Help for Heroin Addiction

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

I’m addicted to heroin.  Which treatment should I use?

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

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

If you’re ready, the next step is deciding the treatment that is likely to help you. Many people see abstinence-based treatment as a ‘gold standard’ – the ultimate way to escape opioids. Unfortunately, that belief has fueled many deaths over the past ten years, as desperate people paid large sums of money for themselves or loved ones expecting programs to alter personality over the course of three months. It doesn’t work that way for most people!

During several years working in abstinence-based programs, I helped fix people who were broken by addiction. After a couple months, people left treatment with healthier bodies, cleaner complexions, and better hair. But over 90% of those people returned to opioid use, some within a few days. Some of them died because of their new lack of tolerance to opioids. In each case, counselors said the same thing: ‘he/she didn’t really want it’. But I remembered that they DID ‘want it’ when they were in treatment. In fact, some were considered star patients! At some point we must hold treatments responsible if they fail over 90% of the time.

My perspective changed. Now I wonder, why does anyone expects those treatments to work? A person is removed from a life of scrambling and drug connections and poverty, placed in a box and shined up for a few months, then put right back in the same using world and expected to act differently?

I eventually learned about medications that treat opioid addiction. I realized that opioid addiction truly is a medical illness that should be treated like any medical illness. Think about it – we treat high blood pressure, asthma, and diabetes over time. We don’t cure any of them. In fact, the only illnesses that we can cure are infectious diseases, and even that accomplishment is fading as organisms develop resistance to current medications. Given that we can’t really cure anything, why do we expect anyone to cure addiction – in 12 weeks?!

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

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

Obama’s Lousy Suboxone Offer

I was reading more about Obama’s executive order over at Dr. Burson’s blog.  I guess she is a ‘competitor’ in the blogging world, but I have to admit that her blog has a lot more detail about the issue than I do.  If you haven’t been there yet, check it out.  Keep coming back here too of course!

She wrote recently about the rules that would be required by the Feds, in order for them t o allow us the ‘right’ to treat people with buprenorphine.   I wrote to Dr. Burson after reading her post that she is providing the facts, and I can’t help but provide the emotion.  And after reading the baggage tied up with the ‘right’ to treat heroin addicts, I am.. ‘pissed’!  I realize that isn’t a word that doctors should use.  But honestly… I just don’t have another one!

Dr. Burson wrote that according to the current proposal, Doctors begging the Federal Government to treat another 100 addiction patients must 1. Use electronic medical records; 2. Accept insurance for the treatment; and 3. Require counseling of patients treated with buprenorphine products.  There were other requirements as well, but these were the three that I remember for irritating me the most.

Dr. Burson goes through her reactions to the requirements, and mine are mostly the same.  As a solo psychiatrist, I don’t see the value of electronic records.  Many of my patients don’t WANT their addiction treatment in a database. They know the stigma that they face already every time they go to the pharmacy.  Some of them work for employers who would discriminate against people once-addicted to opioids.  Some of them know they would be accused of ‘impairment’ for taking buprenorphine.  Those of us who prescribe buprenorphine know that they are not impaired– and that they’ve worked at jobs for years with no problems should speak volumes.  BUT IT WON’T.  We all know that ‘impairment’ can be in the eye of the beholder– and once someone thinks it is there, it IS there.  Once accused, how do you prove you’re not impaired?

I realize that at first glance, accepting insurance sounds like a good deal.  But now, I am able to see at most 2 patients per hour.  I have accepted insurance in the past, and that’s a completely different business.  Insurance companies reimburse psychiatrists at a rate that anticipates seeing 4-5 patients per hour.  Medicaid reimburses far below that, expecting doctors to make up the difference through commercially insured patients.  But that doesn’t work when treating addiction, where the large majority of patients are on Medicaid.  The only way it works is if the doctor works for a network where knee replacements and MRI scans subsidize addiction treatment, or where care is ‘mass produced’ by a team that minimizes the time doctors spend with patients.

