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.

Hydrocodone (Vicodin) Addiction and Buprenorphine

I recently accepted a young man as a patient who was addicted to hydrocodone (the opioid in Vicodin), prompting a discussion about treatment options for someone who hasn’t been using very long, and who hasn’t pushed his tolerance all that high. Perhaps it will be informative to share my thought process when recommending or planning treatment in such cases. In part one I’ll provide some background, and in a couple days I’ll follow up with a few more thoughts on the topic.
Most people who have struggled with opioids learn to pay attention to their tolerance level—i.e. the amount of opioid that must be taken each day to avoid withdrawal or to cause euphoria (the latter about 30% more than the former). For someone addicted to opioids, the goal is to have a tolerance of ‘zero’—meaning that there is no withdrawal, even if the person takes nothing. That zero tolerance level serves as a goal, making having a high tolerance a bad thing, and pushing tolerance lower a good thing.
Tolerance is sometimes used as part of the equation when determining the severity of one’s addiction. But looking at tolerance alone can be misleading. Tolerance is a consequence of heavy use of opioids, and also a cause of heavy use of opioids. Tolerance usually goes up over time, so having a high tolerance probably correlates with length of addiction in some—- but not all— cases. Tolerance is also strongly related to drug availability. A person with a severe addiction, who only has access to codeine, will likely have a lower tolerance than a person with a more mild addiction, who has free access to fentanyl, oxycodone, and heroin.
I think it is more appropriate to measure the ‘severity of addiction’ by the degree of mental obsession that the patient has for opioids. Tolerance is one piece of information in determining that obsession, but tolerance alone can be misleading.
To get a sense of the obsession for opioids, I look at many factors. Has the person committed crimes to obtain the substance? Violent crimes? What has the person given up for his addiction? Has he been through treatment? How many times? How long did he stay clean after treatment? Have his parents or spouse thrown him out of the house, and if so, does he still use? Did he choose opioids over his career? Over his kids?
Answers to these questions provide a broad understanding about the addicted person’s relationship with the substance—an understanding that is necessary when considering the likely success or failure of one treatment or another. It is also important to consider the person’s place in the addictive cycle—i.e. early, likely in denial, cocky, with limited insight– or late, after many losses, more desperate—and perhaps more accepting of treatment.
I am a fan of buprenorphine as a long-term treatment for opioid dependence, as readers of this column know. I consider opioid dependence to be a chronic, potentially-fatal illness that deserves chronic, life-sustaining treatment— and buprenorphine, in my experience, is a very effective treatment in motivated patients. But tolerance becomes a factor, when considering buprenorphine for THIS patient.
Buprenorphine has a ‘cap’ or ‘ceiling effect’ that allows the medication to trick the brain out of craving opioids. In short, as the blood or brain concentration of buprenorphine drops between doses, the opioid effect remains constant, as long as the concentration is above the ceiling level. In order to achieve the anti-craving effects of buprenorphine, the dose must be high enough to create ‘ceiling level’ effects. If buprenorphine is prescribed in lower amounts—say microgram doses— the effect is identical to the effects of an agonist, since the dose/response curve is linear at lower levels.
Buprenorphine is a very potent opioid, and the effects of the medication are quite strong at the ceiling level. Comparisons to other opioids will vary in different individuals, but in general, a person on an appropriate dosage of buprenorphine develops a tolerance equivalent to that of a person taking 40 mg of methadone per day, or approximately 60-100 mg of oxycodone per day.
A person taking even a dozen Vicodin per day has a much lower tolerance to opioids. Such a person who starts buprenorphine treatment will obtain a very significant opioid effect from the drug— unless the dose of buprenorphine is raised very slowly over a number of days. And in that case, the person’s tolerance level would be pushed much higher.
So if our current patient starts buprenorphine, he will have a much higher opioid tolerance if/when the buprenorphine is eventually discontinued. I receive emails now and then from patients who are angry at their doctor for starting buprenorphine, feeling trapped by the considerable threat of withdrawal from stopping the drug. But at the same time, taking hydrocodone and acetaminophen in high amounts creates the risk of liver damage from the acetaminophen, as well as the considerable risks from opioid dependence.
And so the dilemma. Should buprenorphine be considered in such a case?

