guidelines,” Pain Physician 2008: Opioids Special Issue: 11:S5 – S 62.

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.

Bibliotherapy: More Addiction Memoirs

If I Die Before I Wake, by Barbara Rogers

Anyone struggling with addiction to drugs including alcohol can get something out of this book. The author describes what her addiction was like, what happened to get her into recovery, and what it’s like now. And she went further than that. She described the trials she faced while in recovery, and how she applied the spiritual principles of the twelve steps as she went through these trials. This book is like going to a really good speaker meeting. It will resonate with both newcomers and old-timers in recovery. I will be recommending it to my patients.

Pill Head, by Joshua Lyons

I was envious as I read the book, because he did such a great job of writing an interesting, engaging book, while also educating the reader with (mostly) accurate facts about the disease of opioid addiction. It’s more interesting than my own book, Pain Pill Addiction, though I have more science in mine. Anyway, the author shows the dividedness of many addicts. He wants to be in recovery, and hates the negative consequences that are occurring as a result of his addiction, but he still wants to use pain pills. I don’t think people newly in recovery should read it because it may trigger cravings in the places he describes drug euphoria. His story isn’t one of hope, and I wish he’d waited until he was further into recovery to write the book.

 

Loaded, by Jill Talbot

            Ugh. I didn’t like this book. It was false advertising, for one thing. It was more about her unhappy love life than it was about her alcohol addiction. For the first two-thirds of the book, she laments about how dating married men made her lonely. Duh. Then toward the end she does talk of some sticky situations due to alcohol, and describes her fellow patients at a drug rehab. But then she is vague about her relapse back to drinking, and if she was able to do controlled drinking, or if she went back to her former state.

Wired: the life and Fast Times of Jim Belushi, by Bob Woodward

            It could have been cut in half and been a much better book. The renowned author put in a great many details of the days and nights during the years leading up to the star’s death from drug overdose, and it felt like too much after a few chapters. We get it. He was a wild and crazy guy. He did outrageous things and was tremendously talented and deeply flawed. Maybe knowing the ending made it sad from the start. Another big talent obliterated by addiction.

Broken, by William Cope Myers

            He’s the son of the famous journalist William Myers, and now a spokesman for Hazelden recovery center in Minnesota. This memoir is one of the better ones. He does a good job of describing the guilt that comes after a drug binge, and about his family’s disappointment in him. With a famous father, the press of expectations was an added stress that may have pushed his addiction further.

Go Ask Alice, by Anonymous

I came across a paperback copy in a bargain bin at a thrift store, and bought it to re-read. I read it as a teen, and at that time suspected it was written by an adult to scare kids away from drugs. I wondered if I’d think differently reading it as an adult. I didn’t. I certainly didn’t sound like it was written by a fifteen year old. It’s a fair book, but probably fictional.

Can’t Find My Way Home, by Martin Torgoff

I’ll re-read this one. It’s a comprehensive history of drug addiction in the U.S. from 1945 until 2000. Focused on the various political movements and popular trends of different years, it puts drug use into cultural context. It also gives some specifics behind some famous drug users and drug legalization proponents. It was fascinating. At the end, the author unexpectedly described his own recovery. Anyone wanting to read more about the 1960’s and 70’s drug culture should read this book.

“The End of My Addiction,” by Dr. Oliver Amiesen

            I only got this book because a few patients mentioned it. I pre-judged this book, thinking the author must be a pompous doctor, hater of Alcoholics Anonymous, who wrote a lame book on a half-baked theory about addiction treatment, just for his self-glorification. I was completely wrong. The author writes about his own addiction with self-awareness and humility. He doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but presents a credible treatment that may benefit alcoholics. He started himself on high-dose baclofen, a muscle relaxant that’s been around for years. It quenched his thirst for alcohol. He presents a good enough argument to justify a large randomized controlled trial to test the theory that high-dose baclofen suppresses alcohol cravings. The book is well-written and interesting. Dr. Amiesen describes his own travails with addiction in some detail.

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.

The New OxyContin Formulation

Over the last three weeks, at least five of the opioid addicts I’ve admitted to treatment said they wanted help because they couldn’t abuse the new form of OxyContin.

 And I say: Hallelujah! It’s about time!!

 This new tablet, approved by the FDA in April of this year, appeared recently on the black markets of this area, replacing the older, more easily abused OxyContin. The new tablet is bioequivalent to the older tablet, meaning the same amount of oxycodone, the active ingredient, is available to the body when swallowed whole, as it’s meant to be. In other words, the same amount of pain reliever is given to the body. However, it’s more difficult to crush for the purpose of snorting or injecting, because it turns into a gummy ball.

Purdue Pharma, the drug company that makes OxyContin, admits this new formulation isn’t abuse-proof, but hopes it will be more resistant to abuse.