I LIKE seeing two patients per hour.  The Obama team says if that is the case, I can’t see more than 100 patients, no matter how much my home town needs my services..  How ironic… if I spend less time per patient, I can have MORE patients.

I’ve written about the counseling issue before.  The requirement is a nod toward the huge counseling/rehab industry that has tried to block medication-assisted treatment at every turn.  Shouldn’t something as personal as counseling be decided by each individual patient?  Is there any other illness that requires counseling in order for patients to receive medication?  Of course diabetics would benefit from nutritional counseling– but would we consider withholding insulin without it?!

Who will decide, by the way, if the counseling is adequate?  Will the doctor stop your medication if you miss too many sessions?  What if you have nothing to talk about– so you still have to go? How many times? What type of ‘counseling’ counts?  Can a person get a massage and call it ‘counseling’?  If I get my ears candled, is that good enough? Group therapy?  Music therapy?  I saw recently that Madison WI has practices offering ‘float therapy’– is that OK? What about equine therapy?

I think you get my point.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the TREAT Act would have increased the cap and allowed doctors to decide the best course of action for each patient.  The doctor remained in charge of patient care– sort of like ‘if you like your health insurance, you can keep it.‘  President Obama stepped in front of the TREAT Act to offer something different.  I can almost hear him saying with a Bronx accent… ‘how can you turn down dis’ deal?’

With all the heroin deaths, he’s putting forward ‘an offer you can’t refuse’.   No thanks…. I’ll stay at 100.

Obama and the TREAT Act

I just read an article in the Daily Beast that reads like a better version of something I would write about the value of medication-assisted treatment of opioid dependence.  I appreciate Christopher Moraff telling a story that has been untold far too long, and I hope the story raises questions across the country.

But I have something else on my mind that deserves a story of its own.  I am just a small-town psychiatrist in the Midwest, of course, and so I could be missing something.  I watch Veep and House of Cards, but I assume that the political games in those shows are grossly exaggerated.  I’ll offer a bit of background… but if you already understand why people opposed to increasing the buprenorphine cap are idiots, just skip the next few paragraphs.

The Recover Enhancement for Addiction Treatment Act, a.k.a. TREAT Act, is a Bill with bipartisan support written in response to the epidemic of opioid dependence in the US.  If enacted into law, the TREAT Act (among other things) would increase number of patients that a physician can treat with buprenorphine from 100 to 500 and allow nurse practitioners and other ‘mid-level prescribers’ to treat opioid dependence with buprenorphine medications. For newcomers, treatment professionals debate the wisdom of raising the cap on the number of patients treated by each practioner.  Some people argue against medication treatment entirely and claim that abstinence is the only legitimate goal when treating addiction, despite the fact that abstinence-based treatments rarely work.  ‘Rarely’ is in the eye of the beholder, I guess– but even the most optimistic promoters of abstinence-based treatments claim they fail only 70% of the time– within ONE YEAR.   Other addiction docs advocate using medications that dramatically cut death rates, in concert with counseling.  They demand the counseling despite no evidence– none– that counseling improves outcomes in medication-assisted treatments.  But arguing against counseling is like arguing against… milk, I guess.  Who can argue against milk?

Then there are the extremists like me who argue that addiction is an illness that should be treated like any other illnesses and managed with medications, sometimes over the course of a person’s life.  Maybe counseling is indicated, and maybe not– but the need for counseling should not stand in the way of obtaining a life-sustaining medication.  After all, do we withhold insulin from diabetics who don’t receive nutritional counseling?  We extremists point out that there is no ‘cap’ on patients who are prescribed opioid agonists– the type of practice that started this epidemic in the first place.  We point out that literally no deaths have been caused by buprenorphine in patients who were prescribed the medication.  In all of medicine, THAT is the medication that needs a ‘cap’?  Doctors can treat unlimited numbers of patients with cancers, pain disorders, or complicated surgical procedures, but can’t handle more than 100 of THESE patients?!

