Archive for the ‘Relapse’ Category

News You Can Use

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New ACOG Recommendations:

The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) just released an updated recommendation about the treatment of opioid use disorder in pregnant women: https://www.acog.org/Resources-And-Publications/Committee-Opinions/Committee-on-Obstetric-Practice/Opioid-Use-and-Opioid-Use-Disorder-in-Pregnancy

Their last statement was issued in 2012, in cooperation with the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM). This newer statement was released earlier this month, also in cooperation with ASAM.

By my reading, this update is more direct about recommending medication-assisted treatment for pregnant women with opioid use disorder, and specifically discouraged medically supervised withdrawal from opioids during pregnancy.

This statement was in the update’s conclusions: “For pregnant women with an opioid use disorder, opioid agonist pharmacotherapy is the recommended therapy and is preferable to medically supervised withdrawal because withdrawal is associated with high relapse rates, which lead to worse outcomes. More research is needed to assess the safety (particularly regarding maternal relapse), efficacy, and long-term outcomes of medically supervised withdrawal.”

I suspect this released update may have been prompted by the actions of obstetricians in certain locations (Tennessee, for example), where medically supervised withdrawal is routinely recommended by obstetricians. As you recall in a blog earlier this summer, I showed you a letter written by OBs from TN, recommending “medically supervised withdrawal” for patients on medication-assisted treatment of opioid use disorders.

As the ACOG update emphasizes, there’s scant evidence to show medically supervised withdrawal provides any better outcomes for the baby, but certainly places the mother at risk for relapse.

I am pleased to see this update, and plan to mail it to a few obstetrics practices in my own area. Some OBs may be giving patients recommendations not supported by their own professional organization out of ignorance, in which case more information can help. Other OBs do it for ideological reasons, in which case I doubt any amount of information can help, but at least I’ll know I’ve tried to do something.

Screening for substance use disorders was also strongly emphasized in the new document, with specific recommendations about how this should be done. In other words, asking a pregnant patient, “You don’t take any drugs, do you?” is not considered to be adequate or recommended screening.

Increased Risk for Death in Patients with Opioid Use Disorder who Leave Buprenorphine Treatment

We have multiple studies, dating back decades, showing patients with opioid use disorder who leave treatment with methadone have higher risks of overdose deaths. We believe the same thing is true with buprenorphine treatment, but now we have more data to support that assumption.

A French study of 713 buprenorphine patients showed that being out of buprenorphine treatment was associated with a 30-fold increase in death, compared with patients who stay on buprenorphine treatment.

Now that’s impressive.

This was a study done in France, where most patients with opioid use disorder are treated by general practitioners in private practice. This would be roughly equivalent to what physicians do now in the U.S. in their office-based buprenorphine practices, often called OBOT treatment.

The study was published in the July/August 2017 issue of the Annals of Family Medicine, by Dupouy et al. It looked at new patients admitted onto buprenorphine treatment from early 2007 until the end of 2011, and covered over 3,000 person -years of treatment.

The authors say that the data showed, “…being out of treatment was associated with sharply elevated mortality risk.”

We already knew that people with opioid use disorder have an increased risk of death. Early in this article, the authors state that the accepted mortality rate of untreated heroin use disorder is around 2 people per 100 patient years. This means that if you follow 100 heroin users for a year, it is likely that 2 will be dead at the end of the year. An older study, by Hser et al., followed people with opioid use disorder over time, and found that around 50% were dead at 30 years.

We’ve had other studies that show being in treatment with buprenorphine or methadone decreases risk of death, but this may be the first study showing that getting help in a primary care setting reduces the risk of death so remarkably.

This was a very large study, so the data is more impressive to me All this data supports the conclusion that opioid use disorder is a serious and potentially fatal disease, and that being in medication-assisted treatment markedly reduces the risk of death.

 

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Opioid Addiction from Different Perspectives

Perspective is Essential

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was asked to speak as a member of a panel about opioid use disorder, at the annual addiction conference at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC) this month, called the McLeod Institute. This conference was named after Dr. Jonnie McLeod, a great leader in the field who passed away several years ago.

