Posts Tagged ‘Suboxone’

Urine Drug Screens for methadone and Suboxone (buprenorphine)

Many patients who are prescribed methadone or buprenorphine (better known to some as Suboxone) are concerned about their employment drug screens. Because of the stigma attached to opioid addiction and its treatment with methadone or buprenorphine, patients don’t want their employers to know about these medications, and thus about their history of addiction.

Most companies who do urine drug screening hire a Medical Review Officer (MRO), who is a doctor specifically trained to interpret drug screen results. This doctor is a middle man between the employer and the employee, and though this doctor may ask for medical information, and information about valid prescriptions, this doctor usually can’t tell the employer this personal information. The MRO reports the screen as positive or negative, depending on information given to her.

Most employment urine drug screens check for opiates, meaning naturally-occurring substances from the opium poppy, like codeine and morphine. Man-made opioids like methadone, buprenorphine, and fentanyl, to name a few, won’t show as opiates on these drug screens.

A few employers do drug screening that specifically checks for hydrocodone or oxycodone. This is infrequent. It’s rare for employers to screen for methadone, and they almost never screen for buprenorphine, unless the patient is a healthcare professional being monitored by a licensing agency. The screen for buprenorphine is pricey, so the only doctors who tend to screen for it regularly are the ones prescribing buprenorphine. These doctors want to make sure their patients are taking, not selling, their medication.

Patients ask if they should tell their employer they are on methadone or buprenorphine. In general, that’s probably a bad idea, unless it’s a special situation. So long as you can do your job safely, your medical problems aren’t any of your boss’s business.

The only exceptions to this are if you work in a “safety sensitive” job. This includes medical professionals, transit workers, pilots, and the like. These jobs may require disclosure of medical issues to protect public safety. For example, to get a commercial driver’s license (CDL), you have to be free from illnesses which may cause a sudden loss of consciousness behind the wheel.

The Dept. of Transportation still says that if you are taking methadone for the treatment of addiction, you can’t be granted a CDL. However, most of the studies done on methadone-maintained patients shows their reflexes are the same as a person not on methadone, so there’s no real scientific reason for the DOT’s decision. (1, 3, 4) Besides, since the urine drug screen for a driver’s physical doesn’t include methadone, they won’t know unless you tell them.

Patients can be impaired, and unable to drive safely, if they have just started on methadone, haven’t become accustomed to it, or are on too high a dose. These patients shouldn’t be behind the wheel until they are stable, even in a car, let alone an 18-wheeler. Methadone patients are likely be impaired and unable to drive if they abuse benzodiazepines. They shouldn’t drive any kind of vehicle. Ditto for alcohol. (2, 5)

1. Baewert A, Gombas W, Schindler S, et.al., Influence of peak and trough levels of opioid maintenance therapy on driving aptitude, European Addiction Research 2007, 13(3),127-135. This study shows that methadone patients aren’t impaired at either peak or trough levels of methadone.

2. Bernard JP, Morland J et. al. Methadone and impairment in apprehended drivers. Addiction 2009; 104(3) 457-464. This is a study of 635 people who were apprehended for impaired driving who were found to have methadone in their system. Of the 635, only 10 had only methadone in their system. The degree of impairment didn’t correlate with methadone blood levels. Most people on methadone who had impaired driving were using more than just methadone.

3.Cheser G, Lemon J, Gomel M, Murphy G; Are the driving-related skills of clients in a methadone program affected by methadone? National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, University of New South Wales, 30 Goodhope St., Paddington NSW 2010, Australia. This study compared results of skill performance tests and concluded that methadone clients aren’t impaired in their ability to perform complex tasks.

4.Dittert S, Naber D, Soyka M., Methadone substitution and ability to drive. Results of an experimental study. Nervenartz 1999; 70: 457-462. Patients on methadone substitution therapy did not show impaired driving ability.

5.Lenne MG, Dietze P, Rumbold GR, et.al. The effects of the opioid pharmacotherapies methadone, LAAM and buprenorphine, alone and in combination with alcohol on simulated driving. Drug Alcohol Dependence 2003; 72(3):271-278. This study found driving reaction times of patients on methadone and buprenorphine don’t differ significantly from non-medicated drivers; however, adding even a small amount of alcohol (.05%) did cause impairment.