I don’t see the point of the other groups, so I won’t try to explain their thought processes– accept one example.  Some docs are Boarded in Addiction Medicine– a secondary certification that can be obtained after certification in primary care or psychiatry.  Full disclosure– I am not Board Certified in Addiction Medicine.  I am Board Certified in Anesthesiology and in Psychiatry, and I worked with narcotics as a pain physician and anesthesiologist for ten years.  And I have a PhD in neurochemistry.  From my perspective, I have enough things on the wall. But the docs who DID get boarded in addiction medicine are angry that they get nothing special for their efforts.  The law that created buprenorphine treatment was intended to increase addiction treatment by primary care practitioners.  But that’s sour grapes to the addiction docs, who want the sole right to treat more than 100 patients.  Never mind that 30,000 people die from overdose each year, and buprenorphine could save many of them.  The addiction-boarded docs are angry that they aren’t given special privileges.  Isn’t THAT a problem!

What does all of this have to do with President Obama?  A bipartisan group of members of Congress of worked on the Treat Act over the past 8 months.  Professional societies have come to compromises over the Bill.  According to Schoolhouse Rock, Congress creates laws and then if passed, the President signs them into law.  The President often pulls opposing factions together, encouraging them to get a Bill to his/her desk.  For most of President Obama’s term, about 20,000-30,000 young Americans have died each year– far more than the total number of Americans killed by war, terrorism, hurricanes, and other natural disasters combined.    Until a month ago, I’ve heard absolutely nothing from the US President– no calls to action, no pressure on lawmakers, no requests to call our congresspersons.  But as the TREAT Act was introduced in the Senate, President Obama announced that he will raise the cap by Executive Order.  A supporter of the President would say (I know, because I’ve heard them) that the important thing is that it got done– so who cares how it happened?

Readers of this blog know that I pretty-much dislike everybody… so it is no surprise that I’m not happy.  We have the TREAT Act sitting in Congress, needing a simple majority to be sent to the President’s desk and signed into law.  During an epidemic of overdose deaths, the support would not be difficult to find for most Presidents, even with an ‘obstructionist Congress’, as our President likes to call them.  A change in the law would be relatively PERMANENT, unlike an Executive order– which can be changed with a new President, or with a new set of political calculations by the same President.   And an Executive Order to change rules at HHS requires hearings for citizen comments, which take more time– time when more patients will die.  Shouldn’t President Obama have used the operations that other Presidents used for far-more controversial issues, and changed the law?  This temporary, delayed Presidential action will get kudos from articles like the one in the Daily Beast.  And Obama gets TV time and headlines to describe how he addressed the opioid epidemic, on his own– in spite of a ‘obstructionist Congress.’

What irks me the most, though, is that an Executive Order didn’t need to take seven years.  By 2010 the overdose epidemic was well-underway, and had already killed a couple hundred thousand young people.  Did President Obama need to wait until the TREAT Act was almost at his doorstep before taking ANY action to stem the surge in overdose deaths?  From the sidelines it looks like the deaths themselves didn’t provoke a response.  But the threat of bipartisan action during an election year?  I guess that’s another story!

Counseling Schmounseling

I just noticed a couple of my recent posts….  these people have it wrong, and that person has it wrong.  One of these days I really need to print something positive and uplifting.  But not today.

Excuse the self-flattery, but I like to think of myself as a physician scientist.  That concept motivated my PhD work, and cost me friend after friend in the years that followed!  A physician scientist isn’t all that difficult to be from an educational standpoint, especially in the age of the internet.  The one thing that is necessary is the willingness, or need, to question every assumption by the media, the government, physicians, laypersons, and other scientists.   Ideally, the questions are guided by a knowledge of p-values, the process by which scientific grants are awarded, an understanding of the peer-review process, and the realization that anyone elected to office knows less about science than most other humans on the planet.

