Tapering Off Buprenorphine or Suboxone pt. 1

Many patients taking buprenorphine live in fear of a dark world around the corner where they will have to taper off the medication. They see horror stories on YouTube posted by people who, for some reason, abruptly stopped the medication and kept a video log of their experiences. My own patients sometimes ask, nervously, if I plan to retire some day. Some have asked what they should do if I ever, say, drop dead.

It needn’t be all that bad. Yes, sudden discontinuation of a typical dose of buprenorphine will result in withdrawal symptoms. But if you taper correctly, your body will slowly reset your tolerance without putting you through the wringer. In this post I’ll describe my typical approach to helping a person through that process. But first we should correct some of the misconceptions about buprenorphine and opioid dependence.

It does NOT get harder and harder to stop buprenorphine the longer you take the medication. I have heard that idea over and over in one form or another, and I presume it comes from the experience people have with active addiction where use tends to grow with time, and other facets of life gradually fade away. But the opposite occurs in patients treated with maintenance agents like buprenorphine or methadone, where use of the medication does not trigger a reward or relieve the ‘punishment’ of withdrawal. The conditioning that occurred during active addiction is slowly extinguished, and most people gradually lose the desire to use opioids. I’ve witnessed this process literally hundreds of times over the past 12 years in patients on buprenorphine or methadone. Patients of successful treatment also develop interests and accomplishments that help them avoid returning to opioids. And after a few years away from ‘using friends’, people no longer see themselves as part of the using scene. Patients get to a point where they have too much to lose to get close to that world again.

Opioid withdrawal has physical and psychological dimensions. During short-term detoxes, minor physical symptoms trigger fears that magnify the perception of those symptoms. A bead of sweat on the neck signals that hot flashes, diarrhea, and depression are on the way. Patients who have been away from the cycle of using and withdrawal don’t seem to have as many emotions about their physical symptoms. I see the change very clearly in methadone-assisted treatment, where the minor withdrawal at the end of the day is a big deal to people starting treatment, but a minor inconvenience in patients tapering off methadone after several years of treatment.

Does buprenorphine ‘get in your bones’? YES, of course! Bones are living tissue, so anything in the bloodstream gets in the bones. Glucose gets in your bones. Aspirin gets in your bones. But so what? When you taper off buprenorphine, the buprenorphine in your body will be metabolized and removed. It does not accumulate or stay in bones or other tissues beyond what occurs with other fat-soluble molecules.

Is buprenorphine or Suboxone ‘the hardest opioid to stop’? No. The brain keeps no record of the molecules that pushed opioid tolerance higher. The challenge during a taper is that opioid receptors have become down-regulated by opioid stimulation, resulting in reduced endorphin tone as the opioid is removed. Opioids that leave the body quickly tend to have more-intense discontinuation effects than those that leave more slowly because the latter mimics a taper, where opioid activity decreases over time. The longer half-life of buprenorphine also slightly extends the total period of withdrawal by a few days.

I’ve heard people claim that ‘heroin was much easier to stop’, and rather than tell people what they should think I’ll let them have their opinions on the issue. But that opinion is not supported by studies comparing withdrawal from different opioids. Usually the claim is followed by the comment that ‘with heroin I was fine after 4 days’ or something along that line. But it takes longer for tolerance to reset, after ANY opioid. I suspect that perception comes from the severity of early heroin withdrawal, making subsequent weeks easier by comparison. Again, the brain doesn’t care which opioid you used to take; it only cares that the opioid stimulation that was there is now gone.

In a few days I’ll share the approach I recommend to patients tapering off buprenorphine.

Missing the Point of Buprenorphine Treatment

A forum reader wrote about concerns over a partner on buprenorphine. Her concerns pointed out a common misperception about the goals of treatment of opioid use disorder using buprenorphine, or using methadone for that matter.

Her question, amended for privacy:
I married the love of my life. He is still he love of my life but has been an addict for 15 of them. Our children have been greatly affected by his addiction. He made promise after promise that he was clean, and I dove back in with complete faith time after time only to get burned.

His addiction started with recreational pills increasing over time, but now he is abusing Suboxone. He was taking up to 12 mg depending on the day, but no pain pills for the last year. I suggested a Suboxone doctor and a plan to get off, and my husband called one and was able to get right in.

At the visit the doctor did a half ass intake and called in a prescription for an 8 mg tab for induction. After induction they called in prescription for 20 mg/day. My husband stayed with 4 mg once a day and was “blah” in the afternoon and irritable but not physically sick. On his next visit to the doctor he was proud, but when he told the doctor he had only take 4mg in the mornings she got angry. She told him she wouldn’t see him anymore if that’s what he was going to do. He asked how long he would be on it and she wouldn’t give any kind of answer. I asked again before we left and she snapped at me.