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.

The REAL Future of Partial Agonist Treatment— Pharma are you Listening?

I just wrote a note to a friend who works in the molecular sciences– she has been studying opioid receptors since the early 1980’s, when things were just getting started on a molecular level.  I’m keeping her name to myself, but I’ll share a few thoughts about what is needed to advance the treatement of opioid dependence– and make a few million dollars along the way (are you listening, RB?)
Hi ——,
(private chit chat that would bore everyone)
Anyway, today I realized what is needed in order to take partial agonist treatment of opioid dependence to the next level.
The problem with buprenorphine is that the ‘ceiling effect’ occurs at a relatively high tolerance level, approximately equal to 40 mg of methadone.  That causes at least two problems.  First, going off Suboxone is a lot of work, as the person still has a great deal of withdrawal to go through.  That may be a good thing early in the process, as it may help keep people on Suboxone, but after a year or so, when people want to try going off the medication, it is a major barrier that opens the floodgates to those old memories of using, etched in the emotions associated with withdrawal.
The second problem with the high ceiling/tolerance level is that surgery is a hassle.  People needing surgery need HIGH amounts of oxycodone to get any analgesia—I usually give 15-30 mg every 4 hours.  Pharmacists shudder to release those doses, and some surgeons and anesthesiologists balk.
The horizontal part of the dose/response curve is the essential part of buprenorphine;  that is what tricks the brain into ‘thinking’ that nothing is wearing off, and in that way eliminating cravings.  But that flat dose/response relationship could occur at lower tolerance levels and still work the same way.
Since I’m wishing for the moon, a series of molecules with progressively lower ceiling levels would be ideal, with the last molecule in the series being Naltrexone.  Although actually, naltrexone doesn’t work—it has NO mu agonism, so there is no tricking of the brain, and no reduction of cravings.  We would want something close to naltrexone, but with a tiny bit of opioid activity that does not vary with dose.
A shorter half-life would also be helpful.  Preparing for surgery requires weeks to get the buprenorphine out of the system.  Of course a shorter half-life means it is easier to get around buprenorphine by people who want to play with agonists, so again, these new molecules would be intended as ‘step down’ meds from early-stage buprenorphine treatment.
Do we know enough about molecular actions at the mu receptor to design molecules with these properties?  Or are we still at the point of making somewhat random changes and assaying the result?  Do you know of any labs doing this type of work?
I figured you’re the person to ask!
Thanks ——–

Buprenorphine for low-dose opioid use

A reader wrote with a question that I don’t think I’ve addressed on the blog.

Do you have a threshold for how much narcotic a patient must be using before you will put them on buprenorphine? I am concerned about narcotic addicts that are using 6-10 Vicodin (hydrocodone) a day for example.  Many have very mild withdrawal symptoms, but are never-the-less unable to stop on their own.
This is an insightful question that provokes enough discussion to fill at least one blog post.  I don’t have a simple answer, other than to go on a case-by-case basis and try to determine who, if anyone, might be able to walk away from opioids completely (i.e. a person who I would be less likely to put on buprenorphine, as doing so would drive tolerance higher) vs. those who will need maintenance treatment eventually, even if their doses are not yet very high.

Patients have a right to know if they are having their tolerance increased in my opinion, given the misery involved in bringing tolerance down.  It is also important to tell people with lower tolerances that they are going to get a buzz from buprenorphine for a few days because of the potency of buprenorphine.  This opiate stimulation is likely to occur even with a very small piece of a Suboxone tablet; a quarter tab or 2 mg of buprenorphine has almost the same potency as 16 mg because of the ‘ceiling effect.’  The potent opioid effect may make the doctor liable for a car accident, or could even lead to overdose if the patient combines buprenorphine with other respiratory depressants.

