Post-Operative Pain in Suboxone Patients

I’ve written about this topic a number of times, but I continue to receive emails from people on buprenorphine who describe inadequate pain control following surgery.  I have prepared a document for my own patients to provide to surgeons, dentists, and ER staff to be used in the case of injury or surgery.  A copy of that document can be found […]

Codeine Never Works For Me…

The FDA recently released a Drug Safety Announcement about the use of codeine in young children after tonsillectomy/adenoidectomy surgery for obstructive sleep apnea.  I was somewhat surprised to see a safety announcement on a medication that has been in use for decades, but the release underscores our improved knowledge of drug metabolism, and the broadening demographics […]

The post Codeine Never Works For Me… appeared first on Suboxone Talk Zone: A Suboxone Blog.

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.

Children Deserve Pain Treatment Too

I hope that people recognize the tongue-in-cheek nature of the title. After working as a physician in various roles over a period of 20 years, I can state with absolute confidence that the answer to the question is ‘yes’.

I’ve written numerous times about the writer/activist for the Salem-News.com web site, Marianne Skolek. I don’t know if she writes for the print edition as well, but at any rate I somehow was planted on a mailing list that provides constant updates on what she calls the battle against Purdue and ‘big pharma’.

People with a stake in the outcome of this battle may want to stay current, and even see if their Senators are involved in the process. The investigation was launched in early may, by the Senate Committee on Finance, and at this point has asked for documents from several pharmaceutical companies, including Purdue, the manufacturer of oxycontin– a medication that has become the focus for most of the wrath of those affected by opioid dependence. The investigation will include a number of groups whose missions are (or in some cases, were) to advocate for pain relief, including the American Pain Foundation, the American Pain Society, the American Academy of Pain Medicine, the Federation of State Medical Boards, the University of Wisconsin Pain and Policy Studies Group and the Joint Commission.

I consider it part of the human condition, the way we push in one direction for some period of time, and then realize (with surprise!) that we pushed too far, and need to push back. Years ago I created a web site called Warmal Globing, that includes a Newsweek article that caught my attention in the 1970′s, warning that an emerging ice age doomed the Earth. Suggestions for saving the planet included covering the polar ice caps with soot, in order to absorb more of the sun’s precious heat– although the article pointed out that growing seasons had already been severely limited in most parts of the world, and famine was just around the corner.

We all know what happened to THAT disaster. And then last week, Dr. James Lovelock, a leading doomsayer of the global warming movement, pointed out that many of the disastrous outcomes predicted by himself, featured in Al Gore’s movie, um…. haven’t happened… and to the chagrin of many, he wrote that most of the disasters that were predicted are unlikely to occur. Read for yourself. Never before were so many people so disappointed by good news.

I’m running off topic, I know, but it is hard to observe the dramatic swing on pain relief without recognizing the broader pattern. For those confused about the pain isssue, you have reason to be confused. About 15 years ago I worked as an anesthesiologist, when the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Hospitals made their 3-year site visit to our hospital. Hospital administrators hired consultants to find out what THAT year’s big issue was— e.g. hospital acquired infections, patient privacy, rights of those with disabilities…. and found that the hot-button issue was ‘undertreatment of pain.’ Little diagrams were dispensed to every patient room, showing the smiley-face guy with an expression ranging from happy to miserable, in case a person was experiencing pain but unable to speak– allowing the person to point to the appropriate picture instead. Key personnel were told to make it abundantly clear that we all take pain VERY seriously, and we do all in our power to avoid undertreatng because of, for example, fear of addiction. Studies were widely cited that claimed that only 7% of people with true pain become addicted to opioids.

One or two textbooks became the authority on opioid prescribing, introducing a new term– pseudoaddiction– which refers to a condition of drug-seeking behavior caused by under-treating pain, rather than by true addiction.

I know that I have to pull all of this together at some point. The easiest way for me to do that is by directing people to the latest article by Ms. Skolek, where she suggests that doctors have been influenced to promote narcotics because of grants from the pharmaceutical industry. Similar accusations have been made by others, including a series of articles by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that accused the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine of promoting opioids in return for millions of dollars.

I respect the efforts of another group I’ve described– PROP, or Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing. Their efforts have been promoted by Ms. Skolek to some extent, and vice versa. I do not know of any formal relationship between PROP and Ms. Skolek. But I hope that PROP’s efforts take a more reasoned approach than the latest article by Skolek, where she compares Purdue Pharma to Adolf Hitler. Why? Because among the many clnical trials by Purdue is one that studies the use of potent opioids like Oxycontin in children and teenagers. Some of the most sobering experiences of my medical training were at Childrens Hospital of Philadelphia, providing care for brave, hairless children, knowing the years of pain that awaited them– if things went well.