I see a profound change in him after each time we see her and she tells him to take more. We walked away last time with another prescription for 16 mg a day which is just about double what he’s been taking for the last year and a half. So my question is, how does it make sense to treat someone taking 8 mg as their addiction with the same medication at double the dosage? Since seeing her he has decided he needs to take it more than once a day as well as up the dosage. Is this right? Is it right to treat Suboxone addiction with Suboxone? A heroin addict isn’t treated with more heroin and a pill addict isn’t treated with more pills. While I understand the concept of treating his original pill addiction with Suboxone, I am having a very hard time wrapping my head around what’s happening.

Me again…
The writer raises interesting questions. Regarding the ‘drug for a drug’ questions, buprenorphine has significant pharmacologic differences from heroin or pain pills. Those differences, including the long half-life and ceiling on agonist effects, allow the medication to create a level degree of mu-receptor agonism across the dosing interval. Tolerance to that level mu agonism allows patients on the medication to feel ‘normal’ throughout the day, or at least normal from an opioid standpoint.

But her broader point provides an example of the basic misunderstanding many people have about medication assisted treatment, in focusing on the same short-term goals that their addicted loved ones have focused on: controlling the dose of opioid and tapering off. That goal is natural, of course; anyone who loves a person addicted to opioids wishes and hopes that the person will reverse the using behavior and climb down from opioid use. Those hopes are bolstered by ads for rapid detox, even as studies show that detox is mostly useless.

My response to her:
I would not be concerned about increasing the dose of buprenorphine, because there is no increase in effect after a dose of about 8 mg per day. A higher dose might reduce mild withdrawal symptoms at the end of the dosing interval, and sometimes provides a reduction in cravings through a placebo effect.

So why increase? Because the goal with buprenorphine treatment is to put cravings into remission for a considerable length of time. If your husband is still having cravings as he gets by on 8 mg, then his dose is not high enough. Buprenorphine is a safe medication that is used as a tool to extinguish the conditioning that was part of your husband’s addiction.

One of my patients saw a different buprenorphine physician for years, and her dose was constantly lowered over the past year. She would run out of medication after 24 days each month and then go without for 6 days, craving opioids and experiencing wtihdrawal during that time. In some ways, her entire time in treatment was a waste. She could boast, I suppose, that she was prescribed less buprenorphine over time. But in most ways she is just as far from stopping opioids as when she entered treatment, still lying to her husband, lying to her doctor, and feeling ashamed of herself. All of those things keep her addiction in the dark, where it stays active.

When I started treating her my goal was to promote legitimate behavior. I increased her dose to 12 mg per day, from 8 mg. After a month she still ran out early, So I raised the dose to 24 mg per day. Now, after 6 months, she has taken the medication as prescribed. Her focus on buprenorphine is going down, as we want it to do. She isn’t lying, and she isn’t craving pain pills or buprenorphine. My goal is for her to take the medication like she would take a vitamin or blood pressure pill, without any special attention or interest.

How long will we do this? I can’t say now. We know from research that the longer a person stays on medication, the less risk of relapse after stopping. I don’t like to push anyone off buprenorphine, because I’ve seen so many people who have relapsed after being pushed off by their former doctors. I find that many people eventually decide that the time has come to taper off buprenorphine, and those efforts are usually successful. From my perspective, people forced to taper off buprenorphine do not generally do well. That perspective is just an opinion, but an opinion based on treating 800 people with buprenorphine over the past 11 years.

Opinions aside, the goal is not about getting off opioids as fast as possible. Your husband can accomplish that in a couple weeks with a remote hotel room and a bottle of clonidine, or a couple weeks in jail. But those experiences rarely lead to prolonged abstinence, and they sometimes precede overdose, when people return to using with a lower tolerance.

I can’t tell whether your husband’s doc is on the right track or not– but she might be. She is a better doctor telling you that she can’t give a time estimate, than a doctor telling you he will be off in 3 months. Ideally, your husband will be in a state of ‘remission’– on a dose of buprenorphine that virtually eliminates interest in opioids– for a year or more. He can taper for some of that time, but the taper should be slow enough that he doesn’t return to using. If he returns to active use, he starts over in many ways.

