A Save with Suboxone?

I’d like to share a recent email exchange with a reader. The post is long, but there are several interesting aspects to the discussion. I’ve removed the conversational parts, as well as the identifying information.
The initial message:
I was an intravenous heroin user for three years. After treatment I was able to stay clean for 6 months… Well apparently to most people I was not clean because I was on Suboxone, but to me I was clean. People are so very discouraging when you tell them you’re clean and they find out you are on Suboxone. It hurts because of how much hard work you put in. I did well for six months, but then I relapsed and used for 5 days. After a short binge I again stopped, continued Suboxone and used once more for one day alone.
All of these relapses were with my girlfriend, and she used one extra time while I was working. She overdosed all three times she used. Her mother found her the second time in her room almost lifeless, and I was with her the other two times. I acted very quickly, giving her CPR immediately and calling 911 without the least bit of hesitation, as did her mother.
My girlfriend) is not on Suboxone, but I stayed on every day other than the times we used. I am pretty educated about opiates in general and I understand that she overdosed because of her lack of tolerance. I have read something you said before: A person on Suboxone maintenance has the tolerance of someone who takes 100mg of oxycodone a day. I need to know, for the sake of her life, my life or someone else’s life, if ever in a dire, life threatening situation and for some crazy reason 911 isn’t an option, could you melt down a Suboxone strip and inject the overdosed person and use it like Narcan if you absolutely had to? Or do you think I’m nuts for even asking?
One more topic… I obsess over heroin every day. It’s so bad that I sit with a calculator and tell myself, “alright, if I stay clean for these next two years and I finish my degree and start my career making this much salary then I can spend this much a day on heroin and it will total x amount of dollars a year and subtracted from my salary I will still have more than enough to survive.” How sick is that? It’s disgusting. It’s an absolute obsession of the mind. I seriously convince myself that with the right amount of steady income I could actually be a functioning addict.
Thank you so much for your time. I appreciate it so much.
My Reply:
Your email shows the incredible danger associated with use of intravenous opioids. I remember how impressed I was, when I was a resident in anesthesiology, over how the human body is SO strong and restorative, that we can survive and recover from horrible injuries… yet how fragile we are, that a lack of oxygen for only several minutes can cause death. Injecting opioids is a very effective, targeted way to kill a person. Doctors and nurses do not inject narcotics unless the patient is being monitored, usually using a ‘pulse oximeter’ to monitor the level of oxygen in the blood. Yet people with far less training are injecting the same drugs, not only without monitoring, but even in the absence of a non-impaired observer. It is no wonder that there are so many deaths from opioid dependence.
You probably know how I feel about being ‘clean’; people on buprenorphine are clean enough, in my opinion, to be considered sober. People on buprenorphine become fully tolerant to the effects at the mu receptor; there might be very minor effects at the kappa receptor, that may or may not have very minor cognitive effects…. but people take chronic medications for MANY illnesses, and some degree of sedation occurs with most of them, including medications for high blood pressure, migraine headaches, and seizure disorders. Should we consider all of THOSE people to be ‘not really clean’ too?
The question about using Suboxone to reverse overdose is very interesting– and shows that you have a good understanding of what is going on with medications like buprenorphine (in Suboxone).
One of my patients has described how he saved his girlfriend’s life by injecting Suboxone. He says that she was unresponsive and barely breathing, and out of desperation he put an 8 mg tablet of Suboxone in her mouth. When she didn’t respond after a minute or two, he quickly dissolved a tablet of Suboxone and injected it into her arm. He claims that she woke up 30 seconds later.
I’m glad his girlfriend survived, but I do NOT recommend that anyone rely on this approach to save a life. The most appropriate action, of course, is to do whatever one can to find appropriate treatment, and stop accepting the huge risks associated with IV injection of opioids. If a person has overdosed, call 911 immediately. The brain starts to die in about 3 minutes. Some parts of the country have instituted programs that provide naloxone injection kits for people addicted to opioids; injecting a pure antagonist like naloxone (Narcan) is much safer than injecting the partial agonist, buprenorphine.
The outcome after injecting Suboxone depends on a number of factors, including the person’s tolerance level and the presence or absence of other respiratory depressants. If a person has only used opioids– no benzodiazepines or barbiturates or alcohol— then in theory, injecting Suboxone would rescue the person from overdose. Both parts of the medication would contribute to reversing the effects of opioids; the naloxone (to a small extent) and the buprenorphine, which would have most of the effect. The ceiling effect of buprenorphine should prevent respiratory arrest in any person, as long as no other respiratory depressants are around.
