Addiction Treatment Has it ALL WRONG

Today on SuboxForum members discussed how long they have been treated with buprenorphine medications.  Most agreed that buprenorphine turned their lives around, and most are afraid they will eventually be pushed off the medication.  Most buprenorphine patients described a reprieve from a horrible illness when they discovered buprenorphine.  But most have new fears that they never anticipated– that their physician will die or retire, that politicians will place arbitrary limits on buprenorphine treatment, or that insurers will limit coverage for the medication that saved there lives.
I joined the discussion with the following comment:
I give lectures now and then about ‘Addiction, the Medical Illness.’  Once a person thinks through the topic several times with an open mind, the right approach to treating addiction becomes obvious.    After all, doctors ‘manage’ all illnesses save for a few bacterial diseases, and even those will become at best ‘managed’, as greater resistance develops in most bacteria.  We doctors rarely cure illnesses.  We manage illness.
The public’s attitudes toward treating addiction differ from treatments for other diseases.  Avoiding effective medications isn’t  a goal for other illnesses.  In fact, in most cases doctors refer to skipping medication negatively, as ‘noncompliance.’  There are religious orders that don’t believe in medication including Christian Scientists… and there are religions with specific beliefs, e.g. Scientology, that don’t believe in psychiatry, or Jehovah’s Witnesses who don’t accept blood products. I assume that attitudes toward addiction developed over the years when no medical treatments effectively treated addiction.  Doctors and laypersons came to see addiction as untreatable, and the only survivors people who found their rock bottom and in rare cases, saved themselves.  And since nobody could fix addiction, and the only chance at life was to find ‘recovery’, a nebulous concept based on spirituality, adherence to a group identity, and correction of ‘personality defects.’
What an obnoxious attitude– that people with addictions have ‘personality defects’!  Even most of the docs and therapists who ‘get it’ about medication insist that no patient will heal until we ‘fix the underlying cause of his/her addiction’.  What a bunch of crap…  as if all of those people out there WITHOUT addictions have GOOD personalities, and all of those people who got stuck on opioids (mostly because of bad doctors by the way) have BAD personalities.  I call BULL!  Opioids are powerfully-addictive substances, and a percentage of people  exposed to them, regardless of character, become addicted.  My personality was apparently good enough to get a PhD, get married, save a drowning woman, have a family, go to medical school and graduate at the top of my class with multiple honors, become an anesthesiologist and get elected president of my anesthesia group an unprecedented 3 times.  But taking cough medicine that grew into an addiction to fentanyl means I have ‘personality defects’??!!
I’m sure everyone has his/her own story.  But we’ve all heard so often that we have some broken screw at the base of our brains that we’ve started believing it.  And the mistreatment by doctors and pharmacists (and reporters and media and society in general) perpetuates that shame among all of us.
The truth is that our ADDICTIONS caused us to do things that were wrong.  We developed an intense desire to find chemicals because of the activation of addictive centers in our brains.  And THAT caused our ‘character’ problems.
I’ve written before about the ‘dynamic nature of character defects’.  Search my name and that term, and you will find the comments- or just click here.  The character problems so obvious in using addicts are driven by the obsession to find and use opioids.  When you treat that obsession with buprenorphine, those ‘character defects’ disappear.  I’ve seen the process unfold over and over, in patient after patient.  Some doctors perpetuate character problems by treating patients like criminals, and ANY person will develop character problems if treated poorly long enough.  In that way, the defects can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The character defect argument is the whole reason for counseling.  But get this– there have been several studies that looked at abstinence after discontinuation of buprenorphine after one year, with or without counseling.   And the counseling group did WORSE in those studies!  Of course, everyone interprets those studies by saying that ‘the counseling must not have been done right’ or it was not intense enough, rather than accept the data with an open mind, as any good scientist would.
Vivitrol (i.e. depot injections of naltrexone) are the biggest example of treatment based on flawed ideology.  The treatment rests on the idea that if we block receptors and counsel the heck out of people, we can fix their character defects and their addictions so they won’t use when Vivitrol is removed.  The travesty is that nobody will look at the results of this vast experiment, mostly played out in drug courts.  When you think about it, we have a long history of experimenting on people caught in the criminal justice system.  Studies in Australia showed a 12-fold higher death rate in addicts maintained on naltrexone and ‘counseled’ compared to people maintained on methadone.   When the people forced onto Vivitrol by the legal system start to die, will anyone keep track?
Deaths after residential treatment are common, but nobody keeps track of them.  So I’m not holding my breath for outcome data from the failures of drug courts!
Every serious chronic illness warrants chronic medical treatment, save one.   All healthcare professionals will say, some reluctantly, that addiction is a disease.   It is time to start TREATING IT LIKE ONE.

