Surgery Preparations for a Suboxone Patient

The questions:
I am having surgery and my doc was unaware of some things and I thought that you could confirm them for him?  Could you advise him to take me off the Suboxone 10-14 days prior to surgery?  I have been researching this religously and I have come to the conclusion that it would take 2 weeks to get the Bupenepherine 100% out of my system so that there is no blockage, unless you think otherwise?  Also could you tell him about the oxycodone to keep me out of withdrawal and to help me cope with the pain?
I had also received a note from the doctor, saying that he was going to change the patient from Suboxone to Subutex before the surgery, and then back again at a later point.  This is fine, but not enough– the naloxone isn’t the problem– the buprenorphine alone is a partial agonist i.e. an antagonist at the mu receptor.  The buprenorphine alone will block other opiates, and since the patient is tolerant to the buprenorphine, it will not serve any role as an analgesic medication.  The patient needs additional opiate activity in order to have analgesia– and since his tolerance is high, he needs significant doses of a potent opiate.
My comments to the doctor:
Hi Dr. XXXX,

I don’t want to complicate your treatment of Mr. XXXX—he reads my blog about Suboxone at where I write quite actively about my experiences treating patients for opiate dependence.  I am a (blah blah blah blah– you all know this stuff by now)

I have helped a number of patients through surgery.  The naloxone isn’t so much the problem as is the buprenorphine–  naloxone has a very short half-life and will cause a couple hours of withdrawal if injected IV, but buprenorphine is a partial agonist, and has very potent antagonism at the opiate receptor that lasts for days and days.  The half-life of buprenorphine is about three days;  when we treat addiction we are using supra-maximal doses of buprenorphine.  When I gave buprenorphine IV to treat labor pain as an anesthesiologist I would give microgram doses;  even just 8 mg is enough to block ordinary doses of opiate agonists for several days.

With my patients, or when recommending other physicians, I suggest first getting the patient to a lower dose of buprenorphine—on the order of 8 mg per day.  If you were to lower Mr. XXX’s dose tomorrow, he wouldn’t get down to a new steady-state level for at least a week or two;  he would have very little withdrawal, because the ‘ceiling effect’ occurs at a dose of about 4 mg per day, so any dose above that will have almost the same opiate activity.  From the 8 mg daily dose (usually once per day, in the morning) I stop the buprenorphine at least 3 days before surgery.  It will still be very difficult to treat post-op pain, because three days later the person will still have significant buprenorphine in his system, which has a very high affinity for the receptor.  It is important to remember that even if all of the buprenorphine was gone, the patient will still have a very high tolerance—equivalent to being tolerant to 30 mg methadone or 60 mg oxycodone.  That means that 60 mg of oxycodone only gets the patient to ‘neutral’;  higher doses are required to provide analgesia.  I usually give patients either 15 or 30 mg oxycodone tabs, to take 2 (or more) every 4 hours as needed.  At the time when the surgeon would typically stop narcotics, I change the patient back to Suboxone or Subutex—either one, as they both work the same in a person not injecting.

It is important to focus on the pain, not on the dose of narcotic. The dose is meaningless in a tolerant patient;  I have had patients require doses of morphine greater than 50 mg every 2 hours after c-section, for example.

On my blog I have a number of comments about anesthesia and surgery;  if you go to and search for ‘anesthesia’ or ‘surgery’ you will find them.

Thanks for writing, and good luck.

Addendum for the blog readers:

I am aware that the person having surgery requested medication to prevent withdrawal; I did not mention this to the surgeon because it is a ‘touchy subject’. It is in fact illegal to prescribe or administer an opiate for the sake of treating withdrawal, with the exception of methadone clinics—and now Suboxone. For that reason, I don’t usually stop the Suboxone 10 days in advance—I stop it 3 days in advance. Most people seem to take about three days to go into withdrawal, so that usually works pretty well.

I have had a couple discussions with this writer, and I hope things work out well for him. Many doctors out there have their own ways of doing things, and most doctors consider themselves up on what they need to know; it is hard to just tell a doctor to ‘do it this way’. I know I wouldn’t like it either. Let’s all hope for a little extra consideration and sensitivity from his physician.