Posts Tagged ‘methadone induction’

Methadone Induction: Be Careful

Graphic illustrating how methadone blood level rises over five days with no dose change

 

 

 

This blog is written with gratitude to Thomas Payte M.D., a leader in the field of Addiction Medicine, who passed away in 2019.  Many years ago, I listened to an ASAM (American Society of Addiction Medicine) lecture by Dr. Payte (on cassette tape, which shows how long ago this was) that changed the way I did methadone induction.

At the time I started working at an opioid treatment program, I felt much empathy for the patients suffering opioid withdrawal when I admitted them to treatment. With the best intentions, I wanted to help them get out of withdrawal as quickly as possible, so I started them at doses higher than I probably should have and increased their doses daily. The other physicians I worked with practiced in a similar way, so I thought that was the way it should be done.

We had patient induction deaths. I learned some things the hard way, but also started going to ASAM conferences and listening to ASAM lectures, which was when I had the good fortune to hear Tom Payte.

Decades later, I can’t be sure exactly what he said, but this is what I remember:

He cautioned that induction deaths were relatively rare but devastating. If we start every patient on 30mg, eventually a patient will die during induction. That shook me up, because not only was I starting patients on 30mg, quite often I was dividing their dose on Day 1 to get a total of 40mg. He said patients inherently metabolize methadone at very different rates, and sooner or later a slow metabolizer would arrive for induction, and rapid increases in dosing during induction would be fatal.

Dr. Payte wasn’t unsympathetic to patient misery in opioid withdrawal. He just reminded me that we must temper compassion with science.

Today, induction guidelines look very different from the way I was practicing back when I started. I have changed my induction practices a great deal over the years as I’ve learned more.

Physicians who work at opioid treatment programs have so much more information available now than when I started in this field. It’s so easy to get colleague input about problems: at a national level, there’s the PCSS system, which stands for Providers Clinical Support System, a system for providing information and even mentors for providers who would like them (https://pcssnow.org/)

At our state level, the North Carolina Governor’s Institute has contracted with me and with Dr. Eric Morse, so that we can be available for questions from providers at any opioid treatment program in the state at any time.

Recently, at an organizational level, our Acadia programs in North Carolina arranged for a monthly phone call for physicians and physician extenders to discuss problems and concerns on a monthly phone call.

ASAM has all sorts of guidelines and position statements (asam.org). SAMHSA has publications to help physicians (https://store.samhsa.gov/)

Because of all this help that’s available, there’s no reason for any provider working at an opioid treatment program in the U.S. to be ignorant of current methadone induction recommendations.

I recently blogged about ASAM’s newly updated guidelines for the treatment of opioid use disorders. In those guidelines, initial dose of methadone, “ranges from 10 to 30mg, with reassessment as clinically indicated (typically in 2 to 4 hours)…” and then goes on to say, “methadone…generally should not be increased every day.” The guidelines recommend methadone be increased no more than 10mg approximately every 5 days.

If you are a provider who is starting every patient at 30mg and then increasing the dose daily, stop it. You are going to have an overdose sooner or later.

And although these guidelines did say that benzodiazepine use should not be a reason to suspend or withhold treatment with methadone or buprenorphine, they did make it clear that use of sedative-hypnotics with these medications increases the risk of serious side effects.

In other words, we shouldn’t deny treatment to patients with a co-occurring benzodiazepine use disorder, but we can’t admit them and carry on like their risk is the same as other patients who aren’t on benzodiazepines. Consider lower methadone starting doses and consider slower rates of induction for these more fragile patients. Consider closer observation and more frequent drug screening

The provider has a lot more work to do when a patient is using benzodiazepines. First, that provider needs to figure out, if possible, how extensive that patient’s use is, and decide the appropriate setting for methadone induction. That may need to be at an inpatient facility.

Second, since benzodiazepine prescribing guidelines recommend these medications not be prescribed for longer than three months, except for end-of-life care, an ongoing prescription must be explained. The prescribers of benzodiazepines must be talked to. In my area, most of the benzodiazepines are prescribed by a handful of practitioners.  When I talk to these prescribers, they say the patient complains of anxiety, indicating they think this justifies ongoing benzodiazepines.