Killing the Suboxone Gift Horse with Naltrexone

First Posted 11/14/2013
I received an email update today with important news from the world of psychiatry and addiction.  The email highlighted a study from the October issue of Jama Psychiatry, entitled ‘A Randomized, Double-blind Evaluation of Buprenorphine Taper Duration in Primary Prescription Opioid Abusers’.  The study compared relapse rates in opioid addicts who were tapered off buprenorphine at different rates.  The study considered success as being free of opioid use and taking naltrexone, an orally-active opioid antagonist, after 12 weeks.  The study found that 50% of the people tapered off buprenorphine over 4 weeks were abstinent and taking naltrexone.  That compared to 21% and 17% of success in patients tapered over 1 or 2 weeks, respectively.
I’m sorry, but who cares?
Regular readers of my blog know my opinion about buprenorphine.  (Newcomers please note that by buprenorphine I mean buprenorphine, Suboxone, or Zubsolv, since they all work in identical fashion).  Most people who work in the addiction field agree that addiction is a life-long illness.  Most people who have worked in the field for a few years or more know that relapse is a common feature of opioid dependence.  I believe that anyone claiming to ‘cure’ opioid dependence through use of a plant, root, amino acid, vitamin, hypnosis, accu-pressure point, or 90-day program is either misinformed, pathologically optimistic, lying, or blinded by profit motives.
Opioid dependence is associated with a high rate of death and morbidity. Beyond buprenorphine, the only reliable intervention for treating opioid dependence is methadone maintenance, if ‘reliable’ is defined as ‘likely to be successful.’  I realize there are hundreds if not thousands of residential treatment facilities throughout the US that advertise ‘freedom from addiction’; some even offering freedom from ‘addiction’ to buprenorphine.  These claims are made, and apparently believed, even with one-year relapse rates greater than 90% in opioid addicts treated without medication.  In the real world of ‘Suboxone Talk Zone’, I have to burst a few bubbles about ‘sending someone to treatment.’    For opioid dependence, treatment without medication yields long-term sobriety in only a small minority of patients.
Yet many healthcare professionals continue to chase after the golden goose of abstinent recovery.  Makes me wonder if laetrile would still be around with better marketing!
Before buprenorphine, opioid dependence was an oft-fatal illness that in most people responded only to the administration of opioid agonists at frequent intervals, with no patient autonomy and the threat of discharge if anything prevented on-time arrival at the early-morning line-up.  In 2003, along came buprenorphine— a prescription medication with a reasonable generic cost (finally), with few or no long-term risks and tolerable side effects, that eliminates cravings and prevents illicit opioid use in 50% of an average study population of opioid addicts who are allowed to continue their medication.  So why, exactly, are we excited by the prospect of changing from buprenorphine to a medication that carries the risk of hepatic necrosis?
Are people on naltrexone better off than people taking buprenorphine?  One would hope so, given that 50%-83% of people in the current study went back to active using while trying to make the switch!  Patients on naltrexone still have the problem of blocked mu receptors during emergency surgery.  Having blocked opioid receptors is an even larger problem for many educated addicts than their doctors realize, that goes something like this: ‘I stopped opioid agonists, but now I have to block my endorphins too?!
Why not just keep stable buprenorphine patients on buprenorphine?
The argument for naltrexone over buprenorphine comes down to two issues.  The first is the quasi-spiritual attitude that people are in an inferior form of treatment if their mu receptors are bound by even a partial agonist—no matter that those receptors have developed complete tolerance to the agonist effects of the drug.
