Posts Tagged ‘taper off Suboxone’

Tapering Off Suboxone: Three Patients’ Success Stories

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This year I’ve had three long-term patients taper off the buprenorphine products I was prescribing. All three are doing well and are happy with their treatment outcome. Since tapering off buprenorphine products can be challenging, I thought I’d share their stories, to help other people who wish to taper off buprenorphine. (Note that when I say buprenorphine, I mean to include all the brands and generics: Suboxone, Zubsolv, Bunavail, generic combination product buprenorphine/naloxone and the generic monoproduct buprenorphine.)

The first patient had been on buprenorphine for over ten years. She saw one of the first physicians to prescribe buprenorphine, and I inherited her from this prescriber after he retired.

When she started Suboxone, which at that time were only available in tablet form, she stabilized at eight milligrams. She stayed on that dose for about four years. She saw her prescriber monthly for the first year and a half, then every other month. By the time she started seeing me, she had cut her dose to 4mg per day without too much difficulty. When the suboxone films were available, we switched to those, both because that’s what her insurance would pay for and because I thought she could taper more easily with films.

Over the first year with me, she brought her dose down to 2mg per day, reducing by a half milligram every three or four months. I then switched her to the 2mg films, and she continued to cut off more and more from her films. I gave her some guidance, but she largely managed her taper on her own.

After a year or two, she asked me to prescribe only fifteen films per month, since she was taking half of a film per day. A year later, she had dropped to only a forth of a film per day, and needed only eight films per month. This slowly progressed until she had brought her dose down to one-sixteenth of a two milligram film which she took every other day.

That’s right…she was taking .125milligrams every other day. Her urine drug screen still showed positive for buprenorphine at her visits. I told her I thought she could stop taking that dose and not have any withdrawal symptoms, but she told me she still felt withdrawal if she missed her every other day dose. I didn’t push her; I didn’t mind prescribing only one 2milligram film per month!

She continued at this dose for over a year. When she missed a visit earlier this year, I asked my staff to call her. Sure enough, she forgot to take her dose for several days, and didn’t feel any withdrawal. I offered to see her one more time, to talk about relapse prevention and options to give her insurance against a relapse (Vivitrol), but she didn’t want another visit. I congratulated her and told her if she had questions or problems in the future to call us.

During her last year or so, we talked regularly about relapse prevention. We made plans for what to do if she had a catastrophic medical problem that required pain medication (broken bone, surgery, etc.). We discussed other big relapse triggers, such as strong negative emotions, and being around people who had opioids or other drugs.

This patient was very involved with 12-step recovery. Even after so many years of recovery, she went to three or more meetings per week. She had a sponsor and served as a sponsor to newer members. She had relatives in 12-step programs, and most of her friends were members of 12-step recovery groups.

The second patient also tapered her dose over years. I knew her for around fifteen years, first as a patient at an opioid treatment program, where she dosed on methadone. She did well from the start, though she had some slips with non-opioid illicit drugs.

She didn’t care for the restrictive nature of the opioid treatment program, so when she’d been doing well there for several years, I told her about the new option of buprenorphine treatment through an office setting. She decided that was what she wanted to do, and proceeded to taper her methadone dose, slowly.

Once she was down to 30mg, which took about six months, she made an appointment with an office-based physician, who started her at suboxone 16mg per day. When that physician retired less than a year after she started Suboxone, she transferred to my office-based program.

By the time she transferred to my office-based program, she was down to 12mg per day. Just like the first patient, she steadily tapered her own dose. She reduced her dose by an estimated milligram of Suboxone every four months.

I say estimated because cutting the Suboxone films is largely guesswork, and the manufacturer says there are no studies to show buprenorphine is evenly distributed over the film. While that’s true, buprenorphine is so long-acting that I wonder how much variation patients get in their blood levels, even with uneven distribution.

Just like with the first patient, we switched her to the 2mg film once she got to a 2mg per day dose. She continued to reduce on her own. She would cut her dose and wait for a month or two before going down again. I saw her only every two months, given her stability. She had negative drug screens, always kept her appointments, and lead a productive life. I gave her as much advice as I could, but I was impressed that she was able to listen to her body and taper only as fast as she was comfortable.

Once she was taking one-eighth of a 2 milligram film (.25mg), she stopped her medication. I saw her for one last planned visit, and we talked about how she felt. At that point, she’d been off buprenorphine for four weeks. She noticed aches and pains more intensely than in the past, but said it wasn’t anything ibuprofen or Tylenol couldn’t fix. It took a little longer to get to sleep, but she was still functioning well as a mother to her four children. She was ecstatic to be finished with medication-assisted treatment, and she knows that – heaven forbid – if she does relapse, to call quickly and come to see me to get back on buprenorphine.

