Archive for the ‘Side effects of Suboxone’ Category

Taper Off Suboxone: Using the Films

When my Suboxone patients are ready to taper off the medication, I prefer to use the film. Since the film is no longer crumbling, patients can take sharp scissors or a knife and cut the films into smaller pieces roughly equal in size, ideal for a taper. Yes, I know the manufacturer says we shouldn’t cut the film or the tabs, because they have not done studies to see if the medication is equally distributed throughout the entire film or tablet. But cutting is a great way to taper, it seems to work, and everybody’s been doing it since Suboxone came out in 2003.

Most of my patients who successfully tapered off were on Suboxone at least two years, and did the work of counseling before attempting a taper. Most recent studies show high relapse rates if tapered too soon, probably because it takes time to get the essential counseling and make life changes that support a new life without drugs.

How long should the ideal taper take? It depends on the patient’s tolerance of opioid withdrawal symptoms. I’ve been telling patients four to six months is an average taper. I’ve been decreasing the dose by 2 mg every 2 weeks, until the patient is at 8mg or less. Most patients tolerate that fairly well, though patients differ markedly in their tolerance of withdrawal. At any time in the taper, if the patient starts feeling more withdrawal than they can tolerate, we can go back up a little, or plateau at a dose for a month or so.

Below 8mg, I reduce the dose more slowly, since each milligram is a bigger percent of the whole dose. I’ve been trying to decrease patients by 2mg every 4 weeks. This way when I see them every month, we talk about how they’re feeling, and if they’ve had a relapse (With any relapse to opioids, we go back up on the dose and work more on relapse prevention). For an 8mg film, this can be accomplished easily, by cutting the film into fourths. That’s a 25% drop in a month, or around 6.25% drop per week, at least at first. It’s common to have to stay on 4 or 2 mg for longer than a month.

Once the patient is down to 2mg, I switch to the 2mg film, and again have the patient divide it into fourths. I still try to drop by one-quarter of the film per month, meaning a half of a milligram decrease each month.

Sometimes we seem to get stuck at a dose. For example, I have a patient on a 2mg tab, which can be cut in half but is too small to reliably cut into fourths. He’s been trying to drop to 1mg but can’t tolerate staying at that dose for more than a day or two. So at his last visit, we decided he would alternate 1mg per day with 2mg per day. He did better with that, and now we are trying two days of 1mg and one day of 2mg, in a cycle every three days.

Then today, in my latest issue of American Journal on Addictions, there’s an article that throws a monkey wrench into my ideas around tapering.

This article has case reports of four patients who stopped Suboxone suddenly, unplanned. They were on doses ranging from 12mg per day to 30mg per day, and all four had only one or two days of mild opioid withdrawal, then felt fine.  The author concluded that these patients, “Showed no objective signs of opiate withdrawal following abrupt discontinuation of chronic buprenorphine/naloxone treatment…” The authors postulated that a prolonged taper might actually be harder on patients than stopping suddenly at a higher dose, based on these four case studies and other doctors’ impressions. Three of the four patients returned to buprenorphine/naloxone treatment when they had the opportunity, for fears of relapse, and the fourth was felt not to be appropriate for continued treatment with buprenorphine.

Could this be true? Might it be easier for patients to stop at a higher dose, rather than taper to a lower dose? Intuitively, a taper seems to be the best way to avoid withdrawal symptoms, but what if buprenorphine is different? It is an unusual drug. It’s a partial opioid agonist at the mu receptors, but it also has action on other opioid receptors. Might the action at other types of receptors be responsible for what was seen in those case studies? What about the monoproduct, Subutex?

The article’s authors conclude by recommending further studies comparing intensity of opioid withdrawal in patients undergoing rapid taper or sudden discontinuation versus patients undergoing a slower 28-day taper.

I’m so intrigued by these case reports that I’d love to see a large randomized trial to answer these questions. I have seen a few patients stop taking medication suddenly at higher doses and they said they didn’t have bad withdrawals…but then I have had many others who stopped suddenly and had terrible withdrawals.

