Help for Heroin Addiction

A couple comments for regular readers… first, watch for an upcoming change to a new name. For years I’ve debated whether to adopt a name centered on ‘buprenorphine’, rather than the more-recognizable ‘Suboxone’. I believe that time has come. Second, I’m going to ‘reset’ with some introductory comments about the proper approach to treating heroin addiction, intended for those who are seeking help – starting with this post.
I’m addicted to heroin. Which treatment should I use?

I’ve treated heroin addiction in a range of settings, including abstinence-based programs and medication-assisted treatment with buprenorphine, naltrexone, and methadone. My education prepared me for this type of work, and my personal background created empathy for people engaged in the struggle to leave opioids behind.

The first barrier to success is on you. Are you ready to leave opioids behind? How ready? Are you so ready that you will be able to end relationships with people who use? Are you ready to stop other substances, especially cocaine and benzodiazepines? You will find help during treatment and you don’t have to take these steps entirely on your own. But you must at least have the desire to get there.

If you’re ready, the next step is deciding the treatment that is likely to help you. Many people see abstinence-based treatment as a ‘gold standard’ – the ultimate way to escape opioids. Unfortunately, that belief has fueled many deaths over the past ten years, as desperate people paid large sums of money for themselves or loved ones expecting programs to alter personality over the course of three months. It doesn’t work that way for most people!
During several years working in abstinence-based programs, I helped fix people who were broken by addiction. After a couple months, people left treatment with healthier bodies, cleaner complexions, and better hair. But over 90% of those people returned to opioid use, some within a few days. Some of them died because of their new lack of tolerance to opioids. In each case, counselors said the same thing: ‘he/she didn’t really want it’. But I remembered that they DID ‘want it’ when they were in treatment. In fact, some were considered star patients! At some point we must hold treatments responsible if they fail over 90% of the time.

My perspective changed. Now I wonder, why does anyone expects those treatments to work? A person is removed from a life of scrambling and drug connections and poverty, placed in a box and shined up for a few months, then put right back in the same using world and expected to act differently?
I eventually learned about medications that treat opioid addiction. I realized that opioid addiction truly is a medical illness that should be treated like any medical illness. Think about it – we treat high blood pressure, asthma, and diabetes over time. We don’t cure any of them. In fact, the only illnesses that we can cure are infectious diseases, and even that accomplishment is fading as organisms develop resistance to current medications. Given that we can’t really cure anything, why do we expect anyone to cure addiction – in 12 weeks?!

Medication-based treatments for addiction represent a transition to normalcy. Doctors and nurses were removed from treating addictive disorders decades ago because of historical events that I’ll eventually write about. Clearly, it’s time for health professionals to take a role in treating addiction. In the next article I’ll discuss the medications currently available, and the reasons that one might work better than another for certain individuals.

In the meantime please check out my youtube videos under the name ‘Suboxdoc’, where I discuss the use of medications, primarily buprenorphine, for treating addiction to heroin and other opioids.

