Ten Gripes of Buprenorphine Doctors

I recently gave a lecture to medical students about opioid dependence and medication assisted treatment using buprenorphine, methadone, or naltrexone. I was happy to see their interest in the topic, in contrast to the utter lack of interest in learning about buprenorphine shown by practicing physicians. In case someone from the latter group comes across this page, I’ll list a few things to do or to avoid when caring for someone on buprenorphine (e.g. Suboxone).

1. Buprenorphine does NOT treat acute pain, so don’t assume that it will. Patients are fully tolerant to the mu-opioid effects of buprenorphine, so they do not walk around in a state of constant analgesia. Acute pain that you would typically treat with opioids should be treated with opioids in buprenorphine patients. Patients on buprenorphine need higher doses of agonist, usually 2-3 times greater than other patients. Reduce risk of overuse/overdose by providing multiple scripts with ‘fill after’ dates. For example if someone needs opioid analgesia for 6 days, use three prescriptions that each cover two days, each with the notation ‘fill on or after’ the date each will be needed.

2. Don’t say ‘since you’re an opioid addict I can’t give you anything’. There are ways to provide analgesia safely. If you do not provide analgesia when indicated, your patient will only crave opioids more, and may seek out illicit opioids for relief. Unfortunately nobody will criticize you for leaving your patient in pain, but they should!

3. Don’t blame the lack of pain control on laws that don’t exist, for example “I’d like to help you but the law won’t let me.” Patients deserve honesty, even when the truth makes us uncomfortable. We get paid ‘the big bucks’ for tolerating the discomfort that sometimes comes from frank discussions with our patients.

4. Don’t assume your patient can or cannot control pain medications. If a patient has been stable on buprenorphine for years, he/she may have a partner or family member who you can trust to control pain medications. Some patients stable on buprenorphine can control agonists used for acute pain, but I wouldn’t stake my life, or theirs, on that ability. A useful compromise is to prescribe enough pain medication to cover 1-2 days of analgesia on each of several prescriptions, each with a ‘fill after’ date, to reduce the amount of agonist controlled by the patient at one time.

5. Don’t tell your patients that ‘opioids don’t work for chronic pain.’ I see stories on such great medical sources as the ‘Huffington Post’ explaining that ‘opioids never help chronic pain’. In reality, your patients know that opioids DO treat chronic pain, so they will consider you a liar or an idiot if you clam they don’t. The challenge is explaining the risk/reward equation to your patients, and explaining why treating chronic pain with opioids often leads to greater problems, as the risk/benefit equation is changed by tolerance.

6. I know this will cause heads to explode, but don’t assume that chronic pain is always less severe than acute pain. What if your patient’s chronic pain is worse than the typical pain after cholecystectomy or ACL repair? Most doctors would gasp at the idea of recovering from major surgery without opioids. What if the pain from failed back syndrome is worse?! I have had a few patients who, I’m certain, experience a great deal of suffering, and have gone so far as to have brain or spinal cord implants to get relief. I’m not arguing that we treat chronic pain in the same way as acute pain. But we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that chronic pain isn’t severe enough to warrant opioids in order to dismiss those complaints more easily.

7. Don’t tell your patient to stop taking buprenorphine unless you’ve talked with the doctor who is prescribing that medication, and realize that the doctor you are calling knows more about buprenorphine and addiction than you do.

8. Don’t ask patients ‘how long are you going to take that stuff’ or criticize patients’ use of buprenorphine medications. Likewise psychiatrists shouldn’t tell patients scheduled for knee arthroscopy that the procedure is controversial, or talk patients out of hernia surgery.

9. Don’t assume that the doctor prescribing buprenorphine knows what YOU are doing. Too often patients will tell me about surgery that they failed to discuss in advance, even calling about pain hours after getting home from a procedure they failed to mention. Some people seem to believe that doctors regularly collaborate on their care, even though the opposite is closer to the truth.

10. Don’t assume that unusual or atypical symptoms come fromo buprenorphine. One truism of medicine is that doctors tend to blame unexplained symptoms on whatever medication they know the least about. Fevers of unknown origin, mental status changes, or double vision are not ‘from the buprenorphine!’

Those are the gripes at the top of my list. Did I miss one of yours? Or for patients, have you suffered from breakdowns in the system?