But– one CANNOT expect the ceiling effect’s protection in the presence of other respiratory depressants. If other depressants are present, opioid tolerance becomes a big issue. I’ll describe two cases to demonstrate:
– Let’s take the low-tolerance scenario, with a person who has never used opioids or benzodiazepines, who ‘sniffs’ 40 mg of oxycodone and 10 mg of alprazolam. The risk of overdose would be high in that situation. And if, during overdose, someone injected Suboxone, the opioid effects of buprenorphine would be as great, or greater, than the opioid effects of oxycodone— so the person’s condition would likely worsen. (Note that I’m ignoring the effects of naloxone. Naloxone’s clinical effect last only about 20 minutes. That effect might help the person in this scenario, but it is hard to predict whether the naloxone would out-compete the buprenorphine that is also being injected. People who have injected Suboxone in the past tell me that they found are no difference between injecting Suboxone vs. injecting plain buprenorphine. That wouldn’t surprise me, given the high-affinity binding properties of buprenorphine.
– For the high-tolerance case, let’s take someone who is using 150 mg of oxycodone per day, but on this occasion took an amount of heroin equal to 300 mg of oxycodone. Let’s assume that there are no other depressants on board. In this case, injecting buprenorphine would be expected, theoretically, to block the effects of heroin, and not only wake the person, but precipitate withdrawal. Even if other respiratory depressants are on board, the buprenorphine would likely save the person from overdose, because the opioid effects of buprenorphine are significantly BELOW the person’s tolerance level, and below the effects of the heroin that is causing overdose.
Essentially, the high-affinity binding of buprenorphine displaces other opioids, causing an opioid effect equivalent to 60-100 mg of oxycodone. If the person’s tolerance is higher than that, the result will be precipitated withdrawal. If tolerance is lower, the result will be greater opioid intoxication.
I will stress, again, that the thing to do in case of overdose is to call 911. An even better thing to do would be to get help for anyone you know who is injecting heroin, and get help NOW—as the risks of IV drug use are very high, and nobody believes that he/she will be the next person to die. If you are in a situation where someone else is overdosing, and you inject that person with Suboxone or any other substance other than Narcan, you will likely be prosecuted, and convicted, for manslaughter.
The obsession described in your message is typical, and is the hallmark of opioid dependence. In my opinion, we (psychiatrists) should see ‘obsession’ as the primary defect in cases of addiction, as obsession is what destroys personality, undermines self-esteem, and crowds out other interests and interpersonal relationships. As I’ve written before, buprenorphine’s unique properties allow it to reduce or eliminate the obsession for opioids. Buprenorphine, I believe, is an effective, targeted way to treat opioid dependence.
His message back:
Being a psychiatrist, what are your thoughts on that obsessive thinking? I hate meetings and the 12-step programs. I lived in a half-way house for a month and a half that required 3 meetings per day. I agree with you that they create a fabricated sense of happiness and self-worth. Do you recommend staying on Suboxone for an extended period, especially during a time where i am still having these thoughts? And because of the way I feel toward meetings should I seek a psychiatrist and try to explain my thought process in order to try and change it? What would you recommend to someone in my situation who obsesses to that degree, and hypothetically plans his future around heroin?
Me Again:
I have seen SO many people who stopped Suboxone, then relapsed years later and lost a great deal. I’ve seen obituaries of former patients who used to be on Suboxone. If a person can take the medication without too much hassle— i.e. has a doctor who allows ‘remission treatment’ without making the person feel like a second-class citizen– then long-term Suboxone provides for the best chance of doing well in life, in my opinion.
Other than buprenorphine, the best ‘treatment’ for the obsession, in my opinion, is fear. Step programs tap into that fear, by emphasizing powerlessness— the realization that using even one time will definitely, without a doubt, lead to your destruction. Every thought about using should be confronted with that reality— that if you use, you will die. Relapse often starts with the idea that maybe the person can get away with it, maybe just once… so to stay sober, the person must KNOW that there is no way to try it, even once. That is a bummer, but not the end of the world! Humans love to feel powerful, but attendance at meetings helps reinforce the reality, and the value, of powerlessness. I’ve written about my own experiences back in 1993, when the realization of my powerlessness caused my desire to use to suddenly disappear. If only I could have remembered that powerlessness, even as my life got better!
I do not think that psychotherapy is all that helpful for obsessions. In fact, I think that psychotherapy can be dangerous, if it leads to the thought that you have everything figured out— a thought that the addicted personality loves to run with!
The challenge when treating with buprenorphine is to instill and reinforce the knowledge of powerlessness, even while treating the obsession for opioids with a highly-effective medication. The thought process becomes a little more complicated, but not impossible to grasp.