Counseling Schmounseling

I just noticed a couple of my recent posts….  these people have it wrong, and that person has it wrong.  One of these days I really need to print something positive and uplifting.  But not today.
Excuse the self-flattery, but I like to think of myself as a physician scientist.  That concept motivated my PhD work, and cost me friend after friend in the years that followed!  A physician scientist isn’t all that difficult to be from an educational standpoint, especially in the age of the internet.  The one thing that is necessary is the willingness, or need, to question every assumption by the media, the government, physicians, laypersons, and other scientists.   Ideally, the questions are guided by a knowledge of p-values, the process by which scientific grants are awarded, an understanding of the peer-review process, and the realization that anyone elected to office knows less about science than most other humans on the planet.
Last night I came across an opinion piece– I think in the Bangor Daily News, but I could be wrong about that– that argued that we will never stem the heroin epidemic without use of medications.  The comment section after the article was filled with the usual angry banter over methadone and buprenorphine that now follows every article about medication assisted treatment.  As an aside, why are the abstinence-based treatment people so angry about medication?  There are people out there who choose to treat cancer using crystals, but they don’t spend time bashing monoclonal antibodies!
Here is the part of this post where I start losing friends…  but let me first say that I know some counselors.  I like counselors.  In fact, some of my best friends are counselors.  But in the comments after that article I read the same thing over and over–   that meds aren’t the important thing, and that counseling is what really makes all the difference.  A couple weeks ago  the person sitting to my right said the same thing during a discussion about  medication-assisted treatments.  And that same phrase is repeated ad nauseum in lecture after lecture in ASAM lectures and policy statements related to addiction.  The phrase has even been codified into some state laws.  And why not?  It is something we all ‘know’, after all.
If we are going so far as writing laws requiring that people have counseling in order to obtain medication, shouldn’t we do one thing first?  Shouldn’t we determine if the comment is really true?
A couple years ago two papers came out– someone help me with the reference if you have them– that looked at abstinence rates after a year on buprenorphine in patients with or without counseling.  Guess what?  The counseling group did not do better!  In fact, the counseled patients did worse; not sigificantly so, but enough to clearly show that there was no ‘trend’ toward better performance in the counseled group (which would have been pointed out, were it true.)
I could hypothesize many reasons why the counseled groups would do worse.  Maybe they were angered by the forced counseling and therefore bonded less effectively with their physician.  Maybe they obtained a false sense of expertise in dealing with addiction, making them more likely to relapse, whereas the non-counseled group learned to just do as they were told.  Or maybe the counselors send out signals, consciously or unconsciously, that interfered with medication treatment.
The thing is, we have no idea which of these things, if any, are going on!  There have been no systematic studies or other attempts to understand what happens during the combination of counseling and medication treatments.  We just have a bunch of people saying ‘do them both!  do them both!–  a comment that apparently feels so good to some people that they just cannot consider things any other way.
For the record, I see ALL my patients for at least 30 minutes for every appointment.  As a Board Certified Psychiatrist, I guess that means I’m counseling them.  And from what I can tell, it seems to be working pretty well.  But even in my own case, I would never draw firm conclusions unless someone does a double-blind study and collects the data.
I encourage all physicians, scientists or not, to question some of what we ‘know’ about addiction treatment.  Is it really all about the counseling?  Maybe— but then again, smart people used to ‘know’ the world was flat, and the Earth was the center of the Universe.

The Downside of Methadone

An Article by Mike Berens and Ken Armstrong, Seattle Times, discusses some of the problems with using methadone as a first-line treatment for pain:
When it comes to battling pain, Washington health officials have encouraged doctors to reach for methadone, a powerful and inexpensive prescription drug. For the past decade, the state has declared methadone to be as safe and effective as any other narcotic painkiller.

Methadone

But in a striking reversal that has gained momentum this week, doctors are receiving stark warnings that methadone is riskier and more dangerous — a drug of last resort — because it’s unpredictable and poses a heightened risk of accidental death.
“It’s a dangerous drug because it accumulates in the body and people die in their sleep,” Dr. Jane Ballantyne, a pain specialist at the University of Washington, said Friday. “It’s very tricky and difficult to use safely.”
Ballantyne and the university are helping spearhead a series of state-sponsored training programs to educate physicians, pharmacists and advanced nurse practitioners about the risks of pain drugs.
Earlier this week, while delivering a continuing medical education course for dozens of physicians and other medical professionals at the university, Ballantyne presented a slideshow in which she cautioned that methadone “should be considered a last option opioid, never a first line opioid.”
The state’s effort is a response to a Seattle Times series, “Methadone and the Politics of Pain.” The investigation, published in December, detailed that at least 2,173 people in Washington have died from accidental overdoses of the drug since 2003.
The Times found that year after year, a committee of state-appointed medical experts sanctioned methadone, empowering the state to designate it a “preferred drug” and steer people with state-subsidized health care — most notably, Medicaid patients — to the drug in order to save money.
The state has included only two drugs, methadone and morphine, on its preferred list of long-acting pain drugs.
During the committee’s meetings, officials from state agencies that have a financial stake in methadone’s selection consistently deflected concerns about the drug.
Methadone’s death toll has hit the hardest among low-income patients. Medicaid recipients account for about 8 percent of Washington’s adult population but 48 percent of methadone fatalities.
After the series, the state sent out an emergency public-health advisory that singled out the unique risks of methadone.
Medicaid officials faxed a health advisory to more than 1,000 pharmacists and drugstores about methadone, as well as about oxycodone, fentanyl and morphine. The state Department of Health mailed advisories to about 17,000 licensed health-care professionals.
The health advisory confirmed that Washington ranks among states with the highest rates of opioid-related deaths, exceeding the number of deaths each year involving motor vehicles.
Most painkillers, such as oxycodone, dissipate from the body within hours. Methadone can linger for days, pool into a toxic reservoir and depress breathing. With little warning, patients fall asleep and don’t wake up. Doctors call it the silent death.
Ballantyne noted that methadone is an indispensable drug and plays an important role in the treatment of many patients. However, due to the heightened risks, methadone should be prescribed only by those with extensive training and experience — and only after every other option has been exhausted.
Dr. Jeff Thompson, chief medical officer of the state’s Medicaid program, now readily agrees that methadone use carries unique risks and that it should not be the first choice if other drugs are equally suitable.
He said physicians are stepping up efforts to unravel the long-term impact on the body from prolonged use of prescription drugs now that Washington’s new pain-management law has gone into full force beginning this month.
The groundbreaking law requires practitioners to follow new standards for treatment and record-keeping. It also requires prescribers to consult with state-certified pain experts when narcotic dosages reach higher thresholds.
While the law’s goal is to lower doses and, if possible, wean patients from narcotic pain drugs, doctors are finding the task more difficult than hoped, Thompson said.
For instance, methadone patients can suffer prolonged withdrawal symptoms, like nausea and depression. With most pain drugs, withdrawal subsides within a week. Methadone’s grip can last for months, even years, he said.
State officials will review methadone’s role on the state’s preferred drug list during a meeting next month.
“I think we’re going back and relearning how to treat pain,” Thompson said.