Last night I came across an opinion piece– I think in the Bangor Daily News, but I could be wrong about that– that argued that we will never stem the heroin epidemic without use of medications.  The comment section after the article was filled with the usual angry banter over methadone and buprenorphine that now follows every article about medication assisted treatment.  As an aside, why are the abstinence-based treatment people so angry about medication?  There are people out there who choose to treat cancer using crystals, but they don’t spend time bashing monoclonal antibodies!

Here is the part of this post where I start losing friends…  but let me first say that I know some counselors.  I like counselors.  In fact, some of my best friends are counselors.  But in the comments after that article I read the same thing over and over–   that meds aren’t the important thing, and that counseling is what really makes all the difference.  A couple weeks ago  the person sitting to my right said the same thing during a discussion about  medication-assisted treatments.  And that same phrase is repeated ad nauseum in lecture after lecture in ASAM lectures and policy statements related to addiction.  The phrase has even been codified into some state laws.  And why not?  It is something we all ‘know’, after all.

If we are going so far as writing laws requiring that people have counseling in order to obtain medication, shouldn’t we do one thing first?  Shouldn’t we determine if the comment is really true?

A couple years ago two papers came out– someone help me with the reference if you have them– that looked at abstinence rates after a year on buprenorphine in patients with or without counseling.  Guess what?  The counseling group did not do better!  In fact, the counseled patients did worse; not sigificantly so, but enough to clearly show that there was no ‘trend’ toward better performance in the counseled group (which would have been pointed out, were it true.)

I could hypothesize many reasons why the counseled groups would do worse.  Maybe they were angered by the forced counseling and therefore bonded less effectively with their physician.  Maybe they obtained a false sense of expertise in dealing with addiction, making them more likely to relapse, whereas the non-counseled group learned to just do as they were told.  Or maybe the counselors send out signals, consciously or unconsciously, that interfered with medication treatment.

The thing is, we have no idea which of these things, if any, are going on!  There have been no systematic studies or other attempts to understand what happens during the combination of counseling and medication treatments.  We just have a bunch of people saying ‘do them both!  do them both!–  a comment that apparently feels so good to some people that they just cannot consider things any other way.

For the record, I see ALL my patients for at least 30 minutes for every appointment.  As a Board Certified Psychiatrist, I guess that means I’m counseling them.  And from what I can tell, it seems to be working pretty well.  But even in my own case, I would never draw firm conclusions unless someone does a double-blind study and collects the data.

I encourage all physicians, scientists or not, to question some of what we ‘know’ about addiction treatment.  Is it really all about the counseling?  Maybe— but then again, smart people used to ‘know’ the world was flat, and the Earth was the center of the Universe.

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.

I’m Addicted to Heroin. What Should I Do?

I’ve been spending more time answering questions on SuboxForum, and less time writing blog posts.   I’ll share a comment from today in the hopes that someone looking for help will stumble across this page.

A newcomer to SuboxForum posted this succinct question:

Will someone PLEASE help me take the first steps into the right direction? I have been on opiates and heroin for 10 years and it is starting to ruin my life. I don’t know what to do first?

My less-succinct reply, with minor editing:

Sometimes people get too focused on choosing the right approach and end up doing nothing—sometimes called ‘paralysis by analysis.’  Your options are largely determined by your circumstances– so your first mission is to find out what is available.  There are people who put down medication-assisted treatments like buprenorphine (aka Suboxone) and methadone, saying that they are ‘replacing one drug for another’.  But either of those approaches have much better success rates than residential treatment, and they are both easier to start.

Methadone or buprenorphine will each stabilize your situation fairly quickly, allowing you to step back and weigh your options without the daily search for opioids.  With either buprenorphine or methadone treatments you lose nothing by getting started.  If you start buprenorphine and decide it isn’t right for you, you can simply go back to heroin or oxycodone.  The same is true for methadone.    People rarely make that choice– and when they do, it usually wasn’t a deliberate change, but rather the addiction gained the upper hand and pulled them away.  But the point is worth making that you can always go back– because every now and then someone comes here and complains to be ‘stuck on buprenorphine’.  I try to point out that they are stuck on opioids– and they can always go back to where they were before they started buprenorphine.