Again, we had been discussing relapse triggers for months. We also discussed naltrexone, available as a once monthly shot called Vivitrol, as insurance against a relapse but she decided against it. She felt she didn’t need it.

She did individual counseling while she was a patient at the opioid treatment program, but hasn’t done much counseling recently. She saw a therapist many years ago, after a traumatic life event, but didn’t feel she needed to continue with this. She tried 12-step recovery but didn’t feel it was right for her.

Initially I worried she wouldn’t make progress in her recovery without continuing to see a therapist, but when I saw how well she was functioning in life, I decided not to push the issue. The only counseling she got was with me, during our 20-minute office visits. I’m not a trained therapist, but I like to think I have developed some skills over the years.

Her life changed completely over the past ten or so years she’s been on medication-assisted treatment. Early on, she let go of drug-using friends and acquaintances. She became focused on what was important to her: her young family and her extended family. She got a part-time job after her youngest child started school, to afford some extras for the family. Her husband is in his final stages of taper from buprenorphine, and she hasn’t rushed him, letting him take his own time, just like she did.

Drug use holds no allure for her; she hasn’t had any cravings or desires for any sort of drugs for years.

My third patient to taper off this year just saw me several weeks ago. It’s been over eight years since she used any illicit drugs. At her last visit, she declared this to be her last visit, saying her last buprenorphine had been taken six weeks prior, and that she felt fine.

She has been at a dose of less than 8mg for about two years, and less than 2mg per day for at least the last eight months. She tapered on the generic combination tablets, buprenorphine/naloxone 2/.5mg, cutting them into quarters. Once she got to one-quarter per day (.5mg), she took one of these quarters every other day for several weeks and then stopped completely.

Again, we’ve been discussing relapse prevention for literally years. Again, she decided against starting naltrexone as a safety net against relapse, feeling she didn’t need this medication. She was happy and smiling and was very kind when she thanked me for helping her these past years. I told her it was truly my pleasure, and I was honored to be even a small part of her success.

These three patients have common themes in their successes. All three had very support families who didn’t rush them to get off buprenorphine or shame them from being on it. I also didn’t pressure them. I said I’ll do everything I can do to help you taper off this medication, but there’s nothing wrong with staying on it either, if that’s what you prefer.

This left the decision in their hands. All three said this was important, since they had control over when/if/how they tapered. Once I told one of these patients to listen to her body, since she was the expert on her body and how it felt. This resonated with her, and she thanked me for saying that. She felt that took the pressure from her to try to meet someone else’s expectations.

These three patients all tapered their dose very gradually, over periods of not days or weeks, but months and years. While such slow tapers can be frustrating, not to mention expensive, to people who want a quicker exit off medication, maybe slow tapers allow the body more time to adjust to changes in dosage.

Two of the three patients exercise regularly at a gym. The third is also active, and walks nearly daily. Exercise usually helps us to feel better, both physically and emotionally. I wonder if exercise also boosts endorphin, our body’s own opioid. I’ve started recommended patients start a reasonable exercise program in advance of starting a dose taper.

All three of these patients have faced serious adversity in the past and survived it. This tells me they have skills they can use in their recovery. All three had tremendous resolve to do what was necessary to get their lives back. They kept at it, accepted the few setbacks that came their way as part of the process, and kept moving forward, even though progress was slow at times.

I admire all these patients. All have excellent prognosis, and we’ve talked about how opioid use disorder is a chronic illness. They need to be on guard against relapses the rest of their lives, and if relapse happens, I think they will know what to do.

I have another crop of patients who are dosing at 4mg or less of buprenorphine per day, all in the process of tapering. I’ll update my blog with those stories after they taper.

 

Advertisements

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.

Tapering off Methadone or Buprenorphine (Suboxone): Pain and Relapse

Physical pain is a relapse trigger for recovering opioid addicts, especially after they’ve tapered off maintenance medications. While on maintenance medications, most patients can no longer get high from opioids, and so are less likely to take prescribed opioid medication in destructive ways. Once off maintenance medications, patients can again feel euphoria from opioids, even when taking opioid medications as prescribed. This can lead to medication misuse and eventual relapse back into active addiction.

Pain can be acute (think broken bones or a kidney stone), or more chronic and persistent, as in chronic back pain. Acute pain by definition resolves within a short time, and there are ways to reduce the risk of relapse for the relatively short time opioids are necessary. Before a patient on maintenance medications (methadone or Suboxone) even begins a taper, he should have a clear plan for handling an acutely painful event.