The second argument focuses on diversion.  Buprenorphine is sold on the street, particularly in areas where there are no doctors certified to prescribe the medication.  People divert buprenorphine in a number of ways, ranging from efforts to get high, to use ‘in between’, to attempts at self-treatment.  But should risk of diversion reduce the legitimate use of a medication that has saved thousands of lives? Is it logical to throw the bupe-baby out with the bath water when deaths from buprenorphine are less common than deaths from acetaminophen?
I expect that the risk of diversion decreases over time in patients treated with buprenorphine.  Patients in long-term, stable treatment are more likely  employed and insured, with less financial incentive to sell controlled substances and more to lose for doing so.  Most of my stable patients develop insight into the damage caused by addiction, and have no interest in getting someone else caught in the same trap.  Most of the patients I’ve treated over time have severed their connections with the using world.  And most of them are grateful for a second (or tenth) chance at life; grateful enough to avoid risking everything by selling drugs.
Even if diversion could be blamed, in part, on stable buprenorphine patients, why is addiction treated differently than other diseases?  Diversion of opioid agonists is a greater problem than diversion of buprenorphine, both by sheer volume and by the damage from diversion, yet the FDA just approved another potent mu agonist in Zohydro—a drug with far greater diversion potential than buprenorphine or Suboxone.  If diversion doesn’t disqualify the pain meds used for strained backs, bumps, and bruises, why should diversion derail one of the only effective treatments for a disease that is killing thousands of young people?  Heck, pseudoephedrine is sold from pharmacies with a signature; the dangers of methamphetamine didn’t eliminate our collective concern for people with stuffy noses!
If we take diversion out of the argument—for example by deciding that the 300-odd deaths from buprenorphine diversion don’t warrant removing an effective treatment for a disease that has become the leading cause of death in young adults— the push off buprenorphine makes little sense.  I suspect that the people advocating ‘progressing’ from buprenorphine to naltrexone do not envision patients treated indefinitely with naltrexone either, but rather see naltrexone patients as somehow ‘closer’ to abstinence than buprenorphine patients.  From a neurochemical standpoint, what is the difference between being fully tolerant to a partial agonist vs. taking an antagonist?  For relapse-prevention, advantage goes to buprenorphine, since ‘effective relapse’ to opioid agonists requires buprenorphine patients to first go through days of withdrawal.  Naltrexone patients on the other hand can miss the morning’s naltrexone, and later that night relapse using mu receptors that are even hyper-sensitive to agonists.
As for arguments that patients on buprenorphine are impaired, I would love to see my attorney-patients take part in THAT debate.  Concerns of impairment have come from poorly designed studies where buprenorphine groups consisted of patients with no tolerance to the medication. I suspect that medical reporters too often read the abstract and skim the ‘materials and methods’—let alone the statistics!
If ‘success’ consists of moving to naltrexone—a medication that many real-world addicts reject–   how long is naltrexone continued, and what happens when it is stopped?  Do people go back to heroin again?  If not, why not? The cycle of ‘use, treat, cease treatment, use, and repeat’ should be a black box warning on naltrexone— as soon as they finish stamping the warning on the steps of every residential treatment center.
I’ve been accused of being too long-winded.  The short version for those who skipped to the bottom:  buprenorphine-based medications offer an effective, tolerable, long-term treatment for a chronic, life-long disorder.  How many people will die in their quest—or their doctor’s quest—for ‘abstinent recovery’ with or without naltrexone?  Emphasis on naltrexone is just one more example of looking the gift horse of buprenorphine treatment in the mouth.
Sigmon SC, Dunn KE, Saulsgiver K, Patrick ME, Badger GJ, Heil SH, et al. A Randomized, Double-blind Evaluation of Buprenorphine Taper Duration in Primary Prescription Opioid Abusers. JAMA Psychiatry. Oct 23 2013;