The question is whether you have access to either medication in your area.  If you Google ‘find addiction treatment’ or a related search, you will get listings of many outdated web sites.  I’m disappointed to see that even the SAMHSA site is extremely outdated, listing programs that are no longer available and not showing newer treatment programs for either methadone or buprenorphine.

I have a web site that lists a number of buprenorphine doctor directories at SuboxDocs.com.  The site is a ‘directory of directories’, and some of the databases are more current than others.

I’m just now noticing how difficult it must be to find a treatment program.  The last time I really looked at the databases was maybe 5 years ago, and I remember seeing a number of sites that were fairly current.  I assumed that the information was only better now– but it appears to be worse.  If anyone reading this knows of good resources for FINDING treatment, leave a comment!

Another option for someone seeking treatment is to call your county health department.  I would think that most counties would have a list of programs in their area.  Finally, many people hear about a treatment program through word of mouth.  I don’t usually recommend increased contact with people who are actively using, but if you are in contact anyway, you might as well ask!

Buprenorphine treatment will have a higher ‘front end’ cost.  In my area, initial costs are $300-$500.  Ongoing costs include the medication (usually covered by Medicaid or private insurance) and the cost of monthly doctor visits.  Things to consider when choosing a long-term provider:  Are doctor visits covered by Medicaid or insurance?  If not, what will the visits cost?  Who pays for drug testing?  How much does that cost?  If you don’t have any insurance at all, will the doc prescribe plain buprenorphine (which is less costly than combination products)?  Are you required to be in counseling?  If so, how often, and where?  Some docs use buprenorphine to fill their counselors’ time slots, which pushes ethical borders a bit in my opinion.  Other considerations… Does the doctor provide other services such as mental health treatment?  Does the doc allow you to be treated with benzodiazepines?  What is the doc’s attitude toward marijuana?  Will you be kicked out if you test ‘dirty’?  Is the doctor ‘punitive’– i.e. will you be tossed from the program if you struggle a bit?  Or will the doctor work with you, if you don’t get it perfect right away?

Methadone programs in my area are covered by Medicaid, making them essentially free for people with that coverage.  But as people do better and find jobs, they often lose Medicaid and have to pay for methadone out of pocket, which can be costly… although never costlier than active addiction, especially when you factor in all of the related costs that come with actively using.

If you do not have access to medication-assisted treatments, you may need to consider abstinence-based treatment programs.  I’m not a big fan of abstinence programs for opioids because of the high relapse rates with those substances, and the high death rate during relapse.  And of course, an abstinence-based program requires detox and withdrawal.  People who lack an understanding of the usual course of opioid dependence see abstinence-based treatment as the best option.  But the only way to see things that way is by ignoring all of the data, or by assuming that in THIS case, things will go differently than usual.  That thought is very seductive to the parents of addicted young people, and I have known a number of people who died after falling victim to that seduction.

Most people who have been addicted to opioids for a year or more have already learned that detox alone provides little value.  If simple detox works for you, you were probably physically dependent, not addicted.  If you have detoxed and then relapsed several times, another detox is not likely to be helpful.  In fact, detox introduces danger into the equation, as many overdose deaths occur after a person has been through detox, either voluntary at a treatment program, or forcibly through incarceration.  Methadone and buprenorphine are both safer options because they keep tolerance high, reducing the risk of overdose.

My bias toward medication-assisted treatment comes across loud and clear, I know.   I don’t intend to assert that residential programs have NO value; I just think that too-often people enter them without understanding the long odds for finding success.  The people who do best with abstinence-based treatments are those who are monitored for a long time and have a lot to lose, such as people trying to regain professional or occupational licenses, or trying to avoid prison.  In all cases, the treatment is just the beginning of a lifetime of working to maintain sobriety.