Tough Choice

I have been struggling with part II, primarily because there are no easy answers to the situation. I realize that I could easily criticize whichever path a doctor suggests for our imaginary patient.
As an aside, I believe that a major reason for the lack of sufficient prescribers of buprenorphine in some parts of the country is the ‘damned if I do, or damned if I don’t’ scenario. All docs are aware of the current epidemic of opioid overdose deaths, and I think most doctors assume that tighter regulations on opioids are appropriate, and are just around the corner. Some addiction physicians and some pain physicians, particularly those who prescribe opioids, fear being grouped by the media, DEA, or a licensing board as part of the problem, rather than as part of the solution. I recently read of a doctor charged with manslaughter for being one of several prescribers for a person who died from opioid overdose. He prescribed meperidine—and outdated and toxic medication—which likely contributed to the charges… but the story creates a chilling atmosphere, regardless. Suboxone and buprenorphine are much safer medications, but when the target population consists of people with addictions to opioids, there will always be some people who use the medication inappropriately— some with disastrous results.
For those late to the party, we are discussing the best treatment approach for someone who cannot control using opioids, but who for now, at least, has a low opioid tolerance. Starting buprenorphine in such a patient will cause opioid side effects, as described in an email that I received from a woman who was addicted to hydrocodone for four years, who stopped taking hydrocodone for 7 days before induction with buprenorphine.
She wrote:
This Suboxone is making me feel like crap. He has me on 8mg/2mg sublingual 2/day. It’s awful…
She had been taking 20-30 mg of hydrocodone up to 5 times per day, stopping them a week before induction. She continued:
Have had a headache in the base of my skull since starting Sub 4 days ago, nausea, vomiting, sweating a lot, face feels like it’s on fire, can’t taste anything, throat hurts, can’t sleep because my face & eyes itch so bad that I’ve rubbed them raw.
These are classic side-effects of over-narcotization from buprenorphine. A person in this position typically feels better holding the buprenorphine, and when the nausea is eventually gone, taking a greatly reduced dose of the medication. The problem is that if the dose is too low, there is no advantage to buprenorphine over other opioids. The whole point of taking Suboxone is to stay on a blood level HIGHER than the ceiling effect, as that essentially tricks the brain, since the opioid effect stays constant even as the blood level falls.
In a few days, the writer’s tolerance will increase to a level where she can take an entire dose of Suboxone without nausea. And by that time, the medication will greatly reduce the desire to take opioids.
Will she be better off on buprenorphine or Suboxone than she was on hydrocodone? Her tolerance will be higher—meaning greater physical withdrawal if she stops the buprenorphine, than she would have had stopping the hydrocodone.
But on the other hand, she tried to stop taking hydrocodone for several years, and couldn’t. She was taking over 4 grams of acetaminophen per day— the other medication present in Norco besides hydrocodone— which is enough to cause death through liver toxicity. And the ups and downs of hydrocodone addiction create a living Hell that eventually demoralizes the person.
I hear from writers who are angry at their physician for getting them ‘stuck on Suboxone’, saying they should have simply tapered off the hydrocodone instead. My answer is that it is easier to SAY ‘I would have tapered of hydrocodone’ than it is to actually taper and stay off hydrocodone!
A doctor seeing the patient I wrote about in part one, or the person above, would face two options:
1. Cause an incidental ‘high’ by administering buprenorphine, and titrating the dose up to a level that eliminates cravings, or:
2. Use an alternate treatment strategy.
Some doctors would opt for the latter, saying they are not comfortable with deliberately intoxicating patients with opioids—something that is unavoidable when starting a low-tolerance patient on buprenorphine (or Suboxone; note that the naloxone component of the medication is irrelevant to this discussion, as it has no action unless injected).
In such cases people are often referred to step-based or other residential treatment centers. I’ve written some pessimistic opinions about those places, but I’m just trying to be accurate. I realize that there are many people dedicating their lives to treating people with addictions in such places—ranging from free, community-supported programs to $80,000 per month luxury rehabs. As dedicated as those people are, the success rate of such programs remains low, and the risk of fatal overdose is present upon discharge. Most people who have gone through residential treatment relapse. And many people have been through rehab multiple times, yet continue to struggle.
Vivitrol, a monthly, injectable form of naltrexone, has been marketed to fill in this space, as a protection against relapse after residential treatment or after several weeks of detox. But for whatever reason, most people opt to forgo that medication, instead placing misguided faith in their own ability to stay clean. So what usually happens is that people with a lower tolerance to opioids repeatedly go through detox, or repeatedly pay for residential treatment, only to return to using opioids. Tolerance increases over time and eventually they present with a tolerance level where Suboxone seems more appropriate.
Assuming, of course, they live that long.