Suboxone Detox is a Sucker’s Bet

First Posted 10/6/2013
I attended the US Psychiatric and Mental Health Congress meeting last week and actually attended the meetings (the event was held in Las Vegas), but I was disappointed by the absence of lectures about addiction.  There are other mental health groups geared more toward addiction, but one would think that psychiatry would maintain a strong presence in the field.  This was my first time at the annual meeting for this group, and so I can’t say that I’m witnessing a trend away from addiction by psychiatry—which would be a real shame.
At any rate, I had a very busy Friday and Saturday catching up with the office work I put off for a few days. So today I had to cram in a lot of non-work activities, to make sure that my life remains well-balanced.  That meant watching the entire Packer game, going to the movie ‘Gravity’ complete with 3-D glasses, and then catching the latest episode of Homeland, where psychiatrists continue to gain a bad name.  Thorazine injection, anyone?
So I’m beat…  but I’ve been intending to write something for the past couple weeks, and I think I can knock it off fairly quickly.  Readers know that I get many emails from across the country describing atrocious behavior by physicians.  The latest scam?  It appears that everyone with a medical clinic has a secret recipe for tapering off Suboxone.
I received an email from a person who wanted to stop Suboxone/buprenorphine for months, if not years.  For people who don’t know my attitude, I tend to believe my own eyes, and also what the research shows—that over 9 out of 10 of the people who stop buprenorphine are using opioids again within one year.  When people moan that ‘it is hard to stop buprenorphine’, I remind them that the reason they are TAKING buprenorphine is because they were unable to stop opioids.  Why would they expect that to change?  Oh- I know— counseling!  That’s the line from all of the addiction insiders—that patients take buprenorphine and do ‘counseling’, and the addiction goes away.
There are two scientific findings that keep trickling out these days that are driving some people crazy— and I admit to a bit of amusement with each headline.  The first set of findings concern the troubling lack of global warming over the past 8 years—including the recent headlines that polar icecaps, predicted by Gore et al. to be completely gone by now, have grown by almost a third in the past year.  The other interesting findings are the several studies that failed to demonstrate an increase in sobriety in buprenorphine patients engaged in ‘counseling.’    There is real danger for people who borrow science just in order to hide behind It for an argument or two; they risk getting caught naked when the science moves in an unexpected direction!
Anyway, the person wrote to tell me that after multiple failed efforts to taper off buprenorphine on her own, she had gone to a rapid-detox clinic that promised to ‘heal’ her receptors over a few days. The $7 grand was spent, and I had no desire to ruin whatever placebo effect she would gain from the silly cocktail of nutritional supplements she purchased.  So I told her that I hoped she felt better soon, not adding that she will feel better at about the same time she would have felt better without the rapid detox and nutritional supplements.
She wrote again a week later, struggling from withdrawal, and then again a few days after that to say that she went back on buprenorphine.  But the good news was that she found a different doctor who SPECIALIZES in getting people off buprenorphine.
A few days later she wrote to tell me about the hundreds of dollars the visit cost— and asked if his taper schedule appeared reasonable.  ‘He’s your doctor’, I explained, trying to sound neutral.  I shared my belief, though, that it was a conflict of interest for doctors to sell nutrient products that they themselves prescribed, and that opioid receptors are able to return to health without the addition of trace nutrients.
A week later she wrote about yet another specialist, who this time took $800 to tell her to take 3 mg for a few days, then 2 mg for a few days, then 1 mg for a few days.  She said she had to go back for another appointment for him to tell her what to do after that.
I know it sounds like I’m joking, but sadly, I’m not.  More sadly, I’ve read similar messages a number of times over the past few years.  I’ve stated that I would try to point out things I write that are based on science, vs. things based on personal experience, vs. what I’ve witnessed as a clinician.  What I’m about to say is based on all three.
I had my own nightmare withdrawal from potent opioids when I was in treatment 13 years ago.  I lost 30 pounds from my already-skinny frame at that time, having no appetite and without taking nutrient supplements.   But my withdrawal ended and my receptors healed in about 6-8 week, just as in every opioid addict who I’ve assisted through detoxification.  And when I’ve seen people go away for rapid detox, they complain about feeling lousy— the same amount of complaining over the same lousiness—for the same 6-8 weeks.  One would think that all of this would be enough to outrage the FDA, who usually get irritated at stories about high-cost, low-yield medical procedures.  But once again, the truth is even worse.  For those who do manage to white-knuckle through 6-8 weeks of withdrawal, guess how many are still clean a year later?  Wanna bet?
As for the warming of the planet, I’ll continue to read the science with an open mind.  Maybe Gore will be right in the long run, which would be bad for the planet but good for those who give out Nobel Prizes.  But we know one thing for certain now; that asserting the ice caps would be gone by 2014 was a sucker’s bet.  And the same is true about promises for a rapid or gentle path through opioid withdrawal.