An aside to the treatment community:  I often give talks about the need to treat addiction as an illness (and I generally accept requests to speak for a couple hours on the topic, in case anyone has need for a speaker!).  For decades, we all envisioned a paradigm where addiction responded to intensive, months-long abstinence-based treatments, followed by lesser-intense ‘aftercare’ and meetings.  Physicians had minor roles, or no role at all.   There is a growing awareness that things need to change.  I don’t claim that doctors understand addiction better than the current treatment community, and in fact I assume that the opposite is true.  But doctors can prescribe medications with the power to preserve life far more reliably than abstinence-based treatments.

There is a saying–  ‘perfect is the enemy of good’.  We are losing thousands of lives in the search for a ‘perfect’ treatment.  For almost all other illnesses, doctors provide medications and recommendations in order to ‘manage’ the illness.   Now more than ever, addiction warrants the same medical approach.

Buprenorphine Depression Drug Stumbles

I’ve written a few optimistic lines about ALKS 5461 as a potential solution for people suffering from refractory major depressive disorder.  Those unfortunate will have to keep waiting.

ALKS 5461 is a product in Alkermes’ pipeline that combines buprenorphine with ALKS 33, or Samidorphan.  The combination drug is purported to ‘stabilize opioid pathways’, which is a very simple explanation for a complicated, poorly-understood system.  The results of two late-stage trials were disappointing, in part– according to Alkermes– because the placebo groups did better than usual.  Beating the placebo is a common problem in trials involving antidepressants, because of the high susceptibility to the placebo effect in the patients in such trials.  Over half of patients get better from taking the sugar pill, so a medication that helps half the patients will not move the needle to signal success.

I receive emails now and then from patients treated with buprenorphine for depression.  If the emails are any measure of reality, buprenorphine is not going to cure the world of depression.  While I occasionally read success stories, I just as often read angry descriptions from people complaining that they were never warned of the difficulty of stopping the medication.   I’ve written before that for that reason, I am reluctant to start buprenorphine for depression alone, in patients who are not already opioid-tolerant.  I have patients who struggled with depression before becoming addicted to opioids, and I believe the drug benefits their mood symptoms.  But I continue to hold back in a couple patients who have very severe depression, who have failed traditional treatments.  The news from Alkermes doesn’t push me in either direction.

I’ll take a moment to respond to the angry person who recently commented on one of my other blogs about this topic, who wrote that ‘depressed people are no more likely to get addicted than other people’, and ‘buprenorphine makes people happy and productive’ and therefore should be used for depression.  People with histories of depressive disorders DO have a higher incidence of addiction, but that is not the major issue holding me back from using buprenorphine for depression.  I would also disagree that buprenorphine makes everyone happy and productive.  The mood effects of buprenorphine, like all opioids, are subject to tolerance…  which gets closer to my concern.  I fear that the effects of buprenorphine would fade with tolerance, leaving patients stuck on an ineffective drug.  And we all know what happens to mood during discontinuation of buprenorphine.

ALKS 5461, though, works by a mechanism that may not be susceptible to tolerance.  Buprenorphine is a partial agonist at mu receptors and a kappa-receptor antagonist, and the latter effect is thought responsible for the effects on mood.  Samidorphan selectively blocks mu receptors, so that the combined drug is left with only the kappa effects.  Patients are supposedly spared from mu-receptor activation, tolerance, and withdrawal.   I wonder if it is really all that simple, or if the competition between buprenorphine and Samidorphan at mu receptors will create other problems.    Opioids cause a number of side effects, especially in patients who tend to focus on somatic symptoms, as some depressed patients do.   Starting an antagonist in the presence of an agonist, such as inducing with buprenorphine in patients on methadone or fentanyl, triggers a great deal of misery.  And even stable patients on buprenorphine alone tend to struggle with dry mouth, hot flashes, and GI complaints, most-commonly constipation.  But then again, major depression is a horrible illness.  I’m sure there are many people out there who would make the trade without regret– IF the ALKS 5461 works.