I’ve spoken at this conference several times before, and it’s always a treat. It lifts my spirits to see new recruits entering the field of substance use disorder treatments, all fresh-faced and enthusiastic.

One whole day of the conference was devoted to the problem of opioid use disorders, and I’m sorry I couldn’t attend the morning’s events. After lunch, the five of us on the panel took our seats.

At one end was the operator of an abstinence based, 12-step oriented non-profit outpatient treatment program, one of the best in Charlotte. To his left was a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer whose focus was on interdiction of heroin flooding the streets of Charlotte. Then there was me, and to my left was Donna Hill, program director for Project Lazarus in Wilkes County. At the extreme left was Jennifer, a social worker from New Jersey with many years of experience in the substance use disorder counseling field.

We all introduced ourselves and said a little about how we approached the treatment of opioid use disorders. When it was my turn, I did my usual spiel about how treatment of opioid use disorder with medications including methadone and buprenorphine and naltrexone are the most evidence-based treatments available, yet still have the most stigma against them. I told them our country overused treatments that don’t work, sometimes over and over. I told the audience I worked for an opioid treatment program and had my own office-based practice where I prescribe buprenorphine.

The whole point of the panel was to allow the audience to hear the different viewpoints on our nation’s problem with opioid use disorders, and the panelists didn’t disappoint.

Of course the director of the 12-step oriented, abstinence-based outpatient program advocated for that form of treatment. He made some neutral-to-negative comments about MAT, but he wasn’t as vehement as I expected.

The police officer, not being involved in treatment, mainly gave facts about how awful the heroin problem is in Charlotte. He said it was one of the two hubs, along with Columbus, OH, that drug cartels were using as a base for sales to all the other towns in the Eastern U.S. He explained how the purity had risen and how fentanyl and carfentanil were now being added to heroin or being sold as heroin, because they were cheaper to make and many times more potent. He repeated the account of a police officer who had to be treated for a severe overdose that happened just from brushing heroin off his sweater. (I did read about that on the internet and had some questions regarding the story but wasn’t about to quibble with a man with a gun.)

Donna from Project Lazarus probably could have justified talking the longest, since Project Lazarus is active in so many aspects of treatment, prevention, education, and community outreach, among other things. She gave a nice summary of all the things Project Lazarus does, and encouraged people to call them if they wished to set up a similar organization in another place.

Jennifer the social worker said some good things about how all of us treating opioid use disorder need to work together and communicate, but then, in my opinion, she blew it when she said she disapproved of how treatment programs take advantage of people with opioid use disorders by charging them money to be in treatment. At first I didn’t know exactly who she was targeting but when she said clinics discouraged patients from getting off methadone and buprenorphine only because it was bad for their business, I felt my ire rising.

You know I had something to say about that.

I got a little heated, and said I didn’t think it was fair to imply opioid treatment programs were unethical because they charge patients money to be in treatment. I said other medical specialties charge money for their services, and that this was the way this country approached healthcare. I went on to say that opioid treatment programs don’t keep patients on methadone because it’s a business model; it’s because patients who leave methadone treatment at an OTP have an eight-fold increase in the risk of dying, and a high risk of relapse with all the misery that can come with it: poorer mental and physical health, fractured relationships, damaged self-esteem, lowered personal productivity.

After all, I said, is there any other medication for any other disease that reduces the risk of death by eight times, that has the stigma against it that methadone does?

OK…it’s possible I’m more lucid as I’m writing this than I was in the moment, but I blurted out something to this effect.

Other than that incident, I was relatively well-behaved.

I liked all my fellow panel members, even though we didn’t agree about everything. We all agreed on the most important thing – we all want to keep people from dying from opioid use disorder, and we all want them to find a good quality of life in their recovery.