Making People Stop

Below is an e-mail that I changed just enough to hide the person’s identity. Every week, I receive messages that describe similar situations.
My husband has struggled GREATLY with substance abuse since in his 20’s; he is now in his mid-40’s. He is the kindest sweetest man and he is the BEST husband and father. When he is using he becomes someone he is not. We have run the gamut from jail to overdose. Six years ago a friend introduced him to Suboxone and it LITERALLY gave him his life back. He bought it off the friend for years, where it was very expensive. Finally I brought him to a doctor a bit over a year ago. She is pretty adamant about weaning him off of Suboxone.
From experience, I know that 2-3 months after he stops Suboxone he will relapse. I strongly believe it IS a MIRACLE drug! I agree in the sense that if a diabetic needs insulin to save his life, you give it for a lifetime. My husband over the last 6 years has been the man of my dreams, the man I always knew he was. I have extreme anxiety because I know this doctor is just doing her job and trying to follow guidelines however my husband’s LIFE is at stake! It’s not like if he stops this med he could ‘just’ have depression; he could end up in jail, or worse. He has his life back. He is enjoying his family life as he should.
If this is what it takes for him to live a normal life then why not? When we ask his doctor about staying on Suboxone, she says her concern is that we don’t know the long-term effects. She doesn’t want to keep anyone on any med without knowing what it could do. She says it hasn’t been on the market long enough.
My husband had a SEVERE opioid addiction. He was taking 10-15 Oxycontin 80mgs a day and then ended up switching to 400mgs of methadone before he switched to Suboxone. He has found that he is comfortable with 4 of the 8mg pills per day. I believe it is because he was used to taking such high doses of opioids. He has tried really hard to decrease Suboxone for his doctor but I see the anxiety build in him. She says no one in her practice is on that dose. To be honest he was taking more when he was buying them from a friend but brought himself to a stable 4 pills per day when he started with the doctor. He and I both REALLY like her and would like to continue treatment with her. I wish I had a DVD of little clips of our life from before and after Suboxone. I am positive she would be floored. I am positive she would understand my concern. In my eyes my husband is back. He is such a beautiful soul and I hate to see that taken away from him yet again.
Doctor I read up at the top of this blog that you agree with a lifetime use. He currently has no noted side effects. Do you have any suggestions that I may present to his doctor? I dream of the day that she says it is alright for him to continue on this until maybe he chooses to wean if he so chooses to do so. That would alleviate SO MUCH stress on both of us. Please let me know what you think.
Anyone who reads this blog knows that I agree with most of the opinions expressed in the email. I know how horrible things are for active opioid addicts—and for the families of active opioid addicts.
More and more physicians pay lip service to ‘addiction as a disease,’ but most do not yet treat addiction as a disease. The comments about diabetes are ‘right on.’ One could substitute a number of diseases to demonstrate the same point. We physicians have few illnesses that we cure; rather we manage illness over a person’s lifetime— and opioid dependence is clearly a life-long illness.
To address a couple points in the message: the active ingredient in Suboxone, buprenorphine, has been in clinical use for over three decades, and has established a clean safety profile. Buprenorphine has not been used at the high doses employed for treating opioid dependence for quite as long, but even that track record is significant, i.e. 8 years in this country, and longer in Europe. Most physicians would not consider an 8-yr-old medication to be a ‘new drug!’
The situation described in the message is, in my opinion, the result of several factors. First and foremost, the reluctance to prescribe buprenorphine is a consequence of stigma. Doctors prescribe new antidepressants, pain relievers, blood pressure treatments, and cholesterol-lowering agents with much less concern over ‘safety.’ I wonder, frankly, if safety is the concern—or whether there is an unconscious sense that patients addicted to opioids, or to other substances, don’t deserve an ‘easy way out’ of their problem; that sitting through a miserable detox is a more fitting ‘treatment’ than a pill that makes things better.
I come to this cynical conclusion only because the alternative—that buprenorphine is ‘dangerous’—doesn’t make sense. The risk of any medication must be compared against the risk of not using that medication. As the message states, we know the risk of ‘not treating’ the woman’s husband! Similar comparisons are used to justify the use of chemotherapeutic agents that have severe toxic effects, including the risk of killing the patient. As I’ve written in prior posts, the fatality rate from untreated opioid dependence is as high as for many cancers. So does it make any sense to withhold buprenorphine out of safety concerns?!
There are other reasons for doctors’ reluctance to prescribe buprenorphine. Many fear they will do something wrong, and run afoul of the DEA during an audit—a process that all buprenorphine-certified prescribers are subject to. Some doctors feel pressure from friends and family members of patients, who often blame the doctor for keeping the patient ‘stuck on Suboxone.’ Some doctors want to maintain high patient turnover in order to keep money coming in, since practices are ‘capped’ at 100 patients per certified physician.
Finally, I think many doctors see ongoing treatment as less satisfying than a ‘cure.’ They consider residential treatment the gold standard, and buprenorphine as a less-intensive alternative. They buy into the idea that the addict can be returned to ‘normal’—whatever that is—if he/she works at recovery hard enough. I understand the thought, as that is the type of treatment experience that I went through. But on the other hand, the relapse rate for opioid dependence, after residential treatment, is very high. I myself relapsed after seven years of recovery, losing my career, and almost my life. During my years as medical director of a large residential treatment center, patients discharged as ‘successfully treated’ often became repeat customers, at least until they lost their job and health insurance. Some of them– too many of them–died.
I won’t get into the specifics of treatment; I’ll leave that to her husband’s doctor to work out. But I do hope that the doctor will give some thought to whether stopping this life-saving treatment is truly in the patient’s best interest.
To the patient’s wife– I encourage you to continue as an advocate, and I hope your doctor will understand your perspective.