Suboxone, the “Miracle” Drug

The patient quoted in the Suboxone success story, printed in this blog over the last few days, obviously has a healthy recovery on buprenorphine, and plans to continue his present recovery program. He goes regularly to Narcotics Anonymous meetings, has a sponsor, works the twelve steps of recovery, and contributes to NA by sponsoring people and doing other service work. He had such a good outcome, because he didn’t neglect the psychological aspect of his recovery, even after Suboxone took away the physical withdrawal symptoms.

For the patients I treat with buprenorphine, the most challenging part is coaxing, coercing, and cajoling patients to get some sort of counseling. Whether they go to an individual counselor, pastoral counselor, or to 12-step meetings doesn’t matter to me. I’d love to be able to send them to local intensive outpatient treatment centers, but as will be discussed later, most of these centers require the patient be off buprenorphine completely, before they can enter treatment, which can create a curious circle of relapse. Fortunately, I know good counselors, knowledgeable about addiction and its treatments, willing to see my buprenorphine patients. They markedly benefit from this individual counseling, though group settings can give patients insights they won’t get any other way.

When buprenorphine was first released, the addiction treatment community and opioid addicts had very high hopes for this medication. Many patients say, “It’s a miracle,” on their second visit, after they‘ve started the medication. Most patients are surprised they don’t feel high, and don’t have any withdrawal symptoms.

However, it’s really not a miracle drug. It’s still an opioid, and though it’s weaker than other opioids, some patients have extreme difficulty when they try to taper off of this medication. One can read postings on internet message boards that describe the difficulty some patients have.

In my own practice, I’ve had some patients who stopped buprenorphine suddenly, and claim they had no opioid withdrawal symptoms. At the other extreme, I’ve had patients who wean to Suboxone one milligram per day and say they get a terrible withdrawal, if they go a day without even this one milligram. I’ve had many patients who gradually cut their dose on their own, until they take the medication every other day, and gradually stop it.

Patients appear to differ widely in their abilities to taper off buprenorphine. Some patients are dismayed to discover it’s just as hard to taper off of Suboxone, and stay off opioids, as it is to taper off methadone and stay off opioids.

If it’s appropriate to consider tapering a patient off of buprenorphine, best results are seen if the taper is done slowly. In the past, I have informed patients who wished to taper completely off buprenorphine that addiction counseling improves outcomes, and reduces relapse rates, but this may not be true.

Information presented at the American Psychiatric Association’s 2010 conference calls that advice into question. In a study of over six hundred prescription opioid addicts, relapse rates were remarkably high when patients were tapered over the course of one month, after two months of stabilization. (2) The addition of fairly intensive addiction counseling didn’t improve relapse rates. In the treatment as usual group, prescription opioid addicts met weekly with their doctors, and after their taper, ninety-three percent had relapsed within four weeks. Even in the group getting doctor visits plus twice- weekly one hour counseling sessions, ninety-four percent relapsed within the first four weeks after buprenorphine was tapered. This was the largest study done so far, specifically on prescription opioid addicts, as opposed to heroin addicts. The overall message from initial results of this study seems to be that adding fairly intense drug counseling doesn’t improve patient outcomes, if the buprenorphine is tapered off within the first three to four months.

Once a patient is on buprenorphine and doing well, he or she often becomes very reluctant to participate in counseling, or even 12-step meetings. Once patients feel physically back to normal, they begin to minimize the severity of their addiction, and don’t think they need any counseling.

Some patients admit they need counseling, but say they can’t afford it. This is a valid excuse, because counseling sessions can cost around a hundred dollars each. Private counselors usually like to see their patients weekly, so that’s an additional four hundred dollars per month that patients need to pay. Even patients with insurance are allowed only a limited number of sessions. Those without insurance have great difficulty affording counselor fees on top of all the other expenses, like doctors’ visits, drug screens, and medication. Patients have fewer valid excuses for not participating in Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous, since they’re free, and located in nearly every city or town. I have more patients who will go to these meetings.