I think I’ve provided enough background and links to start interested parties off on their own holiday reading. Yes, there is an epidemic of opioid dependence in this country and elsewhere. There are many reasons for this epidemic, and MOST of the reasons have nothing to do with the marketing tasks used by Purdue decades ago– for which they have paid dearly. While there are clearly areas where opioids are overprescribed, and in some cases grossly overprescribed, it would be a shame if the current swing in regulatory sentiment takes us to the point where doctors are afraid to provide pain relief for people who are suffering. This is already the case in some instances; people labelled as ‘addicts’, no matter the length of their remission, are likely to wait a long time for their first dose of narcotic, should they be unlucky enoough to develop a kidney stone.

I’ve spent a great deal of time and energy defending those poor souls, and discovered, sadly, that most doctors just don’t care about the pain experienced by recovering addicts. But there is a saying, also often referenced to the Holocaust, referring to mistreatment of others being ignored, until eventually similar mistreatment is directed at those who didn’t care about others. There are times when attempts to ‘cure’ go too far. Suggesting that methods of pain relief should not be investigated, clarified, and perfected for children is going a bit too far.

Inconvenient Truth

Next month I will be presenting a paper at the annual meeting of ASAM, the American Society of Addiction Medicine. The paper discusses a new method for treating chronic pain, using a combination of buprenorphine and opioid agonists. In my experience, the combination works very well, providing excellent analgesia and at the same time reducing—even eliminating– the euphoria from opioids.

Ten years ago, I would have really been onto something. Back then there were calls from all corners to improve the pain control for patients. The popular belief regarding pain control was that some unfortunate patients were being denied adequate doses of opioid medications. I remember our hospital administrators, in advance of the next JCAHO visit, worried about pain relief in patients who for one or another reason couldn’t describe or report their pain. Posters were put up in each patient room, showing simple drawings of facial expressions ranging from smiles to frowns, so that patients in pain could simply point at the face that exhibited their own level of misery.

What a difference a decade makes! Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of Oxycontin, was fined over $600 million for claims that their medication was less addictive than other, immediate-release pain-killers. Thousands of young Americans have died from overdoses of pain medications, many that came from their parents’ medicine cabinets. Physician members of PROP, Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing, have called out physicians at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health for having ties to Purdue while arguing against added regulations for potent narcotics.

I have tried to present both sides of the pain pill debate, without disclosing my OWN opinions on the issue—at least until today. And I must be at least somewhat ‘fair and balanced,’ because I’ve received angry messages from both sides—from people telling me I’m evil for not understanding their need for pain medications, and from people telling me I’m evil for not respecting the danger of the medications.

By the way… I have a policy of not printing messages that simply call me names, or that tell me how bad a doctor I must be for writing what I do. I love a good argument, so please feel free to comment on ANY points that I’m trying to make. But I don’t think that making efforts to lead a discussion warrants personal attacks—so please, stick to the issues!

Today, though, I would like to share a couple thoughts on the issue. The thoughts came after a discussion with one of my patients with chronic pain. I have been presenting one side, then the other side, and back again, trying to remain neutral… but from all that I’ve seen as a psychiatrist and as an anesthesiologist, some things cannot be denied.

1. Some people do have chronic pain that responds to opioids. Many doctors—including the doctors who are afraid of the DEA, or the doctors who don’t want to deal with the hard work of prescribing opioids, or the doctors who want a simple world where ‘pain pills are always bad’—don’t want to admit the truth of this statement. This is, with apologies to Al Gore, a very inconvenient truth.

I find it interesting that doctors who don’t want to prescribe pain pills act as if chronic pain does not exist– as if the suffering of people with painful disorders is less important in some way, if it lasts too long. Every prescriber is aware of the need to treat acute pain, but when it comes to chronic pain, the difficulties that arise with treatment (e.g. abuse, diversion, tolerance) lead some doctors to act as if something magical happens on the road from acute to chronic. The phenomenon is the exact opposite of the old saying, ‘to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.’ In this case, ‘to doctors who don’t want to use hammers, there ARE NO NAILS.’ But in truth, there ARE nails; some patients have lots of them. And we doctors have a duty to hammer away at them… (OK, enough with the analogy already!).