Weezer Ex-Bassist Dies, Suspected Overdose

Written by Daniel Gordon at ThirdAge.com:
Former Weezer bassist Mikey Welsh was found dead in a Chicago hotel room Saturday afternoon, the Chicago Tribune reports.
Raffaello Hotel staff reportedly found the 40-year-old ex-musician on the floor of his room around 1 p.m. Saturday. The Chicago Tribune reported that narcotics are the suspected cause of death.
Chicago Police News Affairs Officer Laura Kubiak told reporters that police are currently conducting a death investigation. An autopsy was scheduled for Sunday, according to the Tribune.

Weezer Former Bassist Mikey Welsh
Weezer Former Bassist Mikey Welsh

Welsh performed with Weezer from 1998-2001. According to Weezer’s Website, he left the band after having a nervous breakdown and reinvented himself as a painter.
In 2002, shortly after leaving Weezer, he told the MetroWest Daily News that he felt the need to move on from music, adding that he was much happier as a painter.
“Music is still an important part of my life, but I really have no desire to actually play it,” he told the Daily News.
A tribute to Welsh on the band’s Website says, “It saddens me and the guys in Weezer so much to say that our beautiful, creative, hilarious and sweet friend Mikey Welsh has passed away at the very young age of 40. A unique talent, a deeply loving friend and father, and a great artist is gone, but we will never forget him. His chapter in the Weezer story (’98 – ’01)
was vital, essential, wild, and amazing.”
Current Weezer bassist Scott Shriner posted a note on his Twitter account saying, “Really bummed about Mikey. My heart goes out to his family and friends. Such a talent… he made a special mark on the world with his art.”
Weezer is playing at the Chicago Riot Fest Sunday, a show Welsh was expected to attend.
The post on Weezer’s site ends by saying, “Mikey was planning on attending this show and we were looking forward to seeing him again. As sad as it is to think about, we know Mikey would never want the rock stopped on his account – quite the contrary in fact. While we wont see him, we know he will be there rocking out with us!”

Consequences Section

Weeks ago I posted a few new ideas—things like a memorial wall for victims of opioid dependence, and a ‘wall of shame’ for doctors who are known for reckless prescribing of opioids. I mentioned these ideas over at SuboxForum as well.
I received good feedback from readers here, and from members there. Sometimes the best feedback is the hardest to hear; I’ll get excited about a certain plan of action, and like anyone, I don’t like it when someone rains on my parade.
One of my addiction docs from years ago was big on ‘sober thinking.’ Back then, it seemed as if anything I came up with that pushed the boundaries was in need of more ‘sober thinking.’ I wondered if ‘sober thinking’ was simply code for ‘I don’t want to say yes to your idea, and maybe that was the case in SOME instances. But I now recognize a part of myself that acts quickly, impulsively, with great optimism, and with little regard for risks. ‘Sober thinking’ is simply letting an idea sit in one’s mind for a few days or even weeks, and keeping a truly open mind to the comments that one receives about the idea.