Here are some ideas:

  • Tell the prescribing physician that you’ve had problems with addiction to opioids in the past. Try to use a non-opioid pain medication if possible
  • If you have to take opioids, ask the doctor to prescribe fewer pills at a time, and have more frequent follow up visits, for more accountability
  • Have a dependable non-addict hold your pill bottle and dispense to you as prescribed.
  • Tell your circle of supporters, whether that’s friends, family, and/or your 12-step group members that you need to take pain pills, and could use extra support and accountability.
  • Read the booklet published by Narcotics Anonymous, “In Times of Illness”
  • Ask a dependable friend or family member to do daily pill counts for more accountability, if you don’t have someone that can hold your pill bottle

A patient with chronic pain obviously has a more complicated situation. Preferably, the recovering opioid addict can find some way to manage the chronic pain without opioids. If that’s possible, then the patient can slowly bring down their dose of methadone or buprenorphine, knowing that if pain returns, there’s a non-opioid way to managing it.

For a patient who can’t find an adequate non-opioid way to relieve chronic pain, staying on maintenance medications may be the best option. Methadone and buprenorphine (Suboxone) prevent opioid withdrawal symptoms for longer than 24 hours in most patients, which is why we use them to treat addiction. But the anti-pain effect wears off at about six hours after dosing. Therefore, methadone and buprenorphine may not be ideal for pain management, but may be enough to bring the patient’s pain to manageable levels. For this reason, a patient with both pain and addiction may reasonably decide to stay on maintenance medications. If such a patient does taper off maintenance medications, every flare of pain is a potential relapse trigger.

For more on management of pain on maintenance medications like Suboxone and methadone, please see my blog entry of 10/16/11.

To Taper Methadone or Not To Taper? That Is the Question

Most of the patients I see who are doing well on methadone want to taper off of it at some point. Should these patients come off of methadone?

The studies show that relapse rates – and death rates – for patients who taper off methadone (and buprenorphine) are higher than for those who stay on methadone. We must remember that this is a potentially fatal illness, and the reasons for wanting to taper need to be compelling before tapering a successful patient off maintenance medication. (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)

However, if you read these studies, they were done with heroin addicts, not pain pill addicts. Even though the opioid effect on the human body is the same, there may be differences between pill users and heroin users. It’s possible pain pill addicts have better rates of relapse-free recovery after tapering off methadone (or buprenorphine). We’re waiting for more information from studies with pain pill addicts that are underway.

Also, the referenced studies weren’t done with patients who were necessarily doing great in treatment. They compared patients who left treatment with those retained in treatment. There are many reasons to leave treatment, and a desire to taper and be drug-free is only one reason. Patients with strong desires to be completely clean may have different outcomes than patient who left treatment because they wanted to get high, or because they were discharged from treatment for violent behavior.

The desires of the patient are paramount. Methadone treatment can be expense and inconvenient, and unfortunately there’s still a stigma attached to it, even after four decades of proven benefit to patients.  Plus, for any chronic medical condition (diabetes, hypertension) most of us prefer treatment without medications, if possible. If a patient says they want to taper, we must respect patient autonomy and begin a taper. Treatment centers can’t refuse a patient’s request to taper their dose. As the prescribing doctor to patients on methadone, I can give them my opinion of their readiness to taper, based on my knowledge and experience, but the patient makes the final decision.

I’ve seen many patients taper off methadone and Suboxone successfully. As far as I know they are still doing well. A few patients call periodically to let me know they are doing well, but for the most part, I haven’t heard from them.

 I do often see patients who have relapses after tapering, because fortunately they return to treatment, rather than remain in active addiction. Then we can look at what went wrong, and learn from the experience, since they were lucky they didn’t die in the relapse.

 I see differences between the patients who are successful and the ones who relapse. Overall, successful patients have done the work of recovery before they taper. In my next set of blog entries, I’ll elaborate on what I think must be done by the patient prior to considering tapering off maintenance medication. These include:

  • No longer using any illicit drugs, and no misuse of prescription drugs
  • Patients has acquired skills to manage negative emotions without the use of drugs (I’m not counting anti-depressants and non-addicting anti-anxiety medications)
  • Patient has had extensive counseling around all issues that could ambush the patient in recovery.
  • No ongoing physical health issues that cause pain or can be relapse triggers.
  • No untreated mental health illness.
  • No ongoing ties with drug -using buddies (or family members).
  • Stable home and work environments, free from drug use.
  • Have a plan of how to handle an acute painful medical situation so that relapse risk is minimized.
  • Taper during a time that’s relatively free from emotional turmoil.
  • Don’t rush the taper.
  • Rehearse medication refusal for when the patient encounters a prior drug connection (it will happen, usually at the gas station, for some reason).
  • I really encourage patients to be established in some sort of 12-step support group.

I know that last one is unpopular, and we’ll get to that in a future blog.