I stayed to listen to the second panel, composed of people in recovery from opioid use disorder. There were six people on that panel, and of the six, five were either neutral or critical of methadone or buprenorphine. These five people all said that 12-step recovery in Narcotics Anonymous allowed them to quit using drugs and live a successful recovery.

The last patient was different. She gave a brief history of her recovery, and said that though she found 12-step recovery helpful, she needed methadone to return her to a place where she could function normally. She described being off opioids for some months, but being plagued with post- acute withdrawal that ultimately lead to a relapse. Now, she considers methadone a necessary medication for her, and said if she had to be on it for the rest of her life in order to feel normal, she could accept that.

I was so impressed with this lady’s courage. It had to be hard to follow five peoples’ stories that all centered on abstinence-based recovery with her story of being in a form of treatment with so much stigma against it. I was very pleased by what she was saying, and felt like she was speaking for all the people who have benefitted from medication-assisted treatment.

I was disappointed there wasn’t more diversity on this panel. I don’t doubt the other five peoples’ recovery stories, but they were very similar. One of them spoke very negatively about methadone, but later revealed she misused her methadone to an extreme degree and came off a relatively high dose “cold turkey,” which of course is not recommended. Another six people in recovery from opioid use disorder may have the opposite experience with 12-step recovery and medication-assisted treatment

I was socializing with some of the panel members before leaving, and to my surprise, the operator of the non-profit abstinence-based outpatient program told me he was sorry if it sounded like he was trying to bash methadone treatment. I was surprised and pleased, and thanked him.

I’m glad I was there, and I’m glad to see fresh recruits joining the effort to help people with opioid use disorder in their recovery.

Split Dosing of Methadone May Reduce NAS

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I just read a new article (McCarthy et al, Journal of Addiction Medicine, Vol. 9, (2), pp105-110, March/April 2015) on methadone dosing during pregnancy. This study’s data showed reduced incidence of withdrawal in babies born to moms on divided doses of methadone compared to once-daily dosing. This data also showed reduced incidence of withdrawal in these moms on higher total doses of methadone compared to what we have seen in the past with lower maternal doses.

Current practice is to adjust the maternal dose of methadone according to how she feels. If she has withdrawal signs and symptoms, we increase her dose. We assume that if the mother’s at an adequate dose, the fetus should be doing OK too. We know reduced dosing of methadone during pregnancy is not recommended due to higher relapse rates in the mom, and worse fetal and maternal outcomes. Additionally, past studies showed no clear relationship between the maternal methadone dose and the likelihood of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). In other words, increased maternal dose doesn’t increase the incidence or severity of withdrawal in the newborn.

However, we also have past studies which showed a significant decrease in fetal heart rates and fetal movement during times of peak methadone levels (several hours after dosing), compared to fetal heart rates and movement during times of trough blood levels (end of the 24-hour dosing cycle). Those studies showed more normal fetal heart rates and movement after splitting the total dose into equal doses, which is called split dosing. Due to this data, many opioid treatment program doctors have been trying to split the mom’s total methadone dose into two halves, a morning and evening dose.

The authors of this new study decided to build on past data and look at more than once-daily dosing of methadone during pregnancy. They also increased the total dose of methadone to treat any maternal report of withdrawal.

The study is a bit complicated. It was a retrospective chart review done in an eight-hundred patient opioid addiction treatment program in California from June 2008 until January 2013. The study followed sixty-two pregnant patients who were 83% white, 13% Hispanic, 2% African American, and 2% Asian. Of these sixty-two patients, 71% used primarily prescription opioids and 29% used mainly heroin. Some of these patients were already pregnant when they enrolled in treatment and some (32%) became pregnant after starting treatment with methadone. Sixty-six percent of these patients were smokers.

All the patients were moved to twice-daily dosing within several weeks of entry into treatment. Subsequent increases and further dividing of maternal dose was determined by maternal report of opioid withdrawal, and on methadone trough blood levels. All efforts were made to maintain maternal blood level in the “therapeutic range.” Most women dosed three or four times per day by the last trimester, and the average maternal dose at delivery was 152mg per day.
The highest dose in this study was seen in a pregnant patient who was a fast metabolizer of methadone. She required a total dose of 415mg, which was split into six doses. Interestingly, her infant did not need treatment for NAS.