In general,  the ‘break even’ point on the tolerance scale is 80-100 mg of hydrocodone or about 60 mg of oxycodone per day.  In other words, if the person is taking 8-10 of the larger-strength Vicodin per day, I would consider Suboxone to be of about equal potency.

In considering whether a person’s use and tolerance are high enough to call for buprenorphine, some people focus too much on the initial potency relationships, and forget that opioid dependence is almost always a long-term condition.  I’m not sure by your last sentence whether you realize or not that the presence or absence of bad withdrawal is a red herring for acheiving sobriety from opioids.  Many addicts mistakenly think that withdrawal is the primary force that keeps them actively addicted.  In late addiction they find that desperation helps them get through withdrawal over and over, but they continue to relapse– as soon as they feel well!

From a scientific perspective, I have not seen evidence of a correlation between the severity of addiction and the addict’s tolerance level (if anyone has seen such a study, please forward me the reference).  At the same time, I don’t think I would feel comfortable starting buprenorphine in a person taking a couple Tylenol 3’s per day.  Luckily (?), this type of situation has been rare in my experience.   I should do chart reviews and publish the exact numbers, but out of the 500 or so people presenting with opioid dependence over the past 5 years, I would guess that the average tolerance level is approx. 120-150 mg of daily methadone (range of 30-400 mg per day), or approx. 160 mg of oxycodone per day (range of 40-700 mg of oxycodone per day).  Yes, I had two people—interestingly, both women– come in at those upper daily doses of methadone and oxycodone.   The methadone patient had been labeled a ‘fast metabolizer’ of methadone as reason for the ridiculously high dosage.  The reason seemed good enough, until I found, when converting her to other agonists for pain, that her tolerance was ultra-high to ALL opioid agonists—telling me that she was not metabolizing the methadone fast enough to prevent her body’s response to the high dosage, and calling the entire ‘fast metabolizer’ issue into question.  The woman taking the large amount of oxycodone had inherited a tidy sum of money; hundreds of thousands of dollars, all gone after one year of using.


Is My Suboxone Dose Too High to Have Surgery?

Thanks, all of you who wrote comments to my last post.  I remind everyone once again to consider taking your comments here and after writing them, also taking them to  I am going to put up a new category to discuss topics that were initiated here;  it would be great to get a spirited, respectful ‘give and take’ on some of these topics.  As I have mentioned before, the only thing that I will block on that site would be debating whether people on Suboxone are ‘in Recovery’– just because there are plenty of other sites for that, and I want the forum to be for people who have made their decision– and don’t want to be harassed over it.  I will be upgrading that site shortly and changing the hosting account;  hopefully I will pull it off without erasing everything!
OK, tonight’s topic: I am taking my post from a different forum and posting it here also to save wear and tear on my keyboard…  I responded to a person who is taking 32 mg of Suboxone daily and who is concerned that the relatively high dose will raise her tolerance higher than she would like.  She has surgery coming up, and is concerned that the high tolerance will get in the way during or after the surgery.    My reply addresses the level of opiate tolerance in relation to dose of buprenorphine.  Incidentally though I will quickly say that buprenorphine poses little problem during an anesthetic;  it does not interfere to a large degree with general, epidural, or spinal anesthesia.  But buprenorphine DOES interfere with the treatment of post-operative pain.  I will also comment that I consider 32 mg of daily Suboxone to be a waste of money;  my experiences treating people with Suboxone have only reinforced my opinion that there is no benefit, and often considerable harm, in taking more than 16 mg of Suboxone per day,  and in dosing more than once per day.  But that discussion will have to wait.
My Response:
I will talk about buprenorphine, the active medication in Suboxone, just to simplify things a bit– although Suboxone will have the same effects. First, when talking about the dose, it is important that the method one takes it is identified– as that is what determines how much active drug ends up in the bloodstream. I will assume that the person is taking steps to get maximal absorption of Suboxone; for example keeping it exposed to mucous membranes for a long-enough time, and not rinsing the mouth with liquid for at least 15 minutes after dosing, to avoid rinsing away drug that is attached to the lining of the mouth but not yet absorbed. As an aside, there is a post somewhere on this blog entitled ‘maximizing absorption of Suboxone’ for those who want more info.