The patients I’ve talked to say the new tablet is a big disappointment. One patient, who usually chews her pill to get a faster high, said it was like trying to chew a jelly bean. Other patients said they could crush the tablet, but got a kind of gelatinous mess that was impossible to snort or inject.

 For pain relief, the opioid in OxyContin lasts much longer when it’s taken as directed and swallowed whole. Addicts prefer to crush and snort or inject because of the quick high they feel with this route of administration. But when used in this way, it leaves the body faster, and the addict usually needs to find more opioid within six to eight hours to avoid withdrawal.

Before I applaud Purdue Pharma for this change, my cynical mind asks a few questions: Why didn’t the company make this change earlier?

In 2002, a Purdue Pharma representative testified before congress, saying that the company was working on a re-formulation of OxyContin, to make it harder to use intravenously. This representative said they expected to have the re-formulated pill on the market within a few years. (1)  But it took eight more years.

Sterling, the drug company that makes Talwin, another opioid pain medication, was able to re-formulate their drug within a few years when they discovered it was being abused frequently. This was in the 1980s, when, presumably, medication technology wasn’t as advanced as today. Sterling added naloxone, an opioid blocker that’s inactive when taken by mouth, but puts an addict into withdrawal when it’s crushed and injected. It worked great. Talwin isn’t a commonly abused drug.

 I’m assuming that Purdue Pharma holds the patent for this new formulation that makes their tablet gummy when crushed. Purdue probably teaches its sales staff to market the new OxyContin as a safer option than older versions, perhaps available in cheaper generics. So did they wait to re-formulate until their patent was ready to expire? I don’t know, but time will tell.

At any rate, this drug is now just a little bit safer, for now. People with addictions are often clever and creative. I won’t be surprised if soon there’s a way to defeat this new technology.

Just think what addicted people could do, if they directed their talent and intelligence in ways that would help and not hurt them. There would be no stopping them.

1. United States Senate. Congressional hearing of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, on Examining the Effects of the Painkiller OxyContin, 107th Congress, Second Session, February, 2002.

Buprenorphine implants – study results

This week I read an article in the latest issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association describing the results of a randomized controlled trial comparing implantable buprenorphine compared to placebo. Buprenorphine implants are four (five for some patients) small cylinders, inserted just under the skin of the upper inner arm. They are each about an inch long, and release medication up to about six months.

Buprenorphine (brand names Suboxone or Subutex) works well for the treatment of opioid addiction, but only if the patient takes it every day. Like other doctors, I have some patients who occasionally stop taking buprenorphine, so they can use illicit opioids to get high. This problem is eliminated with buprenorphine implants, because the patient receives a steady level of buprenorphine for as long as the implants are in place.

The other problem with Suboxone tablets has been its diversion from patients to the black market. Granted, it’s the safest opioid on the streets, given the ceiling on its opioid effect, but diversion to the black market isn’t desirable to doctors or law enforcement. But the implants, for obvious reasons, can’t be diverted, or at least would be extremely difficult to divert.

In this trial of the buprenorphine implants, patients were randomized to receive either placebo implants or buprenorphine implants. The patients and study evaluators didn’t know who had placebo implants and who had the real thing.

The results surprised no one. The buprenorphine implants were much more effective than the placebo implants. Patients with buprenorphine implants were retained in treatment longer and used less illicit opioids, both at week 16 and week 24. After six months, the implants were removed. The implants were fairly safe, with main problems being related to pain, swelling, or infection at the implant site. In the buprenorphine group, most common side effects compared to placebo were headache and insomnia.

This study is hopeful, but of course the real question is how do buprenorphine implants compare to the sublingual (under the tongue) Suboxone tablets and film? More studies are on the way. But for patients I worry might stop their Suboxone to relapse now and again, and in patients I worry might sell their Suboxone, these implants will be a good option when they become available.

New Form of Suboxone: Dissolving Film

Yesterday the FDA approved a new delivery system for the medication buprenorphine. Reckitt Benckiser, the drug company that makes the brands Suboxone (a combination pill of buprenorphine and naloxone) and Subutex (containing only buprenorphine), is now approved to manufacture and sell Suboxone in the form of a thin film that is placed under the tongue to be absorbed. According to early studies, patients think the film tastes better, dissolves more quickly, and is easier to use. I don’t yet have any information on the relative cost of this new film.

Since it was just approved, it’s not likely that a generic form of the film will be available for many years.

 This film of buprenorphine, the active ingredient, can’t be obtained as a generic, and it may be a few weeks before it appears in retail pharmacies.