The outcomes of the study were unusual in several ways.

Of the fourteen hundred urine drug screens collected on these pregnant patients, 88.4% were negative for illicit drugs. The mean gestational age was 38 weeks, and only 18% of the babies were born before 37 weeks gestation.

But here is the most noteworthy finding: only 29% of the babies had neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) that was severe enough to need treatment. As in other studies, this study showed no correlation between maternal dose and the incidence of NAS.

In the past, the incidence of neonatal withdrawal syndrome has been estimated at 60-80%, though the MOTHER study of 2010 (Jones et. al) found 50% of infants born to both moms on methadone and moms on buprenorphine had withdrawal that was severe enough to need treatment. (That study also found infants born to moms on buprenorphine stayed in the hospital half as long as babies born to moms on methadone, and also had much less severe NAS.)

In this present study, the babies conceived during methadone treatment were not significantly more likely to have NAS than the babies born to moms who conceived prior to entering medication-assisted treatment with methadone.

Male infants were a little more likely to need treatment for NAS than the females.

The authors concluded that divided methadone dosing and adequate methadone dosing during pregnancy increased maternal recovery and resulted in less stress on developing fetuses. The authors postulate there was less sensitization to repeated episodes of intrauterine withdrawal, which ultimately resulted in much lower rates of neonatal abstinence syndrome.

The authors also identified some limitations of their study, and recommended further investigation.

Over the last few years, doctors in North Carolina have been trying to do split dosing on pregnant women when possible. To do this, the woman must be stable enough to manage the second half of the dose, given as a take home. If there’s an addicted male partner at home, that second dose may fall into the wrong hands, and the pregnant patient can get shorted part of her dose. That’s not a good thing during pregnancy, so it’s all about balancing risks with benefits.

This is an intriguing study, but it’s probably too soon to change what we are doing in OTPs. I know I’d like to hear how ASAM experts interpret this information.

The information in this study was gleaned from a retrospective review of patients, which may not be as good a study as a prospective double-blind study, if such could be conducted.

I’m impressed with the 66% smoking rate. I estimate that around 95% of pregnant patients at the OTPs where I work are addicted to nicotine. But I live in a tobacco state, and the study, done in California, has fewer smokers. I think that might be a significant difference, because we know NAS is more like to occur in smokers. Did that play a role in the lower NAS incidence found in this study?

Did the authors of this study take any extra measures to ensure their pregnant patients were living in a safe environment, conducive to recovery? Are the authors sure their pregnant patients were able to consume all of their take home doses? Were any doses diverted, willingly or unwillingly, to other people? Sometimes female patients live with partners who are also addicted, and the patients may be tempted or coerced into giving a dose to a partner in opioid withdrawal. If this happened it could change conclusions of this study.

I suspect the average maternal dose in this study was higher than at most opioid treatment programs in my area. As the authors concluded, this likely improved the mothers’ health and outcomes. This study had a very low rate of positive drug screens, so these patients appear to have been doing exceptionally well in treatment. So is it possible that there could be less withdrawal in babies born to moms on higher doses? That seems counterintuitive, but the authors do suggest that could be why they had low NAS incidence.

The pregnant women in this study got more counseling and support from their OTP than may be provided in other OTPs. The patients in this study had a weekly meeting with a pregnancy counselor, weekly group meeting for education and support facilitated by the clinic physician, psychiatric assessment, and monthly supportive psychotherapy. They got weekly urine drug screens, so there was close accountability. They also had methadone trough blood levels drawn when needed.

The study presents intriguing data. We need more information, more studies to see if higher and divided methadone doses will provide better outcomes with less NAS, as was seen in this study.

Suboxone: Miracle Drug or Manacle?

