Posts Tagged ‘injecting buprenorphine’

Injection of Transmucosal Buprenorphine Products

As I’ve said before on this blog, may people find my site by googling phrases like “inject buprenorphine,” so obviously people want information about that topic. I know what I’ve seen in my patients, but that’s anecdotal information, so I searched online for more scientific information.

Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, otherwise known as the MMWR, is published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In their August 14, 2020 issue, they discussed emergency department visits for complications from injecting buprenorphine products meant to be used sublingually (under the tongue). This formulation is the most frequently prescribed form of buprenorphine. [1]

The authors of the MMWR cited several studies pertinent to the topic. First, a study by Geller et al. looked at emergency department visits resulting from nonmedical use of prescription opioids. Of the 598 cases observed by one health system between 2016 to 2018, around one-third of those emergency department visits were for the treatment of intravenous use of sublingual buprenorphine products.

Of the patients who had complications from injecting buprenorphine products, two-thirds were male, and the average age was 33. Most of these visits (85%) involved the combination product buprenorphine/naloxone. In two thirds of the cases, patients were treated and released from the emergency department or left against medical advice, so most of these patients were not admitted to the hospital.

 In around a third of these patients, other non-pharmaceutical drugs were involved, such as cocaine or heroin.

In another study of one hundred and one emergency department cases of injection of buprenorphine products,  most of those patients had either skin abscess or cellulitis, but around 6% had serious infections such as endocarditis (infected heart valve), sepsis (blood infection) or septic arthritis (bacterial infection of a joint space). These last ailments usually require prolonged hospitalization and treatment with antibiotics.

The MMWR article concluded by saying buprenorphine is an important component of the public health response to opioid use disorders, and that patients may benefit from syringe exchange programs, information about infection prevention practices, and linkage to recovery support services.

I’ve written about the intravenous use of buprenorphine products in past blogs (January 15, 2017 and November 1, 2015). Clearly, medication meant to be used under the tongue is not safe to inject. This medication isn’t sterile, and besides the actual buprenorphine, there are fillers and other substances in the tablets and films that aren’t meant to be injected into veins. These substances can clog the veins, causing clots, or cause infections that can lead to abscesses.

For one thing, buprenorphine mono- and combo- tablets are made with a substance called “amidon” which is a starch that helps the tablet hold its shape. This substance appears to cause specific findings when injected through the skin into veins and may cause the inflammation and irritation we see in patients who inject this product.

So why do people inject buprenorphine? There are several reasons, chief among them being buprenorphine’s poor sublingual bioavailability. Injection of a drug means, by definition, that 100% of the drug makes it to the person’s bloodstream. Sublingual use of buprenorphine, either in the monoproduct or combination product form, has at best around 40% bioavailability. Patients buying buprenorphine on the street often feel that they are wasting money if they use tablets sublingually as the medication was intended and are tempted to inject buprenorphine to make it go farther.

But there are other reasons. Some patients get just as addicted to the “rush” of injecting as they do to the actual drugs. Some people feel a euphoria as soon as they start the act of injecting – preparing the needle, etc. – even before the drug is in their bloodstream. This yearning for intravenous use can be a difficult part of the addiction to defeat. I’ve had many patients in treatment who still feel an obsession to inject their buprenorphine, even though we could increase their sublingual dose to provide a therapeutic blood level.

As the information from MMWR shows, people are injecting both the monoproduct and the combination product, though the monoproduct has higher black-market value and is more desirable than the combination product.  As the study showed, 85% of the patients presenting to the emergency department after injecting buprenorphine used the combination product.

I’ve asked patients how they can inject a product that’s supposed to put them into withdrawal. Most of them shrug and say they still get a drug effect, and that if it makes them sick, it’s for a short time only. This puzzles me, since I was sold on the idea that patients could not inject the combination product without serious adverse side effects. Or maybe that’s why the people who injected the combination products went to the emergency department – they felt sick with precipitated withdrawal?

From the MMWR data, I conclude that injection use of buprenorphine occurs frequently. On the one hand, it’s probably safer then injecting heroin, now loaded with either pure fentanyl or various percentages of fentanyl and its analogues. On the other hand, injection of buprenorphine carries increased medical risk seen with any type of intravenous drug use, plus the tablets appear to be particularly caustic to veins and other soft tissues and can cause serious health issues.

At our opioid treatment program, we used to do observed dosing with buprenorphine products just like we do with methadone. Pre-COVID, we asked our patients to sit in a designated area while their dose dissolved. We did this so that patients wouldn’t be tempted to leave our facility with medication in their mouth then spit it out in the parking lot so that they could inject it.

I’ve had a few patients tell me that they were able to do this despite our precautions, and they got substantial infections. This is probably because ordinary human saliva contains some bacteria that causes big problems when injected into the bloodstream

Since COVID, we allow patients to leave our facility as soon as they place medication under their tongues, to reduce the time patients are exposed to other patients. However, if a certain patient has struggled with intravenous buprenorphine use in the past, I’ll ask that patient to stay in the dosing cubicle until he has completed dissolved the medication, so that he won’t be tempted to inject medication. And the patient won’t get take home doses until he makes significant progress in recovery, to the point he’s not at risk of injecting medication.

Upon admission, if a patient admits to past intravenous buprenorphine use, I’ll talk to that patient about starting methadone instead of buprenorphine. Methadone isn’t often injected, at least not for pharmacologic reasons, since it has such good oral bioavailability.