Addendum: 11. When treating post-surgical pain in buprenorphine patients, choose one opioid and stick with it. What often happens is that doctors will use one opioid, say morphine… and when nurses call a few hours later to say the patient is still screaming, they change to a different opioid, then another after that. As a result, the patient is placed on insufficient doses of several opioids, rather than an adequate dose of one medication.

There are two critical issues in treating such patients effectively. First, providing pain relief comes down to competition at the mu receptor. A certain concentration of agonist in the brain and spinal fluid will out-compete buprenorphine and provide analgesia. You cannot get there by adding other opioids together. If you use oxycodone for an hour and then change to dilaudid, you are starting over. Instead, choose one drug, preferably something that can be given intravenously, and stick with it. Morphine is not a good option btw, because of the low potency and histamine releasing properties of that drug.

Second, remember that analgesia and respiratory depression travel together, both mediated by the mu receptor. Anesthesiologists know this principle well… opioid medication can be titrated to respiratory rate, providing that the medication is given IM or IV. If a patient is breathing 28 times per minute, he/she is in pain. If the patient is breathing 6 times per minute, pain is not a problem, and the patient should be monitored for respiratory depression and possible overdose. When treating pain, doctors should aim for a respiratory rate of 14-18 breaths per minute, making sure that the medication is actually getting into the bloodstream (the risk comes when patients are given SQ injections or oral doses of narcotic that enter the bloodstream later, causing toxic blood levels).

Post-op Pain on Suboxone

I often receive emails from patients on buprenorphine (or Suboxone) who are preparing for surgery or other painful medical procedures. Ideally in such cases, the surgeon would have a discussion with the person prescribing buprenorphine, in order to coordinate the plan for treating postoperative pain. In practice such discussions don’t seem to take place, leaving patients to scramble for effective pain control after surgery– when it is too late to take the steps necessary for a smooth perioperative course.
I am familiar with an NIH article that describes pain control in people who take buprenorphine. I’ve also prepared a handbook that describes the issues that must be considered in such patients; the handbook can be found easily-enough by searching for the User’s Guide to Suboxone.
Even with those descriptions ‘out there,’ I’ll get requests for a short, ‘just-the-facts’ note that patients can give to their surgeons. I realize that unfortunately, the average surgeon will not sit down for an in-depth discussion of post-op pain control, so I have prepared a few paragraphs that lay out the issues. People on buprenorphine who are having surgery are welcome to copy the paragraphs below and give them to their surgeons, in order to facilitate discussion.
Surgery in Patients on Buprenorphine
Buprenorphine is a partial opioid agonist that is used for several indications. In low doses—less than 1 mg—buprenorphine is used to treat pain (e.g. Butrans transdermal buprenorphine). In higher doses i.e. 4 – 24 mg per day, buprenorphine is used as a long-term treatment for opioid dependence and less often for pain management. At those doses, Buprenorphine has a unique ‘ceiling effect’ that reduces cravings and prevents dose escalation. Patients taking higher dose of buprenorphine, trade name Suboxone or Subutex, become tolerant to the effects of opioids, and require special consideration during surgical procedures or when treated for painful medical conditions.
There are two hurdles to providing effective analgesia for patients taking buprenorphine: 1. the high opioid tolerance of these individuals, and 2. The opioid-blocking actions of buprenorphine. The first can be overcome by using a sufficient dose of opioid agonist, on the order of 60 mg per day of oxycodone equivalents or more. The second can be handled by either stopping the buprenorphine a couple weeks before agonists are required—something that most patients on the medication find very difficult to do—or by reducing the dose of buprenorphine to 4-8 mg per day, starting the day before surgery and continuing post-operatively. Given the long half-life of buprenorphine, it is difficult to know exactly how much remains in the body after ‘holding’ the medication. That fact, along with the difficulty patients have in stopping the medication, leads some physicians to use the latter approach- i.e. to continue 4 mg of buprenorphine per day throughout the postoperative period. People taking 4-8 mg of daily buprenorphine report that opioid agonists relieve pain if taken in sufficient dosage, but the subjective experience is different, in that there is no feeling of euphoria.
Quick Notes:
Patients taking maintenance doses of buprenorphine do NOT receive surgical analgesia from the medication, as they are completely tolerant to the mu-opioid effects of buprenorphine after the first week or so on the medication.
Discontinuation of high dose buprenorphine or Suboxone treatment results in significant opioid withdrawal symptoms within 24-48 hours.
Normal amounts of opioid pain medication are NOT sufficient for treating pain in people on buprenorphine maintenance.
Opioid agonists will NOT cause withdrawal in people on buprenorphine. Initiating buprenorphine WILL cause withdrawal in someone who is tolerant to opioid agonists, unless the person is in physical withdrawal before initiating buprenorphine.
Non-narcotic pain relievers CAN and should be used for pain whenever possible in people on buprenorphine to reduce need for opioids.