1. Amass L, Bickel WK, “A preliminary investigation of outcome following gradual or rapid buprenorphine detoxification” Journal of Addictive Disease, 1994; 13:33-45.
2. Weiss RD, The American Psychiatric Association 2010 Annual Meeting: Symposium 36, presentation 4. Information from the National Drug Abuse Treatment Clinical Trials Network Prescription Opioid Addiction Treatment Study, May 23, 2010, New Orleans, LA.

Suboxone Patient’s Success Story, continued

XYZ:My brother had enough faith in me that it was worth the risk of starting this business [that he has now] together. I spent hours setting up a company in a ten foot by twenty foot room above my house. My wife and I started on EBay, making and selling [his product], and slowly grew it to the point that, three years later, I’m going to do over two million dollars in sales this year, I’ve got [large company] as a client, I’ve got [large company] as a client, I’m doing stuff locally, in the community now, and can actually give things back to the community.
JB: And you employ people in recovery?
XYZ: Oh, yeah. I employ other addicts I know I can trust. I’ve helped some people out who have been very, very successful and have stayed clean, and I’ve helped some people out who came and went, but at the same time, I gave them a chance. You can only do so much for somebody. They have to kind of want to do it themselves too, right?
JB: Have you ever had any bad experiences in the rooms of Narcotics Anonymous, as far as being on Suboxone, or do you just not talk to anybody about it?
XYZ: To be honest, I don’t broadcast it, obviously, and the only other people I would talk to about it would be somebody else who was an opioid addict, who was struggling, who was in utter misery. The whole withdrawal process…not only does it take a little while, but all that depression, the body [feels bad]. So I’ve shared with those I’ve known fairly well. I share my experience with them. I won’t necessarily tell people I don’t know well that I’m taking buprenorphine, but I will let them know about the medication. Even though the information is on the internet, a lot of it is contradictory.
It’s been great [speaking of Suboxone] for someone like me, who’s been able to put a life back together in recovery. I’d tell anybody, who’s even considering taking Suboxone, if they’re a true opioid pill addict, (I don’t know about heroin, I haven’t been there), once you get to the right level [meaning dose], it took away all of that withdrawal. And if you combine it with going to meetings, you’ll fix your head at the same time. Really. I didn’t have a job, unemployable, my family was…for a white collar guy, I was about as low as I could go, without being on the street.
Fortunately I came from a family that probably wouldn’t let that happen, at that point, but who knows, down the road… I had gotten to my low. And that’s about it, that’s about as much as I could have taken.
It [Suboxone] truly and honestly gave me my entire life back, because it took that away.
JB: What do you say to treatment centers that say, if you’re still taking methadone or Suboxone, you’re not in “real” recovery? What would you say to those people?
XYZ: To me, I look at taking Suboxone like I look at taking high blood pressure medicine, OK? It’s not mind altering, it’s not giving me a buzz, it’s not making…it’s simply fixing something I broke in my body, by abusing the hell out of it, by taking all those pain pills.
I know it’s hard for an average person, who thinks about addicts, “You did it to yourself, too bad, you shouldn’t have done that in the first place,” to be open minded. But you would think the treatment centers, by now, have seen enough damage that people have done to themselves to say, “Here’s something that we have proof that works…..”
I function normally. I get up early in the morning. I have a relationship with my wife now, after all of this, and she trusts me again. Financially, I’ve fixed all my problems, and have gotten better. I have a relationship with my kids. My wife and I were talking about it the other day. If I had to do it all over again, would I do it the way I did it? And the answer is, absolutely yes. As much as it sucked and as bad as it was, I would have still been a nine to five drone out there in corporate America, and never had the chance to do what I do. I go to work…this is dressy for me [indicating that he’s dressed in shorts and a tee shirt]
JB: So life is better now than it was before the addiction?
XYZ: It really is. Tenfold! I’m home for my kids. I wouldn’t have had the courage to have left a hundred thousand dollar a year job to start up a tee-shirt business. I had to do something. Fortunately, I was feeling good enough because of it [Suboxone], to work really hard at it, like I would have if I started it as a kid. At forty years old, to go out and do something like that…
JB: Like a second career.
XYZ: It’s almost like two lives for me. And if you’re happy, nothing else matters. I would have been a miserable, full time manager, out there working for other people and reaping the benefits for them and getting my little paycheck every week and traveling, and not seeing my wife and kids, and not living as well as I do now.
I joke, and say that I work part time now, because when I don’t want to work, I don’t have to work. And when I want to work, I do work. And there are weeks that I do a lot. But then, on Saturday, we’re going to the beach. I rented a beach house Monday through Saturday, with just me and my wife and our two kids. I can spend all my time with them. I could never have taken a vacation with them like that before.
JB: Do you have anything you’d like to tell the people who make drug addiction treatment policy decisions in this nation? Anything you want them to know?
XYZ: I think it’s a really good thing they increased the amount of patients you [meaning doctors prescribing Suboxone] can take on. I’d tell the people who make the laws to find out from the doctors…how did you come up with the one hundred patient limit? What should that number be? And get it to that number, so it could help more people. And if there’s a way to get it cheaper, because the average person can’t afford it.
The main thing I’d tell them is I know it works. I’m pretty proud of what I’ve achieved. And I wouldn’t have been able to do that, had I not had the help of Suboxone. It took me a little while to get over thinking it was a crutch. But at this point, knowing that I’ve got everybody in my corner, they’re understanding what’s going on…it’s a non-issue. It’s like I said, it’s like getting up and taking a high blood pressure medicine.