Yesterday in my office, I saw patients for whom I prescribe buprenorphine (better known under the brand name Suboxone). It was not my typically pleasant day. Usually, I see the positive changes occurring in the lives of my patients: they are getting families back, getting jobs or better jobs, getting health and dental care needs addressed, and overall feeling happier and more productive.

 But yesterday I had two patients who were bitter about being on Suboxone. Both were having great difficulty tapering off of Suboxone. Both had also been reading materials on the internet that described the hopelessness of ever tapering off this medication.

 This frustrates me for several reasons. First, not everything you read on the internet is correct. Second, people don’t appear in my clinic requesting Suboxone for no reason. All of my Suboxone patients were addicted to opioids before I ever prescribed Suboxone. Even assuming no patient ever gets off Suboxone, it’s still so much better than what they were doing before. Third, I’ve never said it’s easy to get off Suboxone. It can be done, but it’s still an opioid. When you stop opioids, you will have withdrawal. There’s no way around that. 

Overall, most people say withdrawal off Suboxone is easier than other opioids. But people and their biochemistries are different, and I accept that some people have a worse withdrawal than other people. I’ve had a few people say methadone withdrawal was easier than Suboxone withdrawal. I have to believe that’s their experience, but I think that’s unusual, and not the experience of most people. 

Some doctors think patients on maintenance medications, like methadone or Suboxone, should always stay on these medications, given what we know about the rates of relapse and even death for patients who leave these programs. And some patients have continued sub acute withdrawal symptoms for weeks or months off opioids, and just don’t feel right unless they are on maintenance medications. These people seem to do better if they stay on maintenance medication. 

And on the other hand, many people are able to taper off opioids and remain off of them, and lead happy, healthy lives. I keep thinking about two groups of recovering opioid addicts who do well off of all opioids, on no maintenance medications: members of 12-step recovery groups, and recovering medical professionals.

 Off the top of my head, I can think of a dozen recovering opioid addicts who are members of Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, and who aren’t on any maintenance medications. They feel fine, and have been abstinent from opioids for years. If you don’t believe me, go to an open Narcotics Anonymous meeting. Ask the recovering addicts there if they have been addicted to opioids in the past. Chances are that around a fourth of the people you talk to are recovering from opioid addiction. There may be a few people who are on methadone or Suboxone, but many are completely free from opioids.

 Look at doctors in recovery. Opioids were the drug of choice for many addicted doctors, and they are “real” addicts, having used remarkable amounts of opioids before getting into recovery. But doctors have one of the highest rates of drug-free recovery. This isn’t because we are so smart or special, or because we have Charlie Sheen’s tiger blood. It’s because we are held tightly accountable by our licensing boards. If we want to practice medicine, we have to participate in recovery. Licensing boards often hold our licenses hostage unless we do the work of recovery. This may mean three to six months of inpatient residential treatment, after a medical detoxification. It may mean four recovery meetings per week for the first five years of recovery, along with monthly random drug screen, and a monitoring contract for five years.  (1,2)

If every addict seeking recovery could have that degree of treatment and accountability, I suspect relapse rates would be uniformly low. Sadly, that’s just not possible for most opioid addicts, because of financial constraints, and because there’s less leverage with most people than with licensed professionals. 

Not all opioid- addicted doctors do great off opioids. Many have multiple relapses, and would probably be much healthier and happier if they got on maintenance medications like methadone or Suboxone, but isn’t allowed – at present – by the licensing boards in most states. Again, one type of treatment doesn’t work for everyone.

 My point is that it is possible for many people to get off Suboxone, and live a happy drug free life. And for other people, lifelong maintenance is probably the best and safest option. At present, we don’t have a way to predict who might do well off of Suboxone (or methadone). We do know that a taper should be slow, and probably takes four to six months for a taper to give best results.