Uncoupling of analgesia, tolerance, and euphoria from mu-agonists using buprenorphine

I presented this topic at the Atlanta meeting of ASAM a couple weeks ago. There are too many slides, but the historical stuff was just too fascinating to leave out. I wanted to demonstrate, by lining it up on the side, how time has compressed the most critical discoveries to a very short period of time. In other words, it wasn’t until thousands of years of opium use that the general concept of endorphines and opioid receptors came along. We can only hope that similar understandings of the biological basis of tolerance and withdrawal will be comparatively soon.
My study shows something truly fascinating– that a partial agonist seems to anchor tolerance at a lower level, still allowing for potent analgesia, but preventing euphoria and dose escalation. I have used this combination in people with very major surgeries, that are known to be quite painful– i.e. knee and hip replacements, dental surgeries, gallbladder surgery, and median sternotomy.

Suboxone, Pregnancy, C-Section, and Surgery

A recent message from a reader:
What would be the ideal care-plan for the pt taking 24mg/dayof Subutex who is going in for c section? I would like to show the response tomy OB, so if there is any way, please be specific as to any tapering or substituting of another low-dose narcotic before surgery, the best med for pain control in recovery and while still in hospital, up to discharge and the best PO med course for home. I would be so appreciative and you’d really help ease my fears.
Thank you 🙂
My Answer:
I receive this question often, and I am confident in my ability to provide education about the issue. I have to point out that I can’t act as your doctor and give medical advice — but I’ll share my experienceafter having a number of patients on buprenorphine (i.e. Suboxone) go through a wide range of surgeries.
You can share with your doctor that I’m Board Certified in Anesthesiology, and I worked in Ors and pain clinics for ten years before leaving the field for psychiatry residency. Your doctor is more likely to believe me, knowing I have experience in that area.
I will send you a couple references about this topic, and I’ll also send my ‘Users Guide to Suboxone’. The articles provide support for the treatment I’m about to describe.
Did I mention that anyone reading this MUST use the information only to spark a discussion with his/her own doctor? Do NOT use this information on your own; doing so would be quite dangerous—not to mention illegal.
A couple basics first… The anesthetic for the surgery (in this case, a C-section) should be conducted the same as with any other patient. Spinals and epidurals work fine. Local anesthetics are not affected by Suboxone, and the spinal narcotics sometimes used play only a small role in analgesia during surgery, being more important for post-op pain.
Likewise, a general anesthetic in your case would not be affected by buprenorphine, since a narcotic-based anesthetic is not appropriate for a c-section. So we are really talking about post-op pain in this discussion.
There are two major issues when dealing with post-op or other acute pain in people on Suboxone or buprenorphine (the two medications are clinically identical; in each case, buprenorphine is the only issue, since naloxone is NOT active orally or sublingually).
The first issue is that buprenorphine is a partial agonist that acts as an antagonist at opioid receptors after surgery in the presence of narcotic pain medication. Buprenorphine is a
high-affinity, long-acting medication that is VERY effective at blocking the mu opioid receptor. To deal with this first issue, you need to get your blood level of buprenorphine lower. The buprenorphine half-life is over 3 days, so it takes a week or more to make significant reductions in the blood level of buprenorphine in preparation for surgery. It is possible to treat your pain on, say, 16 mg of buprenorphine per day– but difficult, requiring very high doses of oxycodone to out-compete the buprenorphine. I have never tried treating pain in a person on 24 mg per day, but I would expect it to be even more difficult than at 16 mg per day.
I tell patients having planned surgery to taper down their dose of buprenorphine a couple weeks in advance. For someone having a C-section there is a second reason, beyond pain control, to lower the dose of buprenorphine, as doing so will also lessen the chance that the baby will have withdrawal (although I encourage people to avoid getting worked up over that
issue. Studies show that ‘neonatal abstinence syndrome’ from buprenorphine is much less severe than from other opioids like heroin or methadone).
I have patients taper down to 8 mg per day or less by the time of the surgery–ideally by a week before the surgery. In my experience, most people don’t notice significant discomfort if they reduce by a quarter tab every week or two (when people stop buprenorphine, most of the withdrawal occurs when tapering off the final 2-4 mg per day). The goal is to get to 8 mg per day (or less) so that mu opioid receptors can be activated by opioid agonists like oxycodone or fentanyl.