2. Just because some people divert opioids does not mean that other people shouldn’t have necessary pain relief. Treating pain is about as fundamental as medicine can be. I do not understand the doctors who say ‘I do not treat pain—you’ll have to see someone else’—especially when there are no doctors available to fill that role. More and more ‘health systems’ are adopting this position, at least in my area. What gives?!

3. At the same time, there is no such thing as ‘complete pain control.’ Tolerance removes the power of narcotics, and chasing tolerance always ends badly. Patients with chronic pain must use ALL tools available, including non-narcotic techniques.

4. Being prescribed pain medications comes with certain responsibilities; the responsibility to use the medications appropriately, to communicate openly and truthfully with the prescriber, to avoid ‘doctor-shopping,’ etc. At some point, patients who refuse to honor these responsibilities will lose access to pain medications—at least to some extent. Is this humane or fair? I think so, as access to pain relief for these patients is balanced against the lives of those killed by illicit use of these medications.

I’m sure I could go on… but for now, this is enough food for thought. Besides, it’s almost time for dinner! Feel free to comment—but please, be nice!

 

The Downside of Methadone

An Article by Mike Berens and Ken Armstrong, Seattle Times, discusses some of the problems with using methadone as a first-line treatment for pain:

When it comes to battling pain, Washington health officials have encouraged doctors to reach for methadone, a powerful and inexpensive prescription drug. For the past decade, the state has declared methadone to be as safe and effective as any other narcotic painkiller.

Methadone

But in a striking reversal that has gained momentum this week, doctors are receiving stark warnings that methadone is riskier and more dangerous — a drug of last resort — because it’s unpredictable and poses a heightened risk of accidental death.

“It’s a dangerous drug because it accumulates in the body and people die in their sleep,” Dr. Jane Ballantyne, a pain specialist at the University of Washington, said Friday. “It’s very tricky and difficult to use safely.”

Ballantyne and the university are helping spearhead a series of state-sponsored training programs to educate physicians, pharmacists and advanced nurse practitioners about the risks of pain drugs.

Earlier this week, while delivering a continuing medical education course for dozens of physicians and other medical professionals at the university, Ballantyne presented a slideshow in which she cautioned that methadone “should be considered a last option opioid, never a first line opioid.”

The state’s effort is a response to a Seattle Times series, “Methadone and the Politics of Pain.” The investigation, published in December, detailed that at least 2,173 people in Washington have died from accidental overdoses of the drug since 2003.

The Times found that year after year, a committee of state-appointed medical experts sanctioned methadone, empowering the state to designate it a “preferred drug” and steer people with state-subsidized health care — most notably, Medicaid patients — to the drug in order to save money.

The state has included only two drugs, methadone and morphine, on its preferred list of long-acting pain drugs.

During the committee’s meetings, officials from state agencies that have a financial stake in methadone’s selection consistently deflected concerns about the drug.

Methadone’s death toll has hit the hardest among low-income patients. Medicaid recipients account for about 8 percent of Washington’s adult population but 48 percent of methadone fatalities.

After the series, the state sent out an emergency public-health advisory that singled out the unique risks of methadone.

Medicaid officials faxed a health advisory to more than 1,000 pharmacists and drugstores about methadone, as well as about oxycodone, fentanyl and morphine. The state Department of Health mailed advisories to about 17,000 licensed health-care professionals.

The health advisory confirmed that Washington ranks among states with the highest rates of opioid-related deaths, exceeding the number of deaths each year involving motor vehicles.

Most painkillers, such as oxycodone, dissipate from the body within hours. Methadone can linger for days, pool into a toxic reservoir and depress breathing. With little warning, patients fall asleep and don’t wake up. Doctors call it the silent death.

Ballantyne noted that methadone is an indispensable drug and plays an important role in the treatment of many patients. However, due to the heightened risks, methadone should be prescribed only by those with extensive training and experience — and only after every other option has been exhausted.

Dr. Jeff Thompson, chief medical officer of the state’s Medicaid program, now readily agrees that methadone use carries unique risks and that it should not be the first choice if other drugs are equally suitable.

He said physicians are stepping up efforts to unravel the long-term impact on the body from prolonged use of prescription drugs now that Washington’s new pain-management law has gone into full force beginning this month.

The groundbreaking law requires practitioners to follow new standards for treatment and record-keeping. It also requires prescribers to consult with state-certified pain experts when narcotic dosages reach higher thresholds.