When a person takes Suboxone, he is taking a ‘supra-maximal’ dose of buprenorphine. Buprenorphine is used to treat pain in microgram doses; the BuTrans patch is used in the UK to treat pain, and it releases buprenorphine at a rate of 5-20 MICROGRAMS per hour! One tablet of Suboxone containes 8000 micrograms! So whether a person is taking one, two, three, or more tabs of Suboxone per day, he is taking a very large dose of buprenorphine— a dose large enough to ascertain that he is up on the ‘ceiling’ of the dose/response curve. It is important to be on the ceiling, as this is the flat part of the curve (I know– a silly statement) so that as the level of buprenorphine in the bloodstream drops, the opiate potency remains constant, avoiding the sensation of a decreasing effect which would cause cravings.

I have read and heard differing opinions on the dose that gets one to the ‘ceiling’ but from everything I have seen the maximal opiate effect occurs at about 2-4 mg (or 2000-4000 micrograms), assuming good absorption of buprenorphine. I base this on watching many people initiate Suboxone; if a person with a low tolerance to opiates takes 2 mg of buprenorphine, he will have a very severe opiate effect; if he takes that dose for a few days and gets used to it, and then takes a larger dose, there is no significant increase in opiate intoxication– showing that once he is used to 2 mg, he is used to 16 mg— and is ‘on the ceiling’ by definition. I see the same thing in reverse; there is very little withdrawal as a person decreases the dose from 32-24-16-12-8 mg, but once the person gets below 4 mg per day, the real withdrawal starts. This again shows that the response is ‘flat’ at those high doses, and only comes down below about 4 mg of buprenorphine.

The flip side of all of this is that tolerance reaches a maximum at about 4 mg of buprenorphine, and further increase in dose of buprenorphine does not cause substantial increase in tolerance. Tolerance and withdrawal are two sides of the same coin; the lack of withdrawal going from 32 to 8 mg of buprenorphine is consistent with no significant change in tolerance across that range.

So in my opinion, being on 32 vs 4 mg of Suboxone doesn’t raise your tolerance. But in regard to upcoming surgery, there is an additional concern. One issue with surgery on buprenorphine is the high tolerance, but the second issue is blockade of opiate agonists by buprenorphine– and this effect is directly related to the dose of buprenorphine. A person on 32 mg of Suboxone will need much, much higher doses of agonist to get pain relief than will a person on 4 mg of Suboxone– not because of tolerance but because of the blocking effect, which is competitive in nature at the receptor. When people are approaching surgery I recommend that they lower their dose of Suboxone as much as possible– to 4-8 mg if possible. Because of the very long half-life (72 hours), this should be done at least a week before the surgery. Then I have them stop the Suboxone three days before the surgery; it usually takes 2-3 days for significant withdrawal to develop. I say all of this to give a general sense of the issues involved; people should discuss the issue with their physician rather than act on what I am describing here.