 I believe in Suboxone. It’s saved many lives, just like methadone has. I wouldn’t prescribe it if I didn’t know it works. I think what I’ve been hearing and reading is a normal backlash against the unrealistic expectations many people had for Suboxone. It’s been called a miracle drug, but it’s not. It’s still an opioid, and there is still a withdrawal when it’s stopped. It’s a great medication for many people. It can allow many opioid addicts to get their lives back and enjoy a normal life, except for having to take a daily dose of Suboxone. But isn’t that still drastically better than active addiction? 

  1. Ganely, Oswald H, Pendergast, Warren J, Mattingly, Daniel E, Wilkerson, Michael W, “Outcome study of substance impaired physicians and physician assistants under contract with North Carolina Physicians Health Program for the period 1995-2000,” Journal of Addictive Diseases, Vol 24(1) 2005.
  2. McLellan, AT, Skipper, GS, Campbell, M, DuPont, RL, “Five Year outcomes in a cohort study of physicians treated for substance abuse disorders in the United States,” British Medical Journal,2008;337: a 2038.

Use of Prescription Monitoring in Suboxone Patients

I enthusiastically use my state’s prescription monitoring program. This database is available only to physicians who have applied and been approved for access. It records all controlled substance prescriptions filled by a patient, the prescribing doctor, and the pharmacy where they were filled. This means it records prescriptions for opioids, benzodiazepines, anabolic steroids, most sleeping pills, and prescription stimulants. Any prescription medication with the potential to cause addiction will be listed. Medications such an antibiotics, blood pressure medication, etc, aren’t controlled substances, and aren’t list on the website. 

I use this database in several ways.

It can help me decide if a new patient is really addicted to opioids, and appropriate for treatment

If a new patient has a urine drug screen that’s negative for all the opioids, and has no record of getting prescriptions for opioids, I’ll have to see objective evidence of addiction before starting to treat him with Suboxone. But if the urine is negative, and I see monthly oxymorphone prescriptions (sometimes missed on urine drug screens) have been filled, it’s more likely this patient is appropriate for Suboxone treatment. Rarely, a misguided, misinformed person might claim to be addicted to opioids in order to be prescribed Suboxone. This happened once to me, with a patient who was addicted to Xanax, and was convinced Suboxone would cure her. I referred her to more appropriate care.

Using the database can help detect a relapse sooner

Most of the patients in my Suboxone practice (around 80%) are pill takers, not heroin users. When they relapse, it tends to be to prescription opioids, obtained from a doctor unfamiliar with their history of addiction. I check each patient on the state’s database just prior to each visit, and if there are medications on the site I didn’t know about, that will be the main topic of our visit. New medication on the database doesn’t always mean a relapse, so I need to listen to their explanation.

 When it does mean a relapse, the patient and I decide what to do next. Often, the patient decides to allow me to call the other doctor, agrees to increase her “dose” of counseling, and possibly her dose of Suboxone, if it was an opioid relapse. If there are repeated relapses, I may decide Suboxone, as an outpatient, doesn’t provide the support a patient needs. Then, I refer to another form of treatment. Usually this means to a long-term inpatient drug rehab, or to an opioid treatment center, where the patient comes to the clinic every day. Either way, I believe I’m able to address a relapse more quickly using the database.

 Frequently, Suboxone patients get prescriptions for benzodiazepines. That’s a problem for me. For a person without addiction, benzodiazepines can be helpful, mostly used short-term. But for people with addiction, they usually cause problems, sooner or later. People with a previous addiction to any drug, especially including alcohol, need to regard prescription benzodiazepines as high-risk medications.

 I try to be flexible, too. If a traumatic event has occurred in the life of a patient, I may OK benzodiazepines short-term, provided I can see the patient more often and have good communication with the doctor prescribing the benzodiazepines.

  I also have to remember the body reacts the same to a mixture of opioids and benzos, no matter why they’re taken.  Even though Suboxone is safer than methadone, it’s still not safe when mixed with benzos, when taken for any reason.

If this sounds wishy-washy, that’s because it is. So many situations arise in the lives of patients that one hard and fast rule just doesn’t exist. That’s the art of medicine.

 Is the patient filling Suboxone on time?