 I’m hoping the sublingual (under the tongue) film will be harder to snort or inject, because there are reports of addicts misusing the Suboxone and Subutex tablets. And every addict misusing the name brands or the generic of buprenorphine who comes to the attention of law enforcement endangers the existence of the buprenorphine program.

 In the past I worried about prescribing Subutex, the form of the drug that doesn’t contain naloxone, or the newer generic buprenorphine, which also doesn’t contain naloxone. But apparently, some addicts are able to inject Suboxone, and the naloxone in it doesn’t put them into withdrawal. At least, they don’t go into intolerable withdrawal.

 It just shows me again that people are so different in the way they react to medications.

Bibliotherapy: Books About the History of Addiction and Treatment

Great books about the history of addiction and its treatment have languished in obscurity, never getting the recognition that these bits of history richly deserve.  I’m going to do my small part to encourage people to read these great books.

 The Addicts Who Survived: An Oral History of Narcotic Use in America, 1923-1965, by Courtwright, Joseph, and Des Jarlais. This book, published by the University of Tennessee Press in 1989, is now out of print, so hopefully you can find a copy at your library. I’m so glad I bought one of the few copies. This amazing book is filled with interviews with intravenous heroin addicts who lived through the so called “classic era” of opioid addiction. I got a feel for how fragile life is for IV addicts, and how miraculous it is to survive addiction for 30 years. Many of the survivors went into methadone programs, and credit methadone with saving their lives. Other addicts went on methadone, but are frank about their criticisms of methadone treatment, and their regrets. As an added bonus, this book has interviews with key people who made history during the classic era of opioid addiction in the U.S.: Vincent Dole, M.D., one of the three original investigators of the efficacy of methadone maintenance as a treatment. Dr. Dole describes the harassment and interference he experienced during his work, both from law enforcement and the medical community.

 The Fix, by Michael Massing.  There’s much great history in this book. Much of the book talks about the governmental decisions regarding the treatment of addiction and addicts. The author describes effective treatments for addiction which weren’t continued, because of political pressures. It also describes how policies that didn’t work nonetheless remained in practice because of politics. This book gives us insight into dealing with the present wave of pain pill addiction. If you have to read one book on the history of addiction treatment in the U.S., make it this one. It’s interesting because the author also includes stories of real-life addicts and their struggles to find treatment and recover.

 The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control, by David Musto. This may be the best-known book about the history of opioid addiction and treatment in the U.S. The author gives exhaustive references, valuable in their own right. This book may be dense reading for anyone not already interested in the topic, but I loved it. He gives a painstaking history of drug addiction against the background of American culture and politics. Anyone who has input into drug policies needs to read this book.

Dark Paradise: A History of Opioid Addiction in America, by David Courtwright. Much like The American Disease, it is packed full of information, along with insights and interpretation of the information. It covers much of the same information as the other book. It differs in the interpretation of opioid addiction history.

 Hooked: Five Addicts Challenge our Misguided Drug Rehab System, by Lonnie Shavelson. The author, a physician and journalist, follows five addicts with no money through the process of accessing addiction treatment. He documents in excruciating detail the pitiful systems called “treatment” for these addicts. Gaps in care and communication breakdowns would frustrate anyone, but these people are more fragile than most. The roadblocks they face are depressing. This is a fascinating and entertaining book, and left me with a feeling of frustration. It’s a vivid description of how broken our healthcare system is for the indigent.

Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America, by William White. Written in 1998, this book has it all. It’s probably the most comprehensive book about the history of addiction treatments. Even if you don’t work in the field, you’ll think the book is interesting. It’s a well-written and scholarly book.  Particularly interesting was the descriptions of quack cures for addiction promoted throughout the ages. Some things never change. People desperate and suffering from a disease are vulnerable to different species of snake oil treatments now, as ever in history.

Addiction: from Biology to Drug Policy, by Avram Mack. Written nearly 10 years ago, parts of this might be a little out of date, but it’s still packed with information. It covers technical material, but is accessible to the educated layperson. He has some interesting stories to illustrate his meanings.

 The Narcotic Farm: The Rise and Fall of America’s First Prison for Drug Addicts, by Nancy Campbell, 2008. In this little-known book, the author explains how drug addiction was treated from 1935 until 1975. The Narcotic Farm was a unique facility that served both voluntary patients and prisoners who had addiction. For its time, the Farm was moderately open-minded and willing to try new treatments. Sadly, most of the addicts treated to the Farm relapsed, probably because they had no continuing treatment when the addicts returned home. The pictures in the book are great, and tell much of the story of the Narcotic Farm.

We need these books. We don’t have to keep re-inventing the wheel because we can look to the past for guidance about the treatment of the addicts in this country. Our past method of incarcerating addicts clearly did not, is not, working. Public policy makers all over the country at all levels of government need to read these books.

If you know of more such books, tell me.

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.