Chronic, Nonmalignant Pain: Why Opiates Aren't the Answer

I answered a post today that is similar to many prior posts– a patient with significant pain is no longer getting good pain relief from the pain pills he has taken for the past three years, and he asked whether it was a good idea to change from one narcotic– let’s say oxycodone– to another narcotic– let’s say Duragesic, the fentanyl skin patch.
I often come across this question in one form or another.  For a person in pain, opiate pain medications are wonderful– at least initially.  The problem is that the medications lose their potency over time through a process called ‘tolerance’.  In order to continue to get relief, the person with pain has to keep increasing the dose of the medication.  This leads to problems; often the doctor prescribing the medication becomes uncomfortable with the dose but wants to avoid confrontation, and the doctor/patient relationship becomes more and more strained… the patient goes to the ER for pain relief and nothing works, and the nurses and doctors treat the person like a criminal…  Read on for one writer’s experience, followed by my comments:
As I mentioned in your forum, it’s refreshing to see someone preaching the realities of non-acute opiate use. This happened to me to a certain degree, with opiate hyperalgesia (which you didn’t address in this post but have mentioned elsewhere) thrown in. Doctor doesn’t explain the limitations of opiates and tolerance, things spin out of control (in my case, thankfully no doctor shopping and only a couple of instances of upping the dose myself slightly and no more out of fear of overdose), I end up on Suboxone to taper off after the source of the pain was finally discovered and properly treated (with my pain receptors still firing improperly for the first few months, albeit not nearly as badly as they did while on the painkillers and during withdrawal. Plus, being ill-informed, after my relationship with my doctor soured for various reasons and I knew that even if it hadn’t, my dose had gotten much too high, I didn’t know that tolerance too high = withdrawal, for WEEKS in spite of visits to ERs, other neurologists, and psychiatrists who, in hindsight, seemed to be playing dumb in some cases so as not to second-guess the original prescribing doctor while I lied there screaming in the worst pain of my life from a combination of opiate hyperalgesia and withdrawal. This was actually the second time that this happened though it was slightly less bad the other time (and for those of you who absolutely have to take opiates while recovering from surgery or for cancer pain, AVOID OPANA ER LIKE THE PLAGUE. The time release doesn’t work properly for many people, including me).
I often see patients who have been destroyed by pain medications. I hear you– you are in pain, and need a way to reduce the pain. But all opiates have the same severe limitation– tolerance.

Duragesic (which is fentanyl), morphine, oxycodone, hydrocodone, hydromorphone (dilaudid)… they all work through the exact same receptor site, and they are all ‘cross tolerant’– meaning that if you are tolerant to one of them, you are tolerant to all of them.

The problem with tolerance is that if you increase your dose, or (as you are suggesting) change to a different medication at a dose that is essentially higher than what you are taking now, your receptors will change to match the increase, and very soon you will have exactly the pain you are having now– only while on a higher dose of medication. I typically see patients who have chased tolerance to extreme levels– people who are taking 600 mg of oxycodone per day or more, and who get nothing from it, because of tolerance.

If you chase tolerance and end up on high doses of pain meds, you face many problems– most doctors will refuse to even consider taking on a patient in that position; if you have surgery it is very difficult to treat the pain, as even higher doses are required; and if you miss a dose, or run out of medication, you are in deep trouble from withdrawal.

The ONLY solution is to avoid chasing tolerance. Don’t interpret this as ‘not caring’ or ‘not believing you’– that is not the issue. Assuming you are having bad pain, and from a standpoint of wanting to help, increasing the narcotic simply does not work.

Some day– maybe soon– we will have a way to prevent tolerance. Studies suggest that tolerance requires actions through glutamate receptors, and so there have been attempts to limit tolerance by using drugs that block those receptors– such as dextromethorphan. Studies that looked at a combination drug called ‘morphidex’ did not show reduced tolerance in humans, but dextromethorphan has been demonstrated to reduce tolerance in animals. There are ‘compounding pharmacies’ out there that make and dispense pills containing oxycodone and dextromethorphan, in an attempt to limit tolerance.