Try to drop the focus on ‘how much’ or ‘how long’. Those things are not important; what is important is to get his interest back on you and the family, not on buprenorphine or other opioids. That will be easier if you let him know that he has your support, even if he takes a medication, and even if he needs that medication for a long time. You would want the same from him if you ever needed a medication for hypertension, diabetes, or anything else.

Raising the Suboxone Patient Cap

HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell announced yesterday that the cap on buprenorphine patients would be raised in the near future.  Details were not released, but she emphasized that measures would be taken to increase availability of this life-saving treatment, while at the same time taking caution to prevent misuse of the medication.   Anyone who works with buprenorphine understands the importance of her announcement.  I only hope that her actions are swift, and not overloaded with regulations that reduce practical implementation of whatever increases are allowed.
I have been at the cap for years, unable to accept new patients for buprenorphine treatment.  My office receives 3-4 calls each day on average from people addicted to heroin, begging for help.  Patients on buprenorphine (the active substance in Suboxone) are much less likely to die from overdose than are patients not taking buprenorphine– even in the absence of perfect compliance.  Some doctors, in my opinion, over-emphasize the ‘diversion’ of buprenorphine medications.  At least in my part of the country, ‘diversion’ of buprenorphine amounts to heroin addicts trying to stop heroin, taking ‘street buprenorphine’ because of the absence of legitimate treatment spots.    Of the few new patients I’ve been able to take this year, almost all have histories of using buprenorphine products on their own, without prescriptions.  They are very happy to finally have a reliable source of the medication– and to have the medication covered by their health insurance!
Let’s hope the increase in the cap happens sooner rather than later.  After all, lives are literally hanging in the balance.

Menzies Gets it Wrong

In Opioid Addiction Treatment Should Not Last a Lifetime, Percy Menzies resurrects old theories  to tarnish buprenorphine-based addiction treatment.  Methadone maintenance withstood similar attacks over the decades, and remains the gold standard for the most important aspect of treating opioid dependence:  preventing death.
Menzies begins by claiming that a number of ideas that never had the support of modern medicine are somehow similar to buprenorphine treatment.  Replacing beer with benzodiazepines?  Replacing morphine with alcohol?  Replacing opioids with cocaine?  Where, exactly, did these programs exist, that Menzies claims were precursors for methadone maintenance?
Buprenorphine has unique properties as a partial agonist that allows for effects far beyond ‘replacement’.  The ceiling effect of the drug effectively eliminates the desire to use opioids.  Seeing buprenorphine only as ‘replacement therapy’ misses the point, and ignores the unique pharmacology of the medication.
Highly-regulated clinics dispense methadone for addiction treatment., and other physicians prescribe methadone for chronic pain.  Menzies claims ‘it is an axiom of medicine that drugs with an addiction potential are inappropriate for the treatment of chronic conditions.’  For that reason, he claims, methadone treatment is ‘out of the ambit of mainstream medicine.’ The 250,000-plus US patients who benefit from methadone treatment would be amused by his reasoning.    I suspect that the thousands of patients who experience a lifetime of chronic pain—including veterans with crushed spines and traumatic amputations—would likely NOT be amused by his suggestion that ‘opioids… were never intended to be prescribed forever.’   Those of us who treat chronic pain take our patients as they come—often with addictions and other psychiatric baggage.  Pain doesn’t stop from the presence of addiction, neither does the right for some measure of relief from that pain.
Menzies cites the old stories about Vietnam veterans who returned to the US and gave up heroin, as evidence that prolonged treatment for opioid dependence is unnecessary for current addicts.   But there is no similarity between the two samples in his comparison!  US Servicemen forced into a jungle to engage in lethal combat use heroin for different reasons than do teenagers attending high school.   Beyond the different reasons for using, after returning home, soldiers associated heroin with danger and death!  Of course they were able to stop using!  And that has to do with current addicts… how?
Teens in the US have no mainland to take them back.  Their addiction began in their parents’ basement, and without valid treatment, too often ends in the same place.
Menzies refers to buprenorphine treatment as ‘a conundrum’ that has not had any effect on deaths from opioid dependence—a claim impossible to support without an alternative universe and a time machine.  He claims that buprenorphine treatment is unsafe and plagued by diversion.  In reality, most ‘diversion’ consists of self-treatment by addicts who are unable to find a physician able to take new patients under the Federal cap.  In the worst cases, some addicts keep a tablet of buprenorphine in their pockets to prevent the worst of the withdrawal symptoms if heroin is not available.  But even in these cases, buprenorphine inadvertently treats addicts who take the medication, preventing euphoria from heroin for up to several days and more importantly, preventing death from overdose.
Just look at the numbers.  In the past ten years, about 35,000 people have died from overdose each year in the US with no buprenorphine in their bloodstream.  How many people died WITH buprenorphine in their bloodstream?  About 40.  Even in those cases, buprenorphine was almost never the cause of death.  In fact, in many of those 40 cases, the person’s life would have been saved if MORE buprenorphine had been in the bloodstream because buprenorphine blocks the respiratory depression caused by opioid agonists.
Naltrexone is a pure opioid blocker that some favor for addiction treatment because it has no abuse potential.  Naltrexone compliance is very low when the medication is not injected, and naltrexone injections cost well over $1000 per month.   Naltrexone may have some utility in the case of drug courts, where monthly injections are a required condition of probation.  But even in those circumstances, the success of naltrexone likely benefits the most from another fact about the drug, i.e. that the deaths from naltrexone treatment are hidden on the back end.  Fans of naltrexone focus, optimistically, on its ability to block heroin up to a certain dose, up to a certain length of time after taking the medication.  But Australian studies of naltrexone show death rates ten times higher than with methadone when the drug is discontinued, when patients have been discharged from treatment, and short-term treatment professionals have shifted their attention to the next group of desperate but misguided patients.
The physicians who treat addiction with buprenorphine, on the other hand, follow their patients long term because they see, first-hand, the long-term nature of addiction.  Menzies’ claim that ‘the longer you take it, the harder it is to stop’ has no basis in the science of buprenorphine, or in clinical practice.  Patients often get to a point—after several years—when they are ready to discontinue buprenorphine.  And while buprenorphine has discontinuation symptoms, the severity of those symptoms is less than stopping agonists—and unrelated to the duration of taking buprenorphine.   Until that point in time, buprenorphine effectively interrupts the natural progression of the addiction to misery and death.
The physicians who prescribe buprenorphine and the practitioners at methadone clinics are the only addiction professionals who witness the true, long-term nature of opioid dependence. In contrast, too many addiction practitioners see only the front end of addiction, discharging patients after weeks or months, considering them ‘cured’…  and somehow missing the familiar names in the obituary columns months or years later.