Patients on Suboxone or Subutex, what do you think?

  1. Westermeyer, Joseph MD, et. al. “Course and Treatment of Buprenorphine/naloxone Withdrawal: An Analysis of Case Reports,” American Journal on Addictions, 2012, Vol. 21 (5) pp. 401-403.

New Health Care Laws: How Will They Affect Office-based Treatment with Suboxone?

Last week, one of my office-based buprenorphine patients asked me how I thought the new healthcare laws would affect my business. I’ve considered this question with a mix of anxiety and hope. Until we have more details, I’m not certain I’ll like the new changes. And of course since I’m a healthcare provider, I’ll look at changes differently than if I were an insurance executive.

I told my patient that it will be excellent for my patients in buprenorphine (Suboxone, Subutex) treatment who don’t have insurance now, and are paying out of pocket. My patient then remarked that I’ll be much busier, because more pain pill addicts will be able to afford treatment.

“No,” I said, “I can still only have one hundred Suboxone patients at any one time, so I can’t add any new patients.”

My patient was quiet for a moment and said, “So if an addict calls you because he just got insurance to pay for his treatment, you couldn’t see him anyway?”

“That’s right, unless I lost a patient for some reason, and had an open spot for him.”

“So even if addicts get insurance, they can’t use it? That’s crazy. Why does the government have that law?”

I explained to him about the newness of the DATA 2000 Act, and that some lawmakers were skittish about this program from the beginning. They were worried Suboxone “mills” would open, where hundreds of addicts were treated with little physician oversight or precautions.

Lifting that limit would be the easiest way to get more opioid addicts into treatment.

My private practice, where I treat opioid addicts with buprenorphine (Suboxone, Subutex), is a bare bones operation. Because of the one hundred patient limit, I have enough patients to keep me busy for one day per week. On the other days, I work at opioid treatment programs. I enjoy my own office practice because of the autonomy, and because I have some great patients that I’ve known for years. But at my own office, I make far less than half what I make at the opioid treatment programs.

I have the usual fixed overhead of rent, utilities, answering service, internet, etc., and most of the money I take in goes towards that. I have a part-time health care coordinator, who makes appointments for patients, calls them to remind them of appointments, does most of my office drug screens, screens my after-hours calls, handles the filing, copying and other record-keeping tasks, and deals with those pesky pre-authorization requests that insurance companies make. (She and the counselor have decided I ought not to be allowed to talk with the insurance companies, since I often erupt into profanity).Then I have the best LCAS (Licensed Clinical Addiction Specialist) counselor in the world who works with me on Fridays, doing individual counseling (he’s my fiancé). Since I don’t file insurance, but rather give the patient a receipt so they can file it themselves, I avoid that personnel expense.

And I don’t accept Medicaid or Medicare as payment for treatment. I feel guilty for admitting that, but I don’t think I could stay in practice if I accepted what these government programs pay for treatment. When I first opened my own office in 2010, I saw a handful of these patients for free, since trying to file and going through the necessary red tape isn’t worth the pittance these programs pay for an office visit.

So if my uninsured patients get Medicaid, I’ll have to decide how to deal with that problem.

It’s not legal for me to ask patients with Medicaid and/or Medicare to pay for treatment out of their pocket unless I opt out of those programs completely for a period of years. I can’t do that because some of the other treatment facilities that I work for do bill Medicaid.

So do I start taking Medicaid, with all its headaches, red tape and low re-imbursement? I don’t know. I don’t like the thought of it, but it will perhaps become a necessity. It will depend on reimbursement rates. Plus, I’ll be paid even less since I don’t have electronic medical records. Government programs have decreed that doctors without meaningful use electronic medical records will receive less money for Medicaid/Medicare patients than doctors with these programs.