While the law’s goal is to lower doses and, if possible, wean patients from narcotic pain drugs, doctors are finding the task more difficult than hoped, Thompson said.

For instance, methadone patients can suffer prolonged withdrawal symptoms, like nausea and depression. With most pain drugs, withdrawal subsides within a week. Methadone’s grip can last for months, even years, he said.

State officials will review methadone’s role on the state’s preferred drug list during a meeting next month.

“I think we’re going back and relearning how to treat pain,” Thompson said.

Pill Mill Prosecution and the Pain Relief Network

Wow. I just read an email about a story that I was vaguely aware of– about a doctor in Kansas and his wife, who were together linked to scores of overdose deaths. But that is just the beginning. The doctor was supported, during his trial, by Siobhan Reynolds, founder of a nonprofit advocacy group called ‘Pain Relief Network.’  She started the group back in 2003, when her ex-husband was suffering from severe pain from a congenital connective tissue disorder.Reynold's Billboard

He (the ex-husband) found relief in combinations of high-dose opioids and benzodiazepines, at least until his doctor, Virginia pain specialist William Hurwitz, was convicted on 16 counts of drug trafficking.  The ex died, by the way, in 2006.  Are you still with me?

The trial of the Kansas doctor, Stephen Schneider, went on for years.  During the trial, Ms. Reynolds apparently helped support what she considered to be a ‘dream team’ of attorneys.  She used the case as an opportunity to increase her visibility, encouraging the Schneiders to aggressively fight the charges against them on the basis of ‘patient rights.’  Ms. Reynolds, through the Schneiders, argued that suffering patients are being denied appropriate care because of a war, waged by overly-aggressive prosecutors, against doctors who prescribe pain medication.

Ms. Reynolds even paid for a billboard adjacent to the road to the courthouse, so that jurors could see, en route, the statement “Dr. Schneider Never Killed Anyone.”  Some might see the billboard as ‘free speech’, but the judge presiding over the case was not amused.  At the eventual sentencing, the judge gave both Dr. Schneider and his wife over 30 years in prison, hoping that the sentences would “curtail or stop the activities of the Bozo the Clown outfit known as the Pain [Relief] Network, a ship of fools if there ever was one.”

We already have enough drama for a made for TV movie.  Actually there already is one, made by Ms. Reynolds, about her ex’s struggle over finding appropriate pain treatment.  The hour-long film is called ‘The Chilling Effect,’ and can be found here– along with a number of vignettes about the efforts of the Pain Relief Network.

Make that the former Pain Relief Network.  Ms. Reynolds was investigated by a Grand Jury, led by the same prosecutor who led the efforts against Dr. Schneider.  After years of what she considered to be ‘vindictive efforts,’ she closed down Pain Relief Network, saying that the organization’s finances ‘were in shambles.’

Within weeks of closing PRN, Ms. Reynolds lost her life in a plane crash.  Piloting the plane, and also killed, was Kevin Byers– Ms. Reynold’s romantic partner and also– get this attorney for the wife of Dr. Schneider.

Our story ends in typical, made for TV fashion, with all of the loose ends tied up.  The Pain Relief Network is gone, tragically missed by some, and considered ‘good riddance’ by others.  Ms. Reynolds, tireless advocate or misguided fanatic, has left this world for the next.  Left behind are the story-tellers;  I will provide links to both sides, so that readers can have a true, balanced perspective.  From the PRN side, simply go to their former web site, and you will find links to the archives.  The archives contain links to stories in a number of publications, including Slate and the NYT– places where David and Goliath stories are repeated without much challenge, particularly for the Davids.

On the other side is a woman named Marianne Skolek, writer for the Salem News online site, who has little positive to say about Ms. Reynolds and PRN.  For years she has chronicled the epidemic of deaths from Oxycontin, and she has also written a number of articles about the Schneiders, Reynolds, and PRN.  One of the most chilling points in a story by M. Skolek is a a list of the patients who saw Dr. Schneider and who died shortly afterward.  The pattern is clear; people in sudden possession of large numbers of pain pills, who took amounts sufficient to end their lives:

Name

Age

On or about 1st Office Visit

On or about Last Office Visit

On or about Date of Death

Heather M 28 Aug. 27, 2001 Feb. 8, 2002 Feb. 9, 2002
Billie R 45 Oct. 19, 2001 May 2, 2002 May 4, 2002
William M 36 Nov. 12, 2002 Jan. 28, 2003 Feb. 4, 2003
Leslie C 49 April 9, 1996 Feb. 9, 2003 Feb. 14, 2003
David B 47 Nov. 18, 2002 March 12, 2003 March 15, 2003
Terry C 48 Oct. 12, 2001 April 8, 2003 April 14, 2003
Lynnise G 35 May 23, 2002 April 23, 2003 April 30, 2003
Mary S 52 Feb. 6, 2003 June 11, 2003 June 16, 2003
Dustin L 18 June 26, 2003 June 26, 2003 June 27, 2003
Marie H 43 Dec. 24, 2002 May 28, 2003 June 30, 2003
Jessie D 21 March 4, 2003 June 27, 2003 July 11, 2003
Boyce B 59 June 29, 2003 July 23, 2003 July 25, 2003
Kandace B 43 July 10, 2003 Nov. 12, 2003 Nov. 14, 2003
Katherine S 46 July 9, 2003 Nov. 19, 2003 Nov. 25, 2003
Robert S 31 June 2, 2003 Dec. 7, 2003 Dec. 8, 2003
Deborah S 44 Jan. 3, 2003 May 5, 2003 Feb. 5, 2004
Shannon Mi 38 July 27, 2003 Dec. 9, 2003 Feb. 23, 2004
Danny C 35 April 21, 2003 March 5, 2004 March 6, 2004
Vickie H 53 June 26, 2003 March 16, 2004 April 11, 2004
James C 33 March 3, 2004 June 8, 2004 June 9, 2004
Shannon Me 25 July 24, 2003 June 4, 2004 June 22, 2004
Ancira W 45 Sept. 25, 2002 June 15, 2004 July 12, 2004
Darrell H 24 Nov. 12, 2002 July 15, 2004 July 17, 2004
Michael H 37 March 9, 2004 Aug. 26, 2004 Sept. 12, 2004
Patricia C 43 Nov. 8, 2001 Oct. 4, 2004 Oct. 6, 2004
Jon P 36 April 23, 2004 Oct. 8, 2004 Oct. 20, 2004
Tresa W 43 Sept. 15, 2003 Nov. 29, 2004 Dec. 16, 2004
Jeff H 45 Jan. 10, 2003 Dec. 8, 2004 Dec. 29, 2004
Russell H 24 Aug. 23, 2003 Jan. 12, 2005 Jan. 19, 2005
Michael B 48 Sept. 30, 2004 Jan. 28, 2005 Feb. 2, 2005
Amber G 22 Aug. 13, 2003 Jan. 3, 2005 Feb. 26, 2005
Christine B 45 Dec. 11, 2001 Dec. 3, 2004 April 7, 2005
Victor J 48 Jan. 24, 2005 April 15, 2004 April 22, 2005
Randall P 44 March 10, 2005 April 22, 2005 May 3, 2005
Michael F 49 Jan. 10, 2005 May 9, 2005 May 11, 2005
Deborah M 52 Feb. 23, 2005 May 4, 2005 May 15, 2005
Patricia G 49 Feb. 1, 2003 June 18, 2005 June 20, 2005
Dustin B 22 Jan. 20, 2005 Feb. 27, 2005 June 21, 2005
Jerad M 24 July 9, 2004 June 13, 2005 June 22, 2005
Earl A 29 Sept. 22, 2004 June 29, 2005 July 3, 2005
Brad S 53 Oct. 15, 2004 June 30, 2005 July 11, 2005
Clifford C 39 July 23, 2003 June 29, 2005 July 27, 2005
Sue B 38 Oct. 21, 2002 May 12, 2005 Aug. 1, 2005
Jason P 21 Aug. 19, 2003 June 29, 2005 Sept. 4, 2005
Randall S 52 April 27, 2005 Nov. 12, 2005 Nov. 19, 2005
Thomas F 46 Feb. 15, 2005 Jan. 5, 2006 Jan. 9, 2006
Toni W 37 Dec. 30, 1999 Feb. 16, 2006 Feb. 18, 2006
Marilyn R 39 Aug. 16, 2004 March 16, 2006 April 5, 2006
Dalene C 45 Aug. 25, 2003 April 19, 2006 April 21, 2006
Eric T 46 June 2, 2003 April 19, 2006 April 23, 2006
Jo Jo R 46 Feb. 26, 2005 June 5, 2006 June 7, 2006
Mary Sue L 55 Jan. 30, 2002 June 13, 2006 June 14, 2006
Pamela F 42 March 31, 2003 July 21, 2006 July 22, 2006
Deborah W 53 July 18, 2003 Sept. 7, 2006 Sept. 9, 2006
Jeffrey J 39 May 5, 2004 Oct. 23, 2006 Oct. 24, 2006
Ronald W 56 June 29, 2004 March 20, 2007 March 23, 2007
Evelyn S 50 Dec. 12, 2004 April 16, 2007 April 17, 2007
Robin G 45 July 13, 2004 May 11, 2007 May 15, 2007
Ralph S 44 Jan. 16, 2003 May 15, 2007 July 23, 2007
Patsy W 49 Dec. 2, 1999 July 16, 2007 July 26, 2007
Donna D 48 Dec. 27, 2005 July 19, 2007 Aug. 16, 2007
Lucy S. 61 Aug. 29, 2003 Aug. 23, 2007 Aug. 28, 2007
Gyna G 33 Feb. 10, 2004 Oct. 4, 2007 Oct. 7, 2007
Casey G 28 Sept. 4, 2007 Sept. 13, 2007 Oct. 23, 2007
Julia F 50 June 20, 2007 Nov. 20, 2007 Nov. 28, 2007
Rebecca T 54 May 2, 2006 Nov. 17, 2007 Dec. 24, 2007
Jane E 40 Jan. 8, 2003 Jan. 12, 2008 Jan. 26, 2008
John D 52 June 23, 2003 Jan. 3, 2008 Feb. 10, 2008