Another Suboxone Argument

It has been awhile since I posted a give and take with a misguided reader. I’ve taken that interval as good news that education is winning over misinformation.
But then I read this comment.  I didn’t fix her typos, as I think they provide insight into her opinion:
My daughter was on Suboxone, because she was a heroin addict, when she could not afford this med, the withdrawal lasted for mnths, and was far worse than I have ever seen her go through Heroin withdrawal. These are a Psyhiatrist facts, I absolutely hate Suboxone, YES peple do get high on Suboxone, Yes they absolutely can and do inject this garbage. This medication may have helped people who were not addicts for pain, or addicts who truly took this drug to remain clean, and that’s o.k BUT NO THE DRUG COMPANIES are not going to put the facts out about this dug, and about the deaths caused from overdosing on this drug using it in combination with other drugs. They will not report the abuse of this drug, and the effects of this drug on the bodies organs or how it causes Bone Marrow depression. THE TRUTH WILL COME OUT NO MATTER HOW THE DRUG COMPANIES AND GOOD OLD DOCS, TRY COVER IT UP. Half these Suboxone Dr’s are addicts themselves, I took my daughter to one who’s pupils were so pinned, he was slurring and could hardly stay awake, HMMM Could it be he was abusing the same drug he was supplying. They had a great plan for getting people on it but none what so ever for getting people off of it. The Truth about Suboxone will come out. It should be used only for detox only taken no more than for 10 days. I am a Drug and ETOH detox Nurse, so I have seen not just with my own child, but with clients who, by the way do abuse the drug sell it on the street, so they can buy heroin. IT’S A MONEY MAKER FOR BIG PHARMA, AND THE MAKER OF THIS DRUG PAID DOCTORS THOUSANDS TO BECOME CERTIFIED TO PUSH THIS POISON. I will get the true facts of this drug, but Do NOT JUST PUSH THE PRETTY SIDE TELL THE TRUTH ABUT THE UGLY AND YES SOMETIMES DEADLY SIDE. DR. My daughter committed suicide January 4th 2015 overdose of heroin, among other substances. She went to heroin again because she started going through post SUBOXONE withdrawal. The withdrawal last weeks to months with post withdrawal. So please do make this sound like a miracle drug that saves lives, it also kills and that truth will come out. I am sick of these companies, hiding the facts! Facts to me because I have lived it and have seen personally the effect of this drug.
I responded as follows:
I wish you were at least partially correct, given that you work in the field, and have the potential to spread such inaccurate information.
Deaths…  in the past ten years there were about 35,000 overdose deaths in the US.  None of those people had buprenorphine in their system when they died.  What number of people had measurable amounts of buprenorphine in their bloodstream when they died from overdose?  40 per year.  Most of those 40 people would be alive if there had been more buprenorphine in their bloodstream– the only exception being the few cases each year where a young child ingested the drug.
Note that 400 people die from Tylenol each year in the US– compared to 40 deaths of people who had buprenorphine in the bloodstream.  It is very hard to die from buprenorphine;  those who die must have little or no opioid tolerance, and must also take a second respiratory depressant that they have little tolerance to.
Bone marrow depression?  Really?  Buprenorphine has been in use for almost 40 years.  It has a better safety profile than most meds out there.
‘Plans for getting people off’?  The whole point of buprenorphine is to provide chronic treatment for a chronic illness.   You apparently want something that instantly changes the brain and erases addiction, but that product is not invented yet– and I wouldn’t hold my breath for it.  Your daughter developed a condition that will last the rest of her life.  She will treat it for the rest of her life.  She can take a medication each day, or she can attend meetings several times per week. The latter approach works, mind you, only in the relatively few people who are moved by the 12-step message.  Both approaches must last for years and years, if not a lifetime.  Many people do well on buprenorphine, but some survive without it.  But if she isn’t attending meetings or doing something with similar intensiy, her prognosis off buprenorphine is not good.