A Suboxone Patient’s Success Story

I interviewed a person with a past history of pain pill addiction, and asked him about his success with Subuxone (buprenorphine). He has had astounding success in his recovery, and has been doing great for well over three years, relapse-free. Here is what he had to say.

JB: Please tell me about your experience with pain pill addiction and your experiences with buprenorphine (Suboxone).
XYZ: For me, my opiate addiction got so bad, I was taking two hundred and forty to three hundred and twenty milligrams of OxyContin per day, just to stay normal. It had gotten really, really bad. And it started out with a reason. I had kidney stones, and I was in all this pain, but then it got to the point where it solved some other problems in my life and it got out of hand. I tried a lot of different things. I went to detox, and they helped me, but it was…it was almost like I never came out of withdrawal.
JB: How long were you off pain pills?
XYZ: Even after being clean for thirty or sixty days, I would still feel bad. Bowels, stomach…really all the time.
JB: Did it feel like acute withdrawal or just low grade withdrawal?
XYZ: No, it depended on the point…I’d try to fix it myself, sometimes, and I would just put myself back where I was. It got to the point where I was making myself sicker and sicker and sicker. And then I got off of it, and stayed off of it for a hundred and twenty days, I guess…but still just sick. Just miserable, and not feeling right. I was miserable. I wouldn’t eat, I was losing weight…
It [buprenorphine] gave me something that replaced whatever was going on in my head physically, with the receptors. It took that [prolonged withdrawal] away, to the point that I felt well. All that energy I would spend getting pills…and I was going to the doctors almost daily. Because taking that much medicine, nobody would write me for that much, so I had to doctor shop.
JB: Did you go to the internet [to order pain pills]?
XYZ: I did. But on the internet, the only things that I found were hydrocodone, so it would take a lot of those. I was concerned about my liver, from the Tylenol in them.
My only life was going to the doctors, figuring out what pharmacy I could use. I had a whole system of how many days it could be between prescriptions, what pharmacy to go to. It was sick. I was just trying to not get sick.
JB: And you were working during that time?
XYZ: Yeah! I was working, if you want to call it that. I wasn’t a very good employee, but I held a job. I was a regional vice president for “X” company. I traveled a lot, so I had new states where I could see new doctors. That was bad. When I came off the road, I owed $50,000 in credit card bills.
JB: And your wife didn’t know about it?
XYZ: No. It all came tumbling down. And I had gotten into trouble, because they were company credit cards, and they wanted the money back! So, all of the sudden my wife found out that not only do I have a pain pill problem, but we’re $50,000 short, and I wasn’t very ethical in the way I got the money, because it really wasn’t my credit, it was my company’s credit card.
JB: So addiction made you do things you wouldn’t do otherwise?
XYZ: Absolutely. I lied to people, I took money from people, I ran up credit cards tens of thousands of dollars, and really put my family in serious jeopardy at that time. But buprenorphine took away that whole obsessive-compulsive need for pills, made me feel better, and took away all the withdrawal symptoms at the same time. I didn’t worry about it.
To be honest, I was such a hypochondriac before. I haven’t been sick in years now. I haven’t had a backache or headache that ibuprofen didn’t cure [since starting recovery]. I was fortunate it was all in my head. I would milk any little thing. I had two knee operations that probably could have been healed through physical therapy, but I was all for surgery, because I knew I’d get pain pills.
JB: That’s the power of addiction!
XYZ: I did some research about this [meaning buprenorphine].
JB: How did you do your research?