Prison is a better consequence to heroin addiction
Beats Death--- Barely

I won’t spell out who wrote to me, but I’ll thank the people who did—who risked my ire by giving their honest opinions. I mentioned a memorial page; some people pointed out that a memorial on an addiction-related web page may add to the pain and shame felt by family members. As for my ‘doctor wall of shame’, I was reminded that every story has two sides, and it may be more useful to simply provide referenced information that would allow readers to make up their minds without my own coloring of the facts. I want to thank the people who wrote, and let them know that they made a difference—and the site will be better because of their efforts.
Instead of the earlier ideas, I added what I am calling the ‘consequences’ page. The page will contain news stories identified to Google as having ‘drug overdose’ in their tags. The information will be replaced every 24 hours or so. I experimented with a couple different intervals and found that no day went by without a significant amount of news under that tag—a rather compelling statistic!
Click on ‘consequences’ to check it out, and let me know what you think!

Narcissism, Celebrity Rehab, and Another Overdose Death

On May 27th, 2011, actor Jeff Conaway died from complications of opioid dependence. His death has been attributed to several causes—sepsis, pneumonia, and aspiration among them— but there is little debate over the ultimate cause of his death at the age of 60 years, that being addiction to opioid pain medications.
Mr. Conaway reportedly struggled with chronic pain and addiction to pain medications for a number of years. His situation was particularly tragic—living with severe pain that was relieved by nothing save for a substance with the power to destroy him. Such situations are, unfortunately, not uncommon.
It is easy to take the position that Mr. Conaway should have avoided pain pills; that his addiction essentially disqualified him from even considering them. I will take that attitude myself from time to time, after a series of appointments with patients who are clearly worsening their situation by using opioids for pain that appears ‘tolerable.’ But about the time I start to become confident in my position, I always seem to develop a painful condition of my own—minor sciatica, plantar fasciitis, or lumbar strain, far less severe than the condition of the patients who I have decided should ‘tolerate’ their pain. Whenever that happens I realize, very quickly, something that I had forgotten– pain hurts! Funny how easy it is to ‘tolerate’ pain that is being experienced by someone else!
Most studies that follow patients with chronic pain over periods of years show that people are more ‘functional’ if they never use opioids for chronic pain. But there is considerable debate among the medical community over this issue, with each side finding little to appreciate in the other side’s position. Through my 25 years as a physician I’ve seen the pendulum swing back, and forth, and back again over the issue of opioid treatment for nonmalignant chronic pain. At present, science suggests that opioids are grossly overprescribed. But patients who are taking pain medications for severe pain have a hard time accepting the results of those studies.
There is also considerable confusion among people with addictive disorders about the proper treatment of addiction. I read that Mr. Conaway tried to recover from addiction using methods based in Scientology, as well as ‘traditional’ treatment methods. When he appeared on ‘Celebrity Rehab’, he had every reason to trust his treatment team, and to believe that the advice that he received was sound. But was he told that the success rate for the type of treatment offered in that silly, exploitative TV show is perhaps 5%—and that the presence of TV cameras probably made the success rate even lower?
And am I the only person who finds it bizarre that the doctor behind that TV show has a new book coming out about the harmful effects of narcissism on society– a book that he wrote after building his career off putting movie cameras in the treatment sessions of people who were dying from the end-stages of fatal disease?
I watched the same guy—the doctor writing about all those darn narcissists— do family ‘sex therapy’ on another TV show, offering 15 minutes of fame for teens who would talk about the most intimate details of their young lives, again providing one more step up the career ladder for the guy who is supposedly critical of narcissism.
That same doc who is fuzzy on narcissism has made statements about buprenorphine that have done little to clarify the science of treating addiction. He was often on record on his celebrity show stating that buprenorphine should only be used short term, because otherwise people would become ‘dependent’ on it. Those comments surprised me, as I used to think that anyone with a TV show was at least up on the literature in his supposed field of expertise—and the literature has shown quite clearly, for several years now, that opioid addicts LIVE when they are on buprenorphine, and often DIE when they are not.
I can state without reservation that every patient I have treated with buprenorphine has remained alive while taking the medication—the vast majority of them feeling entirely normal, with no side effects save for constipation—which was a problem when they were using opioid agonists as well. I tell patients on buprenorphine that I’m sorry that they need medication, but they have a fatal illness after all—and that yes, they are dependent on buprenorphine—just as diabetics are ‘dependent’ on insulin.
We will never know for certain, but I strongly suspect that had Mr. Conaway received THAT recommendation—that he had a chronic illness, and that he deserved chronic treatment with a chronic medication—then I would have had to find a different topic for this blog post.
And that would have been fine with me.
Rest in Peace, Jeff Conaway.