The database also shows me when patients are filling the Suboxone prescription. If I write a prescription today, but the patient doesn’t fill it for two weeks, what’s going on there? Has he relapsed for several weeks? Did he have a stockpile of Suboxone from a previous prescription? Was he unable to afford it until now? All these questions and their answers are important to guide treatment.

 It makes me happy.

It warms my heart to see a patient who had a long list of opioid prescriptions from multiple doctors before starting Suboxone, then after entering treatment, see only Suboxone. This occurs in the majority of my patients.

My state’s prescription monitoring program is one of the best tools to help patients that I’ve ever seen. I believe it’s saved many lives. I think it’s just as important as drug screening for my Suboxone patients. Of course, the best tool for recovery is the counseling. I prefer 12-step recovery, as that provides ongoing support even after Suboxone treatment, but any kind of counseling helps. The patients I see doing the best are the ones involved in both formal counseling, in group or individual settings, along with 12-step meetings.

Opioid Blockers: Do They Take All the Fun Out of Life?

According to an interesting article in the most recent copy of the American Journal on Addictions, the answer appears to be, “No,” at least for some people. (1)

 This article described a study where researchers asked patients on the extended-release opioid blocker naltrexone to rate the amount of pleasure they obtained from things like eating good food, sex, and exercise. These patients were on naltrexone for the treatment of alcoholism, but of course, the information may be helpful for opioid addicts who are treated with opioid blockers to prevent relapse back to opioid use. The subjects were asked to rate, on a scale of 1 to 5, the amount of pleasure they obtained from activities such as sex, eating good food, exercise, talking with friends, and other usually enjoyable things in life. A score of 1 meant they felt no pleasure at all, and 5 meant they felt much pleasure.

 The good news is that pleasure scores for these patients were relatively high. For example, the average score for pleasure from eating good food was 4.14, out of a possible 5. For listening to music, it was 4.00 out of 5. For sex, it was 3.92. For drinking alcohol, it was only 2.57 out of 5, which supports the use of this medication for alcoholics.

 In summary, the study found that subjects on extended-release naltrexone still experienced a good amount of pleasure from life.

 There were limitations to this study, however. We don’t have a pre-naltrexone baseline for these patients. In other words, we know pleasure ratings were fairly high while on naltrexone, but it’s possible these subjects had even higher pleasure scores before naltrexone. Also, there was no placebo control in the study. Maybe people getting pretend, or sham, treatments would have had higher pleasure scores, but we don’t know. 

In my mind, the biggest weakness was that the study enrolled 187 patients, but only 74 completed the intended survey. That means about 60% of the subjects dropped out of treatment, and the article doesn’t say why they dropped out. Maybe the drop-outs were the ones to feel a lack of pleasure in their lives from being on naltrexone, and the ones who stayed on it didn’t have this same side effect. If so, this would obviously skew the results.

 But even with these admitted weaknesses, and even though the study was paid for by the company that manufactures the sustained-release naltrexone (Vivitrol), this article gives hope that Vivitrol may work for opioid addiction. It may help prevent relapses, without interfering with life’s pleasures. And we need every tool we can get to fight addiction.

  1. 1.      O’Brien, Charles; Gastfriend, David; Forman, Robert; Schweizer, Edward; Pettinati, Helen, Long-Term Opioid Blockade and Hedonic Response: Preliminary Data from Two Open-Label Extension Studies with Extended-Release Naltrexone, American Journal on Addictions, Vol. 20 (2), March/April 2011, pp106-112.

The Story of a Recovering Addict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JB: Wow

KS: Yeah.

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

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

JB: Was that unusual for methadone clinics to do?

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

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

JB: Big things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JB: So it wasn’t a blocking dose?

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

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

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

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

JB: So you obviously enjoy it.

KS: Oh yeah.

JB: What did you like about it?

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

JB: That’s a precious gift.

KS: I agree.

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

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

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

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

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

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

KS: Right. Right.

JB: That’s sad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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