For the rest of this blog, let’s talk about why it’s so important for the patient to have stopped the use of all addicting drugs. The bottom line is that it increases the use of relapse back to opioid use, probably for several reasons.

First of all, there’s a kindling effect in the pleasure centers of the brain. When one pleasure-producing chemical or activity is undertaken, the desire for other pleasure-producing drugs or activities increases. For example, some people smoke more when they drink alcohol, because the two seem to go together. Another example is that of smoking after sex, or smoking after a pleasurable meal. While these examples include pleasures other than drugs, it illustrates what I’m trying to say.

Second of all, use of an addicting chemical often impairs our judgment. If a recovering opioid addict drinks alcohol, he’s likely to make poor decisions about other drug use. We don’t do our best thinking under the influence of alcohol, even a small amount. Alcohol can make nonsense seem reasonable (“I can take just one pill. I’ve been clean for so long, it won’t bother me”). Plus, an opioid addict is at very high risk to drink alcohol in an addictive and harmful way. Sadly I’ve seen too many people in recovery from opioid addiction end up dying from alcoholic liver cirrhosis.

Thirdly, for illegal drugs like marijuana, if you have to buy it from someone, that person is likely to have other drugs available for your use, like opioids. Apparently, many drug dealers have diversified their product lines.

Patients often try to argue with me, saying marijuana should be an exception. They claim they should be able to keep using it, because it doesn’t cause harm to the body, it’s natural, and therefore OK to keep using once off methadone. They’re missing the point. There’s no way I would argue the physical harm of marijuana, because I’d lose credibility. It’s much less toxic to the body than alcohol, which is legal. And yes, it is natural… but so are opium, cocaine, non-distilled alcohol, and hemlock. Natural doesn’t mean harmless.

Many people can use marijuana and not be addicted to it, but after a person develops addiction, it changes everything. It doesn’t matter if it’s legal/illegal, natural/man- made, harmful/harmless. It only matters if it stimulates the pleasure center of the brain, and marijuana does do that.

In my next blog entry, I’ll talk about the importance of having coping skills to deal with life’s ups and downs before tapering off maintenance medications.

  1. Caplehorn JR, Dalton MS, et. al., Methadone maintenance and addicts’ risk of fatal heroin overdose. Substance Use and Misuse, 1996 Jan, 31(2):177-196. In this study of heroin addicts, the addicts in methadone treatment were one-quarter as likely to die by heroin overdose or suicide. This study followed two hundred and ninety-six methadone heroin addicts for more than fifteen years.
  2. Clausen T, Waal H, Thoresen M, Gossop M; Mortality among opiate users: opioid maintenance therapy, age and causes of death. Addiction 2009; 104(8) 1356-62. This study looked at the causes of death for opioid addicts admitted to opioid maintenance therapy in Norway from 1997-2003. The authors found high rates of overdose deaths both prior to admission and after leaving treatment. Older patients retained in treatment died from medical reasons, other than overdose.
  3.  Goldstein A, Herrera J, Heroin addicts and methadone treatment in Albuquerque: a year follow-up. Drug and Alcohol Dependence 1995 Dec; 40 (2): p. 139-150. A group of heroin addicts were followed over twenty years. One-third died within that time, and of the survivors, 48% were on a methadone maintenance program. The author concluded that heroin addiction is a chronic disease with a high fatality rate, and methadone maintenance offered a significant benefit.
  4. Gronbladh L, Ohlund LS, Gunne LM, Mortality in heroin addiction: Impact of methadone treatment, Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica Volume 82 (3) p. 223-227. Treatment of heroin addicts with methadone maintenance resulted in a significant drop in mortality, compared to untreated heroin addicts. Untreated addicts had a death rate 63 times expected for their age and gender; heroin addicts maintained on methadone had a death rate of 8 times expected, and most of that mortality was from diseases acquired prior to treatment with methadone.
  5. Scherbaum N, Specka M, et.al., Does maintenance treatment reduce the mortality rate of opioid addicts? Fortschr Neurol Psychiatr, 2002, 70(9):455-461. Opioid addicts in continuous treatment with methadone had a much lower mortality rate (1.6% per year) than opioid addicts who left treatment (8.1% per year).
  6. Zanis D, Woody G; One-year mortality rates following methadone treatment discharge. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 1998: vol.52 (3) 257-260. Five hundred and seven patients in a methadone maintenance program were followed for one year. In that time, 110 patients were discharged and were not in treatment anywhere. Of these patients, 8.2% were dead, mostly from heroin overdose. Of the patients retained in treatment, only 1% died. The authors conclude that even if patients enrolled in methadone maintenance treatment have a less-than-desired response to treatment, given the high death rate for heroin addicts not in treatment, these addicts should not be kicked out of the methadone clinic.