I’m not against electronic medical records. I use them effectively at both of the opioid treatment programs. One program is completely paperless, and I like that much more than I ever thought. But in my small, one hundred patient office, I can’t afford any software for medical records. It’s not practical or feasible

Since I was trained and still am board-certified as an Internal Medicine doctor, I could fill my other days with primary care patients. I was talking to another doctor who was starting her own Suboxone practice, and she was wondering how to get by financially, only practicing Addiction Medicine. She too is a former Internal Medicine doctor. I suggested she could always do some primary care.

“Just shoot me in the head,” she said, summarizing my feeling exactly. I’ve never liked primary care as much as addiction medicine, to put it mildly.

Addicts are easier to deal with, and are often nicer people than the average soccer mom, demanding an antibiotic to treat her viral upper respiratory infection. But my biggest reason for preferring addiction medicine is that addicts get better. I never saw the big changes in health when I worked in primary care, like I do in people treated for addiction. Primary care feels like a step backwards. I don’t want to go back to treating non-compliant diabetics, and overweight people who won’t exercise. I’d prefer to keep my present patients, in whom I see an intense desire to get well.

I’m addicted to seeing the big changes that I see when I work in addiction medicine. I hope the new changes in healthcare will allow me to stay in the business of helping people change. Like the rest of the U.S., I’ll have to wait and see.

Side Effects of Methadone and Suboxone: Constipation

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

So what can be done?

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

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

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

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

Methadone and Suboxone Can Cause Sweating

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

 We don’t know exactly why opioids make people sweat, but it is related to opioids’ effects on the thermoregulatory centers of the brain.

 Excess sweating can also be caused by opioid withdrawal.  If other withdrawal symptoms are present, like runny nose, muscle aches, or nausea, an increase of the methadone dose may help reduce the sweating.

 At least half of all patients on methadone report unpleasant sweating, but some patients have sweats that are more than just inconvenient. These patients report dramatic, soaking sweats, bad enough to interfere with life.

 First, non-medication methods can be attempted. These methods include common sense things like wearing loose clothing, keeping the house cool, and losing weight. Regular exercise helps some people. Talcum powder, sprinkled on the areas that sweat, can help absorb some of the moisture. Antiperspirants can be used in the underarm area, but also in any area that routinely becomes sweaty. The antiperspirant can be applied at bedtime so sweating won’t interrupt sleep. There are prescription antiperspirants, like Drysol or Xerac, but these sometimes can be irritating to the skin. Avoid spicy foods, which can also cause sweating.

 Make sure the sweating isn’t coming from any other source, like an overactive thyroid, and check your body temperature a few times, to make sure you don’t have a fever, indicating the sweating could be from a smoldering infection. A trip to the primary care doctor should include some basic blood tests to rule out medical causes of sweating, other than the dose of methadone.

 Some prescription medications can help, to varying degree, with sweating.

 Clonidine, a blood pressure medication that blocks activation of part of the central nervous system, blocks sweats in some patients.

 Anticholenergic medicines, drugs block the effect of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine in the involuntary nervous system, block sweating. Anticholinergics tend to dry all secretions, causing such common side effects as dry mouth and dry eyes. These medications can cause serious side effects, so they must be prescribed by a doctor familiar with the patient’s medical history.

 Some examples of anticholinergics include oxybutynin (also used for urinary leakage), bipereden (used in some Parkinson patients), scopolamine (also used for sea sickness), and dicyclomine (used for irritable bowel syndrome). All of these have been used for excessive sweating with various degrees of success, in some patients.

 For unusually bad situations, Botox can be injected under the skin of the most affected areas, like armpits, palms and soles. Obviously, this is somewhat of a last-resort measure.

Patients affected with severe sweats, unresponsive to any of the above measures, need to decide if the benefit they get from methadone outweighs the annoyance of the side effects. In other words, if being on methadone has kept them from active drug addiction, which is a potentially fatal illness, it would probably be worth putting up with sweating, even if it’s severe.