**** It would be a mistake to try to treat your pain using ‘just buprenorphine’. Some docs apparently do that, as I occasionally receive messages from angry patients who were told they would be fine, who then go through horrendous experiences and write to me, asking me to help them sue their doctors. People on Suboxone or similar doses of buprenorphine are
FULLY TOLERANT to the effects of buprenorphine, and because of the ceiling effect, higher doses of buprenorphine will provide NO significant pain relief.
As for the second issue, even if we could magically remove all of the buprenorphine in a patient’s system on the day of surgery (we can’t), the person would still have a high opioid tolerance—and so would require high doses of opioids to treat pain. There is debate over the exact tolerance, but in my experience people on buprenorphine have a tolerance similar to someone taking 60 mg of oxycodone per day, or 40 mg of methadone per day. That means that even if we could remove all of the buprenorphine, it takes 60 mg of oxycodone (or equivalent) just to break even, before providing pain relief. Since buprenorphine will be in the system, it takes more than 60 mg– but 60 mg is the starting point.
With that in mind, I generally try to give people the equivalent of 60 mg of oxycodone per day, and provide more oxycodone ‘as needed’. One way is to give Oxycontin, 20 mg three times per day, and then use oxycodone 15 mg every 4 hours as needed. Another way is to avoid the Oxycontin, and give oxycodone, 15-30 mg every 4 hours as needed.
**** Oxycodone is a 4 hour medication. Some doctors make the mistake of thinking that since they are giving higher doses, they can give it less often. Again, their patients write to me afterward to complain. Oxycodone is metabolized at the same, fast rate in people on buprenorphine as in everybody else, and has little effect beyond 4 hours.
**** Some docs fear respiratory depression from using high doses of opioids, and would rather just let the person suffer than carefully think through the issue. I’ve even heard about docs telling patients ‘there is nothing that can be done for your pain’. That is nonsense; pain relief CAN be provided, but it takes high doses of narcotic to do so, and THAT requires some extra planning. If they need to put you in the ICU to feel comfortable, so be it– you deserve pain relief.
For doctors: because of the long half-life of buprenorphine, ‘renarcotization’ is not an issue. (that situation can occur with short-acting antagonists like naloxone, when a patient receives long-acting pain medication… and then the blocker wears off, leaving the patient vulnerable to respiratory depression). Buprenorphine easily outlasts any agonist, so a patient is not going to suddenly overdose. In fact, people on buprenorphine are protected to some extent from overdose; deaths on Suboxone occur when a person with a low or no opioid tolerance takes Suboxone, usually combined with a second respiratory depressant like alprazolam. People on buprenorphine usually report getting pain relief from 15-30 mg of oxycodone,
but not ‘feeling’ the drug in any other way. They feel no euphoria or sedation– but they get pain relief. I’ve written about the benefits of the combination for treating severe chronic pain but that’s another issue….
Typically, XXXXXXX, I tell my patients to taper to one tab of buprenorphine or Suboxone per day by a week before surgery. Starting the day before surgery, I have them take a half tab of buprenorphine or Suboxone per day– and continue that on the day of surgery, and throughout the post-op period. Why continue it? Because with the long half-life, it will be there anyway– and I feel better having some idea how MUCH is there. There are benefits to continuing it as well, such as preventing euphoria from opioid agonists, and making it easier to restart the full dose of buprenorphine later– without the need to go through 24 hours of withdrawal to avoid precipitated withdrawal.
I would have the surgeons do the surgery as they always do, using general, spinal, or epidural. For post-op, I usually recommend using PCA (patient controlled analgesia) with fentanyl; there are some anecdotal reports that fentanyl competes more effectively with buprenorphine than morphine (which would make sense, since fentanyl has much higher affinity). I suggest that they forget numbers, and set the PCA for at least twice what they normally would use, pay close attention to your respiratory rate, pulse-ox, and PAIN, and increase the dose QUICKLY if necessary.
As soon as you are taking oral meds, things become much easier. I usually recommend the medications listed above– i.e. 15-30 mg of oxycodone every 4 hours. I sometimes use a ‘basal narcotic’ like oxycodone, and dose on top of that as mentioned above.
When you no longer need opioid pain relief, stop taking oxycodone for at least a few hours, and then resume your full dose of buprenorphine. NOTE– I have not had a patient get precipitated withdrawal, provided they continue at least 4 mg of buprenorphine every day throughout the post-op period. But I cannot guarantee that it won’t happen.
The safest thing is to stop the oxycodone for longer than 4 hours– for as long as possible, until you actually feel withdrawal– and THEN restart buprenorphine.
I have to stop at this point– I will send those articles when I’m at work tomorrow. Good luck with your new baby!
JJ
FYI: E-mail me for a free copy of my ‘User’s Guide to Suboxone’ and for the reference described above.