That’s not good enough. Benzodiazepines aren’t first-line medications for anxiety disorders. Like opioids did for pain, it appears benzodiazepines make people more anxious when they are used long-term. Benzodiazepines make post-traumatic stress disorder worse, and they complicate ordinary grief reactions. Yet many patients are prescribed benzodiazepines for these reasons.

Third, a plan must be formulated to reduce the risk for the patient. In most cases, this means a reduction in benzodiazepine use by some method. If the patient can control their use of benzos, their prescriber can gradually lower their dose. Most of the time the patient can come off benzodiazepines, or at least get by with much less of these medications. In the meantime, a more appropriate medication for anxiety can be started for better treatment of anxiety.

In many cases, the patient needs trauma-focused therapy to address old issues. Many, perhaps most, of our patients have experienced serious physical, sexual, or emotional trauma in their lives. Appropriate counseling and medication can be just as life-changing for patients as can treatment for their opioid use disorder.

Since alcohol is as big a risk as benzodiazepines, the same cautions during methadone induction need to be taken for patients with alcohol use disorders. Start with lower doses and increase more slowly.

More cautious induction must be considered for medically fragile patients: those with underlying pulmonary disease, lower body weight, those on multiple medications, and the “elderly” over fifty years old. And be sure to ask about opioid use over the preceding week. If a patient was admitted to a detoxification unit, or just got out of jail or a hospital, their opioid tolerance will be lower, and the patient needs a lower methadone starting dose.

If their admission drug screen is negative for opioids, stop for a moment to consider what this means. Does the patient really have opioid use disorder? Has the patient taken an opioid recently that doesn’t show on your drug screen? Or has the patient been unable to use opioids for the last several days? If the latter is true, consider a lower starting dose.

Don’t do cookie-cutter inductions. Carefully evaluate each new patient and gather all the data that you can, including history and physical, old records, the prescription monitoring program, and other treating physicians to help you make the best decisions possible. There will always be that pull…trying to get the patient out of opioid withdrawal so they can stop using dangerous illicit opioids….while trying to provide safe methadone induction.

I’ve written mostly about methadone induction because it’s much trickier than buprenorphine. Methadone is much less forgiving during induction than buprenorphine. With buprenorphine induction, just make sure you don’t start too soon and make your patient sick. At times I wish all my patients could do well on buprenorphine, but that’s not possible. We will never have one medication that works well for everyone. Many patients never feel right on buprenorphine, or it isn’t strong enough to treat their opioid use disorder.

I’m more cautious with methadone induction prescribing now than when I started many years ago. This is from a combination of experience and learning from experts. I strongly recommend the latter form of learning; it’s much less painful.

Methadone Overdose Deaths: First Two Weeks

Methadone

 

Methadone is a tricky drug to start, due to the narrow margin between therapeutic dose and fatal dose. Making it more difficult, people vary a great deal in the rate at which they metabolize methadone.  Some people have a methadone half -life as short as 15 hours, while others have half- lives as long as 60hours. The average is 22 hours. So even for people with a high tolerance to other opioids, increasing methadone too quickly can be deadly.

Methadone’s long half-life makes it good for a maintenance medication, since after stabilization, there’s not much fluctuation in the blood levels. However, the long half-life makes it more difficult to adjust the dose. The change I make in a patient’s dose today may not be fully experienced by the patient for five or more days.

The tolerance to the anti-pain effect of methadone builds faster than the tolerance to respiratory suppression, adding to the danger. When methadone is used inappropriately, patients may take more methadone to relieve pain, but by the time the pain is gone, they could easily have taken a methadone overdose.

All of this explains why the first two weeks of methadone maintenance treatment are the most dangerous. According to some studies, death rates for patients starting methadone at opioid treatment programs are actually higher during the first two weeks than when using illicit opioids. (1, 2)

Even so, it’s a risk worth taking, given the proven life-saving benefits of methadone (and buprenorphine) maintenance

Patient overdose during the first two weeks is a serious concern for doctors working at opioid treatment programs. We must do all we can to keep patients safe. It’s a fine line; if we start at too low of a dose or go up too slowly, we risk having our patients drop out of treatment. And if we increase the dose too quickly, it increases the risk of overdose…

The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) recently updated their methadone induction guidelines. In past years, doctors working at opioid treatment programs (OTPs) tended to start patients at 30-40mg and increase the dose rather quickly. Now, the expert ASAM panel recommends a starting dose of 10-30mg. If that dose isn’t sufficient to suppress withdrawal, a second dose can be given after three hours, so long as the total dose is not greater than 40mg. The expert panel recommends increasing the dose no more quickly than every five days, and no more than five milligrams at a time.