Alkermes continues to study ALKS 5461.  The higher dose ranges in the study, using 2 mg of buprenorphine, appeared to work better than the 0.5 mg dosage, so future studies will focus on buprenorphine doses of 1 and 2 mg per day (paired with equal doses of Samidorphan).  If you’re a believer, the stock is selling pretty cheap these days.  This is not an investment blog…. but I’m betting on Apple instead!

Baby’s Buprenorphine Withdrawal

This morning I responded to a woman at SuboxForum.  Her baby was taken to the NICU for ‘withdrawal’, which is better identified as neonatal abstinence syndrome.  She said that the baby is eating well, but there is concern that the baby sleep only 2 hours at a stretch.  The baby is on morphine, and mom is wondering when they both can go home.  She is kicking herself for not trying to stop buprenorphine before the delivery.  I spent a while responding, so I decided to post my response here as well, in case a mom in a similar situation stops by.  My comments:

I have written a number of posts about neonatal abstinence, and I invite you to read a post in my blog about the guilt you are feeling.

First of all, you did the right thing.  Period.  Every medical specialist, study, or text will say the same thing:  that women addicted to opioids should be maintained on a long-acting opioid until the baby is born.  Traditionally, that opioid was methadone.  But women on methadone who are pregnant often end up on very high doses of that drug– pushing their tolerance to high levels, so that virtually all their newborns have significant withdrawal.   Of course, the babies do fine in the long run— and the experience of withdrawal is not among the worst things that a baby experiences, by far.

People see a shivering newborn and somehow imagine that the baby just ‘came to be’, at that moment. In reality, a couple hours earlier the baby was in the birth canal, squeezed so tightly that shoulders are sometimes broken, probably experiencing a sensation akin to suffocation.  I say that because while oxygen is being delivered via the umbilical cord, during deliver the cord is often compressed, causing changes in oxygen and carbon dioxide that would cause the same physiologic sensations as asphyxiation. The low oxygen tension and high carbon dioxide levels stimulate the ‘preborn’ to breathe, a hopeless challenge when the baby’s face is tightly wrapped by the birth canal!

And of course before that, the baby was upside down, getting pushed, squeezed, bounced… we picture this wonderful intra-uterine environment, but in reality we have no idea what it ‘feels like’ to the fetus.  All the things we see after the birth were before birth, except perhaps the shivering.  When the baby is born, there is no ‘on switch’ that suddenly starts recording his experiences!

As buprenorphine has become more-available, the trend has been to use buprenorphine instead of methadone.  There are several advantages– the tolerance of the mother is much lower, meaning any withdrawal in the baby will likely be less severe.  According to a number of studies, about half of babies born to moms on buprenorphine show signs of neonatal abstinence syndrome, compared to almost all babies born to moms on methadone.  Studies show no benefit to tapering buprenorphine to lower doses before delivery, but I tend to think that there must be value in doing so.  I wonder if those studies truly had good control over the doses that study subjects were taking.  My patients seemed to benefit by reducing to 4- 8 mg during pregnancy– but perhaps my impressions are biased.

Another biased impression of mine is that babies have experiences largely dictated by the sensibilities of their neonatologists.  Almost all of my patients who delivered at the local, small community hospital did great, and moms and babies went home at the regular time.  If there was any withdrawal, it wasn’t noticed.   Maybe it was treated by the buprenorphine in breast milk, because all of the mothers were encouraged to breast feed.  Nursing while on buprenorphine seems to me to be the ideal way to wean a baby off the medication; the baby’s immature liver gets better and better at metabolizing medications after birth, allowing the amount of buprenorphine in the bloodstream to decrease over time.

Hospitals with neonatologists and a neonatal ICU are going to USE those things.  The regular OB nurses in those environments tend to become less-familiar and less-comfortable with anything other than ‘normal’, and watch for reasons to send babies to a higher level of care.  Every nurse on the OB unit knows that this baby’s mom is an addict.  If the baby cries along with all the other babies, the nurses will believe that ‘this’ baby is suffering from withdrawal.  And when the baby is sleeping along with all the other babies, the nurses will think ‘this’ baby is sedated from buprenorphine.

