Treating Addiction with Brain Surgery

Today I read about the stereotactic brain surgery used to treat opioid dependence in China over the past ten years.   The procedure is relatively straightforward; the patient’s skull is clamped in place while small holes are drilled, guided by computerized, 3-dimensional maps of the brain.  Probes are inserted deeply through brain tissue to the nucleus accumbens, where […]

Take Action!

People who read this blog are aware of the shortage of physicians who can prescribe buprenorphine to treat people addicted to pain pills, even as an epidemic of addiction to heroin and pain pills devastates the heartland of the country.  In order to prescribe buprenorphine, physicians take a short course and obtain special certification.  To obtain certification, […]

Xanax for Anxiety? Think Again!

Anxiety is one of the most common presenting complaints for people who come to my psychiatric practice. By the time people with anxiety visit a psychiatrist, they have usually discussed their symptoms with friends and family members, and some have been to their family care physician. And as a result of these initial ‘consultations’, they […]

Suboxone-Certified Doctor Directories

I recently added a new link to the menu at the top of this blog, for sites that connect patients with buprenorphine or Suboxone-certified doctors.  The link will take you to a ‘meta-directory’ that lists a number of doctor-finder sites, where you can search for a physician based on location and other variables.  Some of the sites […]

The post Suboxone-Certified Doctor Directories appeared first on Suboxone Talk Zone: A Suboxone Blog.

Reckitt Benckiser is Smarter Than I Thought

Regarding a prior post, I carefully read through the entire Citizens Petition’ filed with the FDA by Reckitt-Benckiser.  I have a better understanding of what, exactly, was accomplished by that action by the manufacturer of Suboxone. The document explains that the company hired an independent group, RADARS (Researched Abuse, Diversion, and Addiction-Related Surveillance), to investigate the […]

Is My Withdrawal Permanent?!

A question from a reader: I am trying to decide what my best course of action might be in dealing with protracted withdrawals from a number of drugs, including benzodiazepines. My history is as follows:  I was snorting Oxycontin for about 6 months and went into treatment to stop.  Before entering the rehab hospital they […]

Find a Suboxone Doctor

Every day, someone writes to ask for help in finding a buprenorphine-certified physician.  Apparently, the distribution of certified physicians is not uniform; in some parts of the country there is competition among providers, and in other areas there are no certified physicians at all.  I assume that Wisconsin is somewhere in the middle. There are doctors in the area, but most are full.  My own practice has had a wait-list of over 50 patients for the past few years.

There are several resources for finding buprenorphine-certified doctors.  I’ll plug my forum, SuboxForum, as one such place.  The Forum has close to 10,000 registered members, and visitor traffic is much higher, since registration is not required to read posts.  I do not share or sell registration info, and you can register with fake information, if the idea of giving a name creeps you out.  Feel free to visit and ask if anyone knows of open docs in your area.

There are several doctor-finding sites.  I recommend Suboxone-Directory as a first stop.    At NAABT, you can enter some information about yourself, and certified docs in your area will be notified that you are looking for help.  They then respond to you, through the web site, if they consider you to be a good match.  Finally, there are physician search engines at Suboxone.com and at Suboxonedoctors.com.

Many of us hope that the cap on patients will be raised or eliminated at some point.  There is no doubt that the cap is killing many more patients, than it is helping by preventing abuse of Suboxone.  And how bizarre, given that doctors can prescribe opioid agonists to unlimited numbers of patients!  But the cap is set by Federal law, so changing it takes more than just an administrator’s decision.

I hope these sites are helpful.

Treatment? Or Murder?

I subscribe to Google news alerts for the phrase ‘overdose deaths.’  Google Alerts are a great way to follow any topic; subscribers receive headlines from newspapers and web sites for certain keywords from around the world. One thing that has become clear from my subscription is that there is no shortage of stories about deaths from opioids! Every day I see one article after the next, as news reporters notice the loss of more and more of their communities’ young people.

Along with the reports of overdoses are stories about doctors who are increasingly being prosecuted for the deaths of their patients. In an earlier post I described the case of Dr. Schneider and his wife, a nurse, who were tied to a number of overdose deaths in Kansas. That case stood out by the sheer number of deaths; the State charged the couple with the deaths of 56 patients. Cases involving fewer patients have become relatively common. The latest case that I’ve read about is a doctor in Iowa, who is accused of causing or contributing to the deaths of 8 people.

I try to present both sides of the argument when I write about this topic. I have been faced with the difficult decision over whether or not to prescribe narcotics many times, and I understand a doctor’s dilemma. The doctor sees a person who is in pain, and knows that there is a pill that will reduce that pain. But the doctor also knows, or SHOULD know, that initiating a prescription for narcotic pain medication always has unintended consequences, no matter how good the intentions of both doctor and patient.

In the Iowa case, the dilemma over narcotic-prescribing is very clear. The prosecution states that the doctor prescribed pain medication to drug addicts.  On the surface, that sounds bad, right? One gets the mental picture of dirty, lazy people, dissolving tablets in a spoon, over a candle, and then injecting the mixture. But reality is much more complicated. Patients with histories of opioid dependence do not always have track marks. And even if we tattooed the letter A across their chests, there are addicts who are in need of pain treatment. Are we to decide that every person who has become addicted to pain medication gives up the right to pain treatment?  And we know that many of the patients addicted to opioids became addicted through the course of pain treatment from their physician— so I would expect that on average, patients addicted to opioids would have a higher incidence of chronic pain, and vice versa.

I do not find it reasonable to make patients with addiction histories endure pain that would be treated in other patients.  Father than singling out some patients for ‘special non-treatment,’ we should prepare for the risks from opioids in ALL patients—a set of ‘universal precautions for opioid treatment,’ similar to the way we use a different set of universal precautions to avoid transmission of blood-borne infections.

There are times when doctors have to tolerate being the bad guys.  Some patients have been taught, through careless prescribing, that all pain should be treated with narcotics. Those patients are not happy when told, after paying several hundred dollars, that they do not ‘need’ narcotic pain medication– and so many of their doctors have a hard time saying ‘no.’ After all, doctors studied hard to do well in school, and usually receive praise for what they do. It is much easier to write a prescription and hear ‘thank you’ than