Do You Prescribe Buprenorphine?

I’m not sure about the make-up of readers of this blog. I know that there are about 20,000 page views each month, but I don’t know how many are by people addicted to opioids, people taking buprenorphine, family members of addicts, or physicians who prescribe buprenorphine. If you fall into that latter category– i.e. if you prescribe buprenorphine, or if you prescribe other medications to treat opioid dependence such as Vivitrol or methadone– consider joining the group at linkedin.com called ‘Buprenorphine and other medication-assisted treatment of opiate dependence.’ If you already belong to LinkedIn, you can simply follow this link to join: http://www.linkedin.com/groupRegistration?gid=2710529
I have always resisted separating those who prescribe buprenorphine from those who are prescribed the medication. I have avoided, for example, placing a ‘doctors’ section’ at SuboxForum, as I don’t want there to be two separate discussions. Clearly, each group would benefit from the wisdom of the other. But there are some physicians who want to discuss prescribing habits, techniques, and science with other docs, who are not comfortable discussing some topics in the ‘presence’ of their patients.
Non-docs, please don’t flame me for this decision; I’ve wrestled with it, and have made this decision, at least for now. Frankly, the discussions at SuboxForum are far more interesting than anything that has come up so far at the linked in site! But some docs who prescribe buprenorphine are isolated out there, perhaps even looked down on by their peers for working with addiction– and that is a crying shame. I want to get those docs some support. My goal ultimately is to bring the two sides together, so that docs can talk to addicts and realize that they are the same species as the rest of their patients!
Thanks all,
JJ