So if you don’t increase the opiate medication, what can you do? I don’t know– maybe nothing! My point is that an increase is ultimately not helpful, and is actually setting you up for worse pain. So keep the opiate dose constant and focus your efforts on every non-opiate pain-reduction technique you can find. Exercise as much as you are able– that will have the greatest effect on your level of disability. Use an SNRI antidepressant. Try the anti-convulsant medications for ‘burning’ pain– medications like ypregabalin (Lyrica), gabapentin, tegretol, or topiramate (Topamax). Use locally-applied heat for tight muscles, and use muscle-relaxants sparingly– medications like cyclobenzaprine (Flexeril), metaxolone (Skelaxin), tizanidine, or baclofen. Benzodiazepines like diazepam (Valium) are potent muscle relaxants, but are limited by sedation and tolerance, and can be addictive in some patients– particularly those with other substance issues including alcoholism. As for pain clinics, be careful. I am Board Certified in Anesthesiology and worked in pain treatment for ten years as an anesthesiologist, so I understand what pain docs can and cannot do. Pain treatment is a huge draw for hospitals, and pain clinics are often a bit misleading (trying not to use the word ‘scam’ here!). Blocks that eliminate your pain for a few hours are fun for the anesthesiologist, and they bring in a grand or two for the hospital… but if your pain returns in six hours, were they worth it?

As prior posts have suggested, the important thing is to find a doc who listens. I would add, look for someone who doesn’t just keep increasing your narcotic dose. That is a fine approach for a person who has a terminal illness, but is a disaster for a person with years to live.

Surgery Preparations for a Suboxone Patient

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for writing, and good luck.

Addendum for the blog readers:

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

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

New Findings About Buprenorphine

Be sure to take a look at ‘buprenorphine news’ halfway down in the right column–  there are new things popping up lately about buprenorphine.  The top two studies are particularly interesting;  the first looked at patients wearing low-dose buprenorphine patches (yes, they are coming folks!) in pain patients to see if the patients took less medication ‘on the side’– I see many problems with such a study, since patients will take ‘side medications’ for different reasons, and people on buprenorphine, being blocked, would need to take very large doses of other narcotics to get any effect toward reducing their pain.  If the study shows that people with the patch take on average higher doses of side meds, what does that mean?  I wouldn’t interpret it to mean that people on buprenorphine are more likely to abuse pain medications.
The other study is even more interesting– or confusing.  People were given very high doses of buprenorphine– up to 99 mg per day! (in fact, the top doses were 99.9 mg– suggesting to me that the patients were using some automated delivery system that ‘locked out’ at 100 mg).  I have read that buprenorphine becomes a pure antagonist at those doses– I have no personal experiences with the drug in myself or in patients to verify that fact, but I have read it in several different sources of information that are generally science-based and reliable.  So… what gives?   I have no idea.  I will post more info as I find it.
The new use of buprenorphine for the treatment of opiate dependence has been quite a phenomenon, and continues to be a Godsend for many people.  But the most exciting thing about the introduction of Suboxone in my opinion is that it provides clear evidence for other pharmaceutical manufacturers that there is money to be made in the development of medications for treating addictions.  The field of addiction has always been second class to more ‘respectable’ diseases;  money is spent by the Federal Government on treatment programs and on research through NIDA, NIH, etc… but there has not been a great deal of commercial interest in treating addiction, and it takes commercial interest to innovate, to develop medications, and to get the medications through the FDA approval process.

Scientist Discovers Cure For Addiction!
Scientist Discovers Cure For Addiction!