I'm On Suboxone; Can I Have Surgery?

I recently resumed writing for the expert forum on addiction at MedHelp.Org. One result of writing for MedHelp is that I receive a number of e-mails from people with questions about specific issues related to buprenorphine. The most common questions are from people on buprenorphine undergoing surgery, asking about the safety of anesthesia and about postoperative pain control.
There are very significant problems with medical coverage for patients on buprenorphine undergoing surgery. Patients on buprenorphine will occasionally need surgery, and in such cases there are often no doctors willing and/or competent to manage postoperative pain. Psychiatrists, frankly, have little knowledge or experience in this area. Before psychiatry residency, medical school graduates generally complete a medical internship that provides little or no training in critical care or surgery. Making matters even worse, the medical students who go into psychiatry tend to be those who have the least interest in the surgical specialties.
And then there are surgeons. Where psychiatrists lack courage to provide effective pain relief for addicts, surgeons simply lack interest or concern. Surgeons enjoy being in the operating room, cutting things apart and sewing things together. The last thing they want to do is have a heart-to-heart talk about someone’s addiction to pain pills. To a surgeon’s way of thinking, addiction doesn’t even exist. You can’t cut it off or sew it on, so why even talk about it?
Hopefully, those of you who take buprenorphine will slip this article under the door of your psychiatrist to drop a hit about this problem. I cannot provide medical recommendations for people who I do not know, but I will at least provide some general information so that readers of my blog will know when they are being fed a line of nonsense.
Speaking of nonsense, the silliest and most potentially harmful advice that I hear about in e-mails is that buprenorphine will cover a person’s postoperative pain; that the person should simply take his/her normal dose of Suboxone and everything will be fine. Nonsense! People taking buprenorphine quickly become tolerant to the pain-relieving properties of buprenorphine, and therefore will not get adequate pain relief from buprenorphine for anything but the most minor surgical procedures. Buprenorphine has complex actions at opioid receptors, including partial agonism at mu receptors and mixed effects at kappa opioid receptors. The actions at kappa receptors are less subject to tolerance and provide some long-term effects on mood and analgesia, but these effects are not even close to what is required to cover postoperative pain.
There are several articles that have been published that describe various approaches for treating postoperative pain in patients on buprenorphine. I cannot post the articles here because of copyrights, but the general recommendation in the literature for treating post-op pain is to reduce the daily dose of buprenorphine starting several days before the surgery, and to use potent opioid agonists in addition to buprenorphine. Another option is to stop buprenorphine completely before surgery. But buprenorphine has a long half-life, and must be stopped for a week or more in order to significantly lower the level of buprenorphine in the body.
It is important to understand that there are two things that get in the way of pain relief in patients on buprenorphine; the antagonist actions of buprenorphine at the mu receptor, and the patient’s high tolerance to opioid agonists. Even if buprenorphine is stopped a week or two in advance of surgery, the person still has a high tolerance to opioids, and still requires significant doses of opioid agonists for adequate post-operative pain control. And if buprenorphine is stopped completely, the person must go through a period of withdrawal before eventually restarting buprenorphine in order to avoid precipitated withdrawal.
I have found it easiest to keep the person on a small dose of buprenorphine, perhaps 4 mg per day, throughout the entire operative period, until postoperative opioids are no longer needed. I’ve had good success treating post-operative pain with high doses of oxycodone while continuing buprenorphine, even after major surgeries. Interestingly, patients report good pain relief but the complete absence of the euphoria that they used to get from opioids. At the point after surgery when opioid agonists are no longer necessary, patients simply stop the agonists and resume their full dose of buprenorphine.