I do not think patients who inject buprenorphine products are appropriate for office-based treatment practices. I think those patients need to be referred to opioid treatment programs, where we have the experience and ability to address this situation. I know some good practitioners who disagree with me about this idea, feeling that any treatment at all is preferable to no treatment. I understand their thinking is based on harm reduction principles, but I also know that with other chronic medical illnesses, we refer the most complicated patients to specialists. The specialists at treating opioid use disorder should be found at opioid treatment programs.

After all, OTPs have been treating opioid use disorders with medication for decades, long before our recent opioid crisis.  I’ve come to realize that even office-based providers of buprenorphine rarely refer patients to OTPs. Incredibly, many office-based providers hold the same stigma towards OTPs as other medical professionals, and this needs to change.

But that’s a topic for a whole other blog.

Injecting Buprenorphine (Suboxone, Subutex)

aaaaaainjecting

I know why addicts inject buprenorphine (Subutex): they think it saves them money. Over the long run, however, I doubt that’s true, given the hidden costs of addiction.

Buprenorphine has a relatively low bioavailability, at around 30%, when taken sublingually (under the tongue). This means only 30% of the total dose reaches the blood stream. If the pH of the mouth is lowered, bioavailability is reduced even further. This is why we recommend patients on buprenorphine avoid eating or drinking anything acidic for about twenty minutes prior to taking their dose.

By definition, when a drug in injected, it has 100% bioavailability. Therefore, some people inject their prescribed buprenorphine in order to get the desired blood level with a lower dose of buprenorphine. If they are prescribed 8mg per day, perhaps they use 4mg intravenously and sell the rest of their dose, or stockpile it.

People who misuse buprenorphine in this way may be blinded by their addiction to the multiple dangers of injecting drugs.

Anytime humans inject drugs into their bodies that weren’t meant to be injected, problems will occur. All sorts of medical complications can arise, which can cause exorbitant medical bills for drug users…and tax payers.

Skin: These pills weren’t meant to be injected, so they are not sterile. Buprenorphine does come in a sterile ampule to be used intravenously in healthcare settings, but I doubt that form would be found on the street for sale. The sublingual pills and film have bacteria in them, and we all have bacteria on our skin. Inevitably, some bacteria “go along for the ride” when pill matter is injected. This can cause skin and soft tissue infection of varying severity. Patients who inject can get anything from a mild cellulitis, which is an infection of the skin and soft tissues underneath, to life-threatening sepsis, which is a blood infection from bacteria. Many patients get abscesses, which are localized pockets of pus which must be drained in order to resolve.

The worst skin infection is called necrotizing fasciitis, which is a rapidly progressive infection that kills tissue. It’s also known as “flesh eating” bacteria. Often, surgeons have to remove whole infected areas of this dead tissue in order to save the patient’s life.

Scars and track marks are probably the most common skin manifestation of intravenous drug use. These can be minimized by also using a new needle, and not re-using needles.

As an aside, please don’t try to treat your own skin infections by yourself. I’ve seen horrible complications when patients try to drain abscesses on their own. And that leftover antibiotic you have on the shelf at home may not be a good choice to treat skin infections, particularly not the newer resistant bacteria.

Cardiovascular system: The tablets aren’t pure buprenorphine. The manufacturer’s website lists corn starch as another main ingredient. I don’t know for sure what that does to veins, but I know I use it in the kitchen to thicken a concoction if it’s too liquid. I imagine it does the same thing to blood in the veins. Even if the addict uses something to filter what he is injecting, some particles can still get through to the veins. Risks can be minimized by using a micron filter.

Again, bacteria can cause problems in the cardiovascular system. Sepsis, an overwhelming blood infection, can lead to endocarditis. This is a serious and life-threatening infection of heart valves. If the infection destroys a heart valve, heart surgery with valve replacement may be necessary.

Thrombophlebitis is a condition where the veins become clotting and possibly infected, usually at the injection site but sometimes further “downstream” in the vein. If this occurs in the deep veins pieces can break off and go to the lungs, causing pulmonary emboli.

If a drug is accidently injected into an artery instead of a vein, catastrophic complications can occur, including loss of limb below the level of injection. The artery becomes damaged which causes inflammation and clotting. The patient usually feels intense pain and burning immediately after injecting. Some sources suggest this can be treated with elevation of the limb and blood thinners, so go to your local emergency room if this happens to you.

Pulmonary: Corn starch and other particles like talc can cause clots and inflammation, creating structures called granulomata. As more granulomata are created, oxygen exchange in the lungs becomes more difficult, causing low oxygen levels in the patient.

Pulmonary emboli are clots from the venous blood system that break off and travel to the pulmonary arteries. When these clots are large enough, they can kill rapidly. The patient may have sharp chest pain, feel short of breath, and have a fast heart rate with low blood pressure. Blood can’t travel through the lungs to get oxygen, and the patient dies from lack of oxygenated blood. Even small clots can cause serious problems, particularly if they are also infected with bacteria.

This list isn’t complete – many other medical problems occur with intravenous drug use. Of course the most common may be transmission of the Hepatitis C or B viruses if needle/syringes/injection works are shared, as well as HIV. There are weird things like endophthalmitis, and infection of the internal eye, and other medical problems too numerous to list.

Opioid addicts using intravenously can get addicted to the process of injection. The brain repeatedly associates the ritual of injection with a rush of pleasure, and so the whole act of injecting can be difficult to stop. I’ve had patients on methadone and buprenorphine who continue to inject saline with no drugs just to feel the rush from using a needle. This can be overcome with time and counseling, but some patients have enormous difficulty with this.

So if you are reading this and considering injecting your buprenorphine in order to save money, please don’t do it. You will likely end up paying much more in the long run, and I don’t necessarily mean in a financial sense.