They will transfer the baby to the neonatal ICU, where the environment makes ANY baby look sick and miserable, opioid withdrawal or not.   Just look at the environment, and all of the little ways that mom’s experience changes…. instead of smiling nurses wheeling the baby into the room, congratulating mom repeatedly in front of smiling family, you have busy, serious-faced nurses and doctors bent over charts or computers.  When they take time to talk with mom, the conversations are serious, and certain to instill guilt and fear.  The baby is attached to wires or tubes, perhaps wearing oxygen, under unnatural lighting that changes skin color from healthy-looking to some type of medical specimen.

The baby will remember none of this, just as the baby won’t remember the difficult journey down the birth canal… or the circumcision!  Rest assured that all of the pain and misery will reside completely in mom, which is probably where the doctors and nurses intend for it to go.  I realize, of course, that there are good doctors and nurses out there… but I know that when you get a group of people together, the urge to look down their noses at people with addictions often becomes too powerful to avoid.

Most important of all:  a couple years ago I did a talk for a large group of public health nurses, social workers, and AODA professionals about the impact of opioid dependence on pregnancy and on children born to women addicted to opioids.  I did an extensive literature search to prepare for the talk, and I was glad—and surprised— to find that there are NO known long-term effects on children from methadone or buprenorphine treatment during pregnancy.  There ARE problems in some children born to addicted moms, but when the studies are controlled for cigarette smoking, poor or absent prenatal care, use of alcohol, and other factors, the use of opioids has no long-term developmental impact.   That is VERY good news.

Raising the Suboxone Patient Cap

HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell announced yesterday that the cap on buprenorphine patients would be raised in the near future.  Details were not released, but she emphasized that measures would be taken to increase availability of this life-saving treatment, while at the same time taking caution to prevent misuse of the medication.   Anyone who works with buprenorphine understands the importance of her announcement.  I only hope that her actions are swift, and not overloaded with regulations that reduce practical implementation of whatever increases are allowed.

I have been at the cap for years, unable to accept new patients for buprenorphine treatment.  My office receives 3-4 calls each day on average from people addicted to heroin, begging for help.  Patients on buprenorphine (the active substance in Suboxone) are much less likely to die from overdose than are patients not taking buprenorphine– even in the absence of perfect compliance.  Some doctors, in my opinion, over-emphasize the ‘diversion’ of buprenorphine medications.  At least in my part of the country, ‘diversion’ of buprenorphine amounts to heroin addicts trying to stop heroin, taking ‘street buprenorphine’ because of the absence of legitimate treatment spots.    Of the few new patients I’ve been able to take this year, almost all have histories of using buprenorphine products on their own, without prescriptions.  They are very happy to finally have a reliable source of the medication– and to have the medication covered by their health insurance!

Let’s hope the increase in the cap happens sooner rather than later.  After all, lives are literally hanging in the balance.

Need a Suboxone Doctor? Cap Problems? ACT!

There are ongoing efforts to eliminate the cap on treating people for opioid dependence with buprenorphine or Suboxone.  I don’t know what the odds of success are, but the efforts would benefit from public demand.  If you have had difficulty finding a doctor with room under the cap, write a letter or email that explains just how important the issue is to you, and send it to the address(es) below.

The change requires an Act of Congress, or perhaps an executive order from someone high-placed in the Dept of Health and Human Services.  Consider sending a ‘cc’ to your elected representatives in the Senate or House of Representatives.  I am not excited about using NAABT.org, since they tend to be patsies for Reckitt-Benckiser (I’ve asked to have a link to this blog, or to our 6000-member forum on their web page, but they won’t– but they link to an R-B – supported forum instead– draw your own conclusions).  But this issue is too important even for my own righteous anger to get in the way!

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