Whether or not buprenorphine is discontinued, high doses of opioid agonists are required to provide adequate pain relief for major surgery. An oxycodone equivalence of about 60 mg per day is required just to ‘break even’ with the tolerance of a typical person on buprenorphine maintenance. You can understand, then, why psychiatrists are wary of treating postoperative pain. Such high doses of oxycodone could easily cause fatal overdose in patients not taking buprenorphine. I am board certified in anesthesiology, but even I get nervous in such situations. But what is the alternative? I have had patients who required coronary bypass, hysterectomy, and total knee replacement, as well as minor surgeries. Dental work in particular is quite common in patients with a history of addiction. Should people on buprenorphine simply go without the necessary procedures that other people are allowed to have?
If psychiatrists or surgeons are unwilling to provide adequate postoperative analgesia for patients to take as outpatients, patients should allowed to stay in the hospital, even the intensive care unit, if that is what it takes for the doctor to feel safe providing adequate analgesia. Surgeons should provide adequate care, even if they have to fill out paperwork and battle insurers to obtain the necessary coverage for hospitalization. They would do the same for patients with brittle diabetes who need close monitoring following surgery. Opioid addicts are people too!
As for general anesthesia, buprenorphine does not pose significant problems, provided that the anesthesiologist is aware that the patient takes buprenorphine and has a high opioid tolerance. Opioids are often used during anesthesia to blunt changes in blood pressure and heart rate, and larger doses of opioids would be required for people taking buprenorphine. The amnesia component of an anesthetic is generally provided by medications not blocked by buprenorphine, such as anesthetic vapors or benzodiazepines.
Another reason that anesthesiologists must be made aware if a patient is taking buprenorphine is so that sufficient opioids are ‘on board’ when the patient awakes. As patients emerge from anesthesia, anesthesiologists often use respiratory rate to gauge whether sufficient doses of narcotics have been provided to cover postoperative pain. Without the knowledge that a patient is on buprenorphine, the anesthesiologist may be confused by the patient’s lack of response to narcotics, causing the anesthesiologist to give too little pain medication—meaning that the patient will awake with considerable pain.
Medications with combined actions (such as tramadol and the newer agent Nucynta) or of little value for post-operative pain control. These medications have actions at mu opioid receptors that are blocked by, and cross-tolerant with, buprenorphine– completely nullifying that component of their action. The other component of their action is through effects on serotonin or norepinephrine pathways, and these actions are insignificant for post-surgical pain. Because of mu receptor tolerance, Nucynta essentially becomes as useful for treating post-op pain as Cymbalta— i.e. worthless!
I must stress that everything I have written here is intended to serve as a basis for discussion between patients and their doctors. Every case has unique variables that must be taken into account, and so my comments must not be taken as medical recommendations or advice. Taking high doses of opioid agonists can be dangerous, particularly in combination with other respiratory depressants.
One final comment… I recently received letters from two different health insurers about ‘buprenorphine policies’ citing situations where Suboxone would not be covered. These situations have included cases where patients are prescribed opioid agonists. I want to point out that there are times when patients on buprenorphine require surgery, and every patient undergoing surgery deserves adequate pain control. There are also patients on buprenorphine maintenance who have chronic pain; pain that in some cases justifies the relief afforded by opioid agonists. I hope that those with the power to influence policy, including Reckitt-Benckiser, the American Society for Addiction Medicine, NIDA, and SAMHSA, will direct attention to this important gap in medical coverage.