The Other Opioid Dependence Medication

Today I met with representatives from Alkermes who were promoting Vivitrol, a long-acting mu opioid antagonist that is indicated for treatment of alcoholism and opioid dependence.

Naltrexone
Naltrexone

I admit to some pre-existing bias against the medication.  I’m not certain, to be honest, whether that bias was based upon sound clinical reasoning, or whether it was based on personal, negative reactions to naltrexone in my past.  Or maybe, as a recovering opioid addict, I have negative feelings about anything that blocks mu receptors!
Vivitrol consists of naltrexone in a long-acting matrix that is injected into the gluteal muscle each month. The medication is expensive, costing about $1000 per dose (!)  That cost is usually covered by insurance, and like with Suboxone, Wisconsin Medicaid picks up the tab save for a $3 copay.  Alkermes, the company that makes Vivitrol, also has a number of discounts available to reduce or even eliminate any copays required by insurance companies.
I’ll leave the indication of Vivitrol for alcoholism for another post.  The indication for opioid dependence came more recently, and appears more obvious, given the actions of naltrexone at the mu opioid receptor.
In short, naltrexone blocks the site where opioids—drugs like oxycodone, heroin, and methadone—have the majority of their actions.  Blockade of that site prevents opioids from having any clinical effect.  There is some dose, of course, where an agonist would regain actions— an important feature in the case of surgery or injury.  But even in those high doses, the euphoric effects of addictive opioids would be muted.  People on Vivitrol, essentially, are prevented from getting high from opioids.
Back in my using days, I took naltrexone, thinking that doing so would help me get ‘clean.’  I didn’t wait long enough, however, and so I became very sick with precipitated w/d.  The makers of Vivitrol recommend waiting at least a week, after stopping opioids, before getting an injection of Vivitrol.  I suspect that a week is not long enough to prevent w/d, but I realize that it would be very difficult to expect patients to last longer, without using anything.  I would expect that any precipitated w/d could be reduced through use of comfort medications, at least for a day or two until the symptoms are mostly gone. This requirement, though, to be clean for a week or more is one of my problems with the medication.
As an aside, I was also prescribed naltrexone (oral tabs) at the end of my three months in residential treatment, and I took the medication for another three months.  I had no withdrawal or other side effects to naltrexone at that time.
Another issue was the concern that naltrexone has been connected to hepatic toxicity.  We discussed that issue today, including the studies that led to that connection—which are not compelling.  The discussion allayed most of my concerns about liver problems from Vivitrol.
Finally, I have always recommended buprenorphine over naltrexone because of the anti-craving effects of buprenorphine that result from the ‘ceiling effect’ of the medication.  I worried that naltrexone, by blocking the actions of endorphins, would actually increase cravings.  But that is not what the data shows.  In the studies with Vivitrol, cravings for opioids were dramatically reduced by the medication.  The mechanism of that effect is not entirely clear;  some of the anti-craving effect may be psychological, as addicts stop wanting something when they know there is no way to get it.  But there may be other complicated neurochemical effects at presynaptic opioid receptors that are not fully understood.
The bottom line is the result of treatment;  the very sick opioid addicts treated in the studies used by Vivitrol to gain FDA approval showed a profound reduction in opioid-positive urines, over a span of 6 months.
I suspect that I will continue to favor buprenorphine.  I do not buy into the ‘need’ some people describe to ‘get of buprenorphine as fast as possible.’  Buprenorphine is a very effective, safe, long-term treatment for inducing remission of opioid dependence.  But because of the cap, I am glad that another option is available to treat this potentially-fatal condition.  And I admit to perhaps being too quick to judge Vivitrol, which appears to be a safe alternative—particularly for people who have a lower opioid tolerance that do not want to push it higher, or for people who have been free of opioids for a week or two.
I would invite local people who are on my buprenorphine waiting list to consider Vivitrol as an option.
 

Do You Prescribe Buprenorphine?

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