 

The story is not quite over.  The Schneiders are now appealing their convictions, claiming insufficient counsel– namely that the romantic involvement of one of their attorneys with Ms. Reynolds created a conflict that led to poor counsel.  In other words, they may have asked for mercy, had Ms. Reynolds not been cheering them and their attorney to place everything on the line.

As I’ve written many times, the use of opioids for chronic pain is a complicated issue, with no clear ‘good’ or ‘bad’ side. As in most of life’s challenges, the extremes of each position appear…. extreme.  Ms. Reynolds believed that the Controlled Substances Act should be repealed;  I find it difficult to understand how any educated person would adopt such an approach.  But the extreme opposite side leads to enough fear, in physicians, to stifle the use of narcotic pain relievers in people who truly need such relief.  As for me, I keep trying to straddle the wide middle.

Long-term opioid analgesia without tolerance, respiratory depression, or euphoria

I have been kicking these observations around for the past year, and have been unable to find a big fish willing to ‘bite’.  I truly believe that the observations below have the potential to dramatically change the approach to opioid treatment of chronic pain.  Since I have a blog, I have a soapbox– so I’ll share the idea, and welcome comments in return.  I do ask that proper attribution be provided if this article is shared.

Introduction:

Long-term opioid analgesia without tolerance, respiratory depression, or euphoria?  Introducing the Holy Grail for chronic pain treatment!

Premise:

The miracle of opioid pain relief is fatally limited by tolerance, addiction and respiratory depression.  Buprenorphine, when combined with a mu agonist, results in game-changing effects.  Patients experience potent, dose-related analgesia from the agonist, but have NO euphoria.  The therapeutic window is widened.  Patients unable to control their use of a mu agonist alone gain that control when on buprenorphine. And most exciting, buprenorphine indefinitely anchors tolerance, maintaining analgesia WITHOUT DOSE ESCALATION. This finding offers huge implications for pain management.

Discussion:

Use of opioids for chronic pain has severe limitations.  Tolerance removes the benefits of opioid analgesics over time.  Worse, tolerance is associated with dependence and withdrawal.  Many patients use additional doses of their prescription early in the month, then suffer through withdrawal while awaiting refills.  Others find opioids through less-reliable, non-clinical sources.

At the same time, addiction to mu opioids is a nationwide epidemic.  Reformulation Oxycontin has pushed many opioid users toward diacetylmorphine—brand name Heroin.  Some physicians recommend avoiding mu opioids altogether for chronic pain (e.g. Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing), while pain treatment advocates argue to ease narcotic restrictions.

Over the past six years I have treated over 500 patients using buprenorphine, mostly for opioid dependence.  Buprenorphine, a partial mu agonist, is the active ingredient in Suboxone, a medication used for treating opioid dependence. The majority of my patients began their addictions with narcotics prescribed by doctors for back pain, knee pain, shoulder pain, fibromyalgia, chronic headaches, and other conditions.