Some patients are more susceptible to overdose, and physicians should consider lower methadone starting doses for these people:

-Age over 60

-Using sedating drugs like benzodiazepines

-Regularly consume alcohol

-Are on prescription medications which can interact with methadone

-Medically fragile patients, for example patients with coronary artery disease, morbid obesity, -chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or sleep apnea

-Have risk factors for prolonged QT interval, such as a recent heart attack, personal history of heart rhythm problems, or family history of heart disease

-Patients who have been abstinent from opioids for five or more days (e.g. recent incarceration, recent detoxification or hospitalization). These patients lose some of their tolerance and might be more prone to overdose with any opioid.

 

Interestingly, the degree of withdrawal that the patient has when entering treatment does not correlate with the dose of methadone they will need to get rid of withdrawal symptoms. In other words, one person in terrible withdrawal may need a smaller dose than another person with milder withdrawal. The degree of withdrawal that a patient feels is only partly due to opioid tolerance. Genetic makeup may be the reason why some people have more severe withdrawal than other people.

While I always ask my new patients how much opioid they have been using per day, that alone doesn’t determine methadone starting doses. There’s incomplete cross-tolerance between other opioids and methadone, meaning we can’t use the table of equianalgesic doses.

Last week I found an interesting article describing a large study of Canadian methadone patients, which will contribute even more to what we already know about risk during the first two weeks of methadone. This study showed which patient characteristics are associated with overdose death.

The study was done in Canada from 1994 until 2010, and covered over 43,000 patients enrolled in an opioid treatment program in those years. The study looked at all overdose deaths in this patient population and found 175 deaths deemed to be from opioids. These cases were matched with patients who entered treatment around the same time as the patient who died, creating a nested case-control study.

This study found, as expected, a higher degree of risk in the first few weeks on treatment. In this study, patients in the first two weeks of treatment were 16 times more likely to die in the first two weeks of treatment than any other time in treatment.

Psychotropic drugs were associated with a two-fold risk of overdose death overall, with antipsychotics associated with a 2.3-fold risk and benzodiazepines a 1.6-fold increased risk. Antidepressants were not associated with increased risk of overdose death. Alcohol use disorder diagnosis was also associated with a two-fold increase risk of overdose death.

Even more interesting, heart disease was associated with over five times increased risk of overdose death, and serious lung disorders (sleep apnea, COPD) were associated with a 1.7 times increase in overdose death.

This is a powerful study because it was so large.

This is information I can use. I’ve been stressing about patients whom I thought were at increased risk – those who use alcohol and benzodiazepines, and those with severe lung disease. While these patients are at higher risk, from this study it appears patients on anti-psychotics are at even higher risk. And I need to do a better job of getting patients to see primary care doctors, to screen for heart disease, which gave the highest risk of all.

As time goes on, I think we’ll get more information about which patients are at higher risk. Those patients need a higher degree of interaction with treatment center staff, and better coordination of care with mental health providers and primary care doctors. I know I plan to implement a system at the OTP where I work to make sure I see patients more often if they have the risk factors described.

Obviously any patient death is a terrible thing. Of course it’s worst for the family, but it also affects the treatment team. I feel badly for the families of those 175 patients in the Canadian study who died, but they gave us information that can hopefully help us provide better care for future patients.

 

  1. Caplehorn et al, “Mortality Associated with New South Wales Methadone Programs in 1994: Lives Lost and Saved,” Medical Journal of Australia, 1999 Feb 1;170(3):104-109
  2. Cousins et al, “Risks of drug-related mortality during periods of transition in methadone maintenance treatment: A cohort study,” Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, October 2011, Vol 41(3); pp252-260.
  3. Leece et al, “Predictors of opioid-related death during methadone therapy,” Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, Oct 2015,