XYZ: Online. Actually, I had some good family members, who did some research and brought it to me, because they were concerned for me, and they brought it to me and said, “Hey, there’s a medicine that can help. Call this number,” and I found places out there that would do it [meaning Suboxone], but my concern was the speed that a lot of them were doing it. A lot of them said, OK come in, and we can evaluate you, and after a week you’ll be down to this, and after a month you’ll be down to this.
This was in 2005. And when I asked them what their success rate is, it wasn’t very high. It was something like twenty percent of the people who were doing it [succeeded]. So when I’d finally gotten a hold of “X,” [receptionist for Dr. Hall], she saved my life over the phone. Because she said, you can come tomorrow, and she said that whatever it takes, they’ll work with you. And I felt good about going to a place where it wasn’t already determined how long it would take. Because I already knew how I was feeling after I would come off of opiates. I didn’t want to do that again.
I saw Dr. Hall and felt better within twenty-four hours, although it took a little while to get the dosage right. I think we started off at a lower dose, then we went up on the dose and it kept me so level. I had no symptoms. It cured my worst withdrawal symptoms, my stomach and my bowels.
There’s always a kind of stigma in the rooms [12-step recovery meetings] because I’d been in NA for a little bit of time then [he’s speaking of stigma against medication-assisted treatment]. You realize who [among addicts in NA] is die-hard, one way to do recovery, and who is willing to be educated about some things and understand that there’s more than one way to skin a cat.
And I was fortunate that I had a sponsor at that time, and still do, who was willing to learn about what exactly it was, and not make me feel guilty about it. It wasn’t necessarily the way he would do it, but he was a cocaine addict, so he didn’t understand that whole part of it.
He said, “Your family’s involved, you’ve got a doctor that’s involved, your doctor knows your history. If all these people, who are intelligent, think this is an OK thing, then who am I to say it’s not going to work?” He was open-minded. And there are not a lot of people I would trust right off the bat [in recovery], that I would tell them. [that he’s taking Suboxone]. I’ve shared it with some people who’ve had a similar problem, and told them, here’s something that might help you. I always preface it with, [don’t do] one thing or another, you’ve got to do them together. You have to have a recovery program and take this medicine, because together it will work. Look at me. I’m a pretty good success story.
One of my best friends in Florida called me, and I got him to go see a doctor down there, and he’s doing well now. He’s been on it almost eleven months now and no relapses.
To me, it takes away the whole mental part of it, because you don’t feel bad. For me, it was the feeling bad that drove me back to taking something [opioids] again. Obviously, when you’re physically feeling bad, you’re mentally feeling bad, too. It makes you depressed, and all of that, so you avoid doing fun things, because you don’t feel good.
Once I trained myself with NA, how to get that portion of my life together, to use those tools, not having any kind of physical problems made it that much easier to not obsess.
JB: So, how has your life improved, as a result of being on buprenorphine?
XYZ: Well, the most important thing for me is that I’ve regained the trust of my family. I was the best liar and manipulator there was. I’d like to think of myself as a pretty ethical and honest person, in every aspect of my life, other than when it came to taking pills.
JB: So, you regained the trust of your family, felt physically better…
XYZ: I gained my life back! Fortunately, I had enough of a brain left to know it had to stop. Once I started on buprenorphine, it gave me back sixteen hours a day that I was wasting. That’s when I decided I really don’t want to jeopardize my recovery, by going out and looking for a job again [he means a job in corporate America, like he had in the past], because I’ve got this thing, this stigma…they’re going to check a reference and I’m screwed. I’m not going to get a job doing what I was doing for the same amount of money.

…to be continued