Many of my patients found their pain reduced or gone after stopping mu agonists and substituting buprenorphine.  Buprenorphine has the mu activity of 40 mg of daily methadone, but this activity is unlikely responsible for significant analgesia, since patients rapidly become tolerant to the agonist actions of buprenorphine. Instead, their pain while on mu agonists was likely maintained by psychological forces.

Patients on buprenorphine occasionally need opioid analgesia, just like other patients.  My patients have had knees replaced, gallbladders removed, hysterectomies and c-sections, rotator cuff repairs, and in two cases, cardiac surgery.  In all cases, sufficient analgesia was provided by maintaining daily buprenorphine at 4-8 mg per day, and using potent mu agonists, usually oxycodone, in doses ranging from 15-45 mg every 4-6 hours as needed.

Several patients have severe chronic pain from avulsion of the brachial plexus, failed spinal fusion, or other conditions, where prior opioid use resulted in rapid tolerance that prevented effective analgesia. These patients are now successfully maintained on combinations of buprenorphine plus mu agonists.

The combination of buprenorphine plus mu agonists has provided perioperative analgesia for patients on buprenorphine.  Patients universally describe adequate pain relief, even after major surgeries.  They also described the absence of euphoria, and to their surprise, the ability to control their use of pain medication—something impossible before taking buprenorphine.

But it is the effects on chronic pain that suggest a ‘game-changer’ for pain treatment.  Even after over a year on combination buprenorphine/oxycodone, my patients 1. have no euphoria;  2. are often able to manage their own narcotic medication; and most important, 3. describe stable analgesia WITHOUT agonist dose escalation.

The ability to treat pain long-term without tolerance or dose-escalation is as exciting a development as was the initial discovery of opioids for pain relief!

Properties of a combination agent

Buprenorphine is administered sublingually, and could be prescribed as a separate medication, and use verified through urine monitoring.   But greater safety benefits would come through regulations requiring buprenorphine (or a similar partial agonist) to be an inseparable part of every opioid prescription.  Such a policy would dramatically lower the addictiveness and reduce the respiratory depression of mu agonists WITHOUT removing efficacy.  The most obvious formulation would be a transdermal system that delivers buprenorphine and fentanyl, since both are already available in separate transdermal systems.

There may be situations, for example hospice care, where euphoria would be a desirable part of opioid treatment.  But for other cases, analgesia without euphoria has obvious benefits.

I have written to several pharmaceutical companies with this idea, and have heard back that while the idea is interesting and scientifically sound, the generic nature of the component medications reduce the potential for profit that would motivate development.  But given the potential value of this approach for multiple problems– addiction and chronic pain among them—I have to think that there is money to be made—not to mention the advances in treatment that the approach offers.

Reference:

Some supporting background information can be found in:  Alford, D., P Compton, and J Samet, Acute Pain Management for Patients Receiving Maintenance Methadone or Buprenorphine Therapy.  Ann Intern Med. 2006 January 17; 144(2): 127–134.

I also discuss this approach to pain treatment in my ‘Users Guide to Suboxone’, sold on Amazon and at bupeguide.com

Jeffrey T Junig MD PhD

Please do not reproduce without attribution.

Upcoming Changes in Pain Medication Regulations

This is a repost from my blog on PsychCentral:

There are changes afoot in the use of opioid agonists for chronic pain treatment. This blog has described the epidemic of opioid dependence that has killed tens of thousands of people across the country over the past few years, and the changes are directed toward reducing the harm caused by this epidemic.

A number of interventions have been proposed. Vicodin, the number one-selling medication in the country, contains the opioid hydrocodone combined with acetaminophen, the agent in Tylenol. Hydrocodone and Vicodin are currently ‘Schedule III’ medications, and will likely move to Schedule II, where oxycodone, Oxycontin, and Percocet are currently assigned. The change will have significant impact on the use of Vicodin and hydrocodone, since medications classified as Schedule II must be ordered on written prescriptions—i.e. they cannot be called in to the pharmacy. There are a number of other limitations on Schedule II medications; the prescriptions cannot have refills for example, and a maximum of 90 days of medication can be ordered at any one time. The laws that govern diversion of Schedule II medications are more strict as well, meaning that trading or selling Vicodin or hydrocodone to a friend or relative will carry significant risk of prosecution—and incarceration.

There are proposals for additional certification and training for doctors who prescribe pain medications, beyond the current DEA licenses that typically allow registrants to prescribe all of the controlled substances, without distinguishing between classes or uses of medications. These proposals anger the ‘pain treatment lobby,’ whose members claim that additional certification requirements will lessen the availability of pain medications. And they are correct—that is, after all, the whole point of the proposed changes.