The withdrawal from the partial agonist buprenorphine is less severe than from agonists.  ALL opioid withdrawal lasts for 2-3 months, and is followed by post-acute withdrawal.  On buprenorphine, a person’s tolerance is equal to 40 mg methadone per day.  Realize that heroin addicts typically have tolerance that is several times higher.  Your daughter developed a high tolerance to agonists, and then continued to have a high tolerance on buprenorphine.  Any addict, including your daughter, is facing months of detox.  Buprenorphine delayed the detox, giving her the chance to get her act together first.  Many people are successful with that approach, but some blow the chance and keep up the negative behavior.  Buprenorphine relieves cravings;  it doesn’t fix personalities all by itself.
I suspect that the reason you never saw such bad withdrawal in your daughter coming off heroin is because she could never stop heroin long enough to demonstrate 2 months of withdrawal.  Nobody just stops heroin; they stop for a couple weeks and then use again.  On the other hand, many people taper off buprenorphine, and have the chance to experience the full course of opioid withdrawal.
The cost…  The drug companies make much more money from chemotherapy, anti-hypertensives, pain pills, and other meds.  Reckitt Benckiser, the biggest maker of Suboxone products, recently spun off the drug because of the anticipated losses.  Even if buprenorphine was a blockbuster, though, I have nothing against drug companies being rewarded for the risks they take to develop new meds.  There is no doubt that the efforts to market buprenorphine have saved thousands of lives.
If your daughter sold her buprenorphine to buy heroin, that’s her bad.  Most people do not do that, but some probably do.  Understand that heroin is very addictive, and drives all sorts of bad behaviors– theft, prostitution, robberies, etc.  I guarantee you that selling her prescription of buprenorphine alone did not make enough money to pay for a heroin habit.
There are so many things you have wrong…. ‘the drug companies paid doctors to push this drug’… I’m sorry, but you are clearly a zealot, and I can’t even take you seriously with that argument.  If you know of a single doctor paid to prescribe a drug, call the Feds, as that would be a crime.  There are some doctors paid to WORK for pharma— to give lectures about new drugs, for example.  I have done that in the past for drugs I believed in.  Some people seem to hate it when doctors take any money from pharma, but when they do, it is for work–  for travelling to some cheap motel in the middle of nowhere and giving a talk to a group of doctors.  The work is highly regulated, and just like TV commercials, docs are required to stick to a very narrow script that educates, rather than promotes.
‘Detox’ has been marginalized (thankfully) because of recognition that it does nothing to treat addiction.  Likewise, non-medication treatment has very low success rates, especially if you count everyone who enters the door, instead of blaming those who fail for ‘not wanting it bad enough’.
I’m sorry about your daughter.  But one thing many parents eventually realize is that even when a kid is acting irresponsibly, buprenorphine at least keeps them alive.  Buprenorphine allows people to stay alive, even if their recovery is imperfect.  And relieved of most of the cravings to use, many of those patients eventually get it right.
Back to the present…  I’d like to think that I cleared up some misconceptions.  But two days after my comments, I received a very similar set of comments from the same person—except that most of the words were capitalized.  That is the reason I’ve tired of these types of posts….