I finished medical school in 1988– I remember the first calcium-channel blockers, verapamil and nifedipine.  They were a new class of medication, and a new treatment for high blood pressure;  over time a number of other calcium-channel blockers were developed, and more uses for the medications were found.  The same process has occurred over and over for other classes of medications– we have ‘selective’ or ‘nonselective’ beta blockers;  we have 1st, 2nd, 3rd generations of cephalosporins; we went from H-2 blockers like tagamet and zantac to the improved medication pepcid, and then to the pump inhibitors like prilosec and the improved medications, protonix and nexium…  Not to get into the whole debate over the prices for pharmaceuticals, but the money paid for new meds goes to the development of better meds, and hopefully the success of Suboxone will push the big US companies to develop better and better treatments for opiate dependence.  Maybe in a few years we will look back at Suboxone as we now look back at propranolol;  maybe a person will be able to choose between ‘generic Suboxone’ at Walmart pharmacies for $4 per month, or ‘Junigoxone’ (note to self– maybe THIS is how I monetize the blog– companies recognize the immense power of the brand, ‘Suboxone Talk Zone’, and get into a bidding war for the right to use my name…  that’s the ticket!), a form of buprenorphine that doesn’t cause ‘sweats’ and can be instantly removed when surgery is necessary.
On that topic, one last thing…  I really do think that there will be a way to prevent and even reverse opiate tolerance at some point in the relatively near future.  One product, morphidex, got as far as human testing a few years ago;  unfortunately it was found to be less effective in humans than the animal studies suggested.  But in time such a medication will be available, and I often wonder what the medication will do to the use of narcotics, to the treatment of chronic pain, to heroin addiction…  an optimist can see great things for humanity from the development of such a medication.  But I can also see huge risks and problems that would come with it.  For the opiate addicts reading this (who else would read this?), would you be able to avoid narcotics if you could take them without ever becoming tolerant, and without ever having withdrawal?  If they still caused the obsession, and still demanded more and more of your attention– they still feel good, and taking more feels ‘more good’– but you never ran the dose up and ran out of money, and never worried about getting sick– what would your life be like?  Or maybe I should say, what WILL your life be like?

Precipitated Withdrawal

thank you anyway for replying.. So when i do get into seeing a doctor, i must be in withdrawal? I am so confused on this issue.  I am taking suboxone, but most likely have to take the lortab when it is out of my system because of the pain i do have. The lortabs are a prescription that i have been on for over a year.  I just know that i can’t stop taking them on my own, thats why i tried the suboxone.  I researched how to take it and it works wonders for me.
My Answer:
The primary issue with precipitated withdrawal isn’t so much being in withdrawal, but instead has to do with your level of tolerance.  Tolerance goes up with every dose of an agonist, and plummets when a person is in withdrawal.  In predicting precipitated withdrawal one looks at whether a person’s tolerance is higher or lower than it would be taking 30 mg of methadone per day.  A person taking 100 mg of methadone per day who didn’t start withdrawal will have severe withdrawal during Suboxone induction;  A person taking 10 mg of methadone per day who didn’t start withdrawal may actually get a mild ‘high’ during methadone induction.  Lortab includes hydrocodone, the active ingredient in Vicodin.  Hydrocodone is metabolized to a more potent drug—hydromorphone or Dilaudid—to varying degrees in different people (I am about to post something about that), so it is hard to predict the tolerance level in a person on hydrocodone.  The tolerance depends on how their genetics make them metabolize the drug.  For that reason one cannot simply say that 50 mg of vicodin per day won’t result in precipitated withdrawal.  These metabolic relationships occur with other opiates as well and explain why some people say they have never had precipitated withdrawal, and other people do have it, despite taking the same doses of the same opiate.

It is impossible to guarantee that precipitated withdrawal won’t occur, but one can make it exceedingly unlikely by reducing their use of opiates a bit as the induction approaches and then getting good and miserable before starting the induction by discontinuing use for 24 hours or so.  People on super-high doses of a drug like methadone (which tends to stay around in the body for awhile) have the highest risk for precipitated withdrawal, but can make it unlikely by stopping use for 3-4 days, as tolerance drops the fastest in a person who completely stops using.  For what it’s worth, I had precipitated withdrawal myself back in my using days on at least 3 occasions;  twice, in desperation, I took oral naltrexone (an opiate blocker) thinking it would help me stop using;  a third time I injected IV narcan by accident.  The naltrexone incidents were the worst, as that drug lasts for 24 hours or so.  It was pretty horrible, but I did live through it, and the experiences certainly gave me a stronger desire to stay clean!
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