There are a couple issues that merit discussion that have no clear right or wrong answer—at least in my opinion. First, in the debate over additional certification, there is little argument that such changes would reduce the number of doctors who prescribe opioids. Many doctors will decide that it is not worth the hassle and cost to obtain the special certification. Some others will see the requirement as a golden opportunity to leave the pain med prescribing to others, as they will be able to tell their patients ‘I’m sorry—I’m not allowed to prescribe them’—an easy way to avoid confrontation with patients asking for pain pills who doctors consider to have borderline indications for them.

We don’t know, though, whether other doctors will see the changes as business opportunities—growth in a new specialty of ‘pain pill prescribing’ for example—and fill the void left by less-frequent prescribers. And if there is a reduction in pain medication prescribing, will the reduction affect the people who don’t really NEED pain medications—i.e. the patients with mild lumbar strain, who would do much better using a heating pad and ibuprofen, and perhaps learn to lift without bending at the waist? Or will people with severe pain that truly warrants opioid medication find it impossible to have their pain adequately treated?

People should be aware that there are very significant differences in opinion over the proper use of opioid pain medications between physicians. For years, doctors were taught that people with ‘real pain’ rarely become addicted to pain medications. I was stunned when I read a study a couple years ago that claimed that less than 10% of patient who are prescribed pain medications develop opioid dependence. My clinical experience, after working for ten years in pain treatment and for about 20 years as a physician, suggest a number at least five times higher.

More and more doctors are realizing that for most people, opioid pain medications do little to increase function. People become tolerant to whatever dose of pain medication they are taking, and with that tolerance, the pain relief goes away—unless the dose is increased, which only repeats the cycle at a higher tolerance level. Patients become slaves to their medications, developing severe withdrawal from missing even one dose. Their high tolerance makes it difficult to treat pain from surgery, or from other painful conditions that the patient may develop. Finally, there is more and more evidence for the phenomenon of ‘opioid-induced hyperalgesia’ where pain symptoms are ultimately increased by opioid pain medications.

But patients still want pain medications when they are in pain, no matter how many lectures they hear about ‘decreased function,’ hyperalgesia, or tolerance. Doctors are placed in the position of giving patients what they ask for, even if it is ultimately bad for them— or protecting patients and standing up to their anger. Standing up to patient anger is not what many doctors signed up for when they went to medical school, and goes against their desire to help people—and to be liked for helping people.

And I don’t know if any course or certificate will help doctors deal with THAT.

My Book

Ah yes…. another post about my book…

Over the past few years, I’ve taken posts from this blog, posts from other sources that I’ve written, some sections of a ‘memoir’ that I have not gotten around to writing… and combined them in a book about addiction. The book does not hold together as well as it should, and it is way too long– so instead of a ‘sit and read’ book it is more like a reference, similar to the blog itself. If you like this blog, you’ll like it; I’ve taken the more important posts and cleaned them up and organized them. I’ve added some new material as well, including a section about my own background. If you have a loved one on Suboxone, or have an interest in the medication yourself, you will know as much about the buprenorphine as anyone should you finish this book– particularly about the use of buprenorphine by addicts, the controversy over buprenorphine, the relationship between buprenorphine and methadone, etc.

There are some chapters that are dated– i.e. where my opinion has changed or softened over the years. I was much more ‘anti-methadone’ when I wrote most of the book; now I see methadone as something that some people simply need in order to survive. I am not a fan of how some clinics are run– but that is a topic that I don’t get into in this book.

Finally, you’ll notice how I have changed over the years; in early posts I would become angry and sarcastic with some writers. In part, that is because I was being attacked on a daily basis by the ‘anti-sub’ movement– which has largely disappeared. But I think I have also aged a bit, and I now tend to pick my battles more carefully.

The book (note- this is an e-book) goes for $14.99, and runs around 250 pages– long enough to occupy most of your summer! Proceeds continue to support this blog, and SuboxForum as well.

Thank you very much, to those of you who purchase it and check it out. I would be most grateful if you would leave comments about it– for me, and also for others– by writing them in response to this post. At some point I will get a page set up, and tranfer this promo and the comments to that page.

The book is called ‘Dying to be Clean’– and can be purchased using the links at the left of this page– or right below this post.

NOTE: Because I don’t want it simply passed around freely at this point, you need a code to open it– and it cannot be printed. The code will be included with the download link. Please understand why I take those actions.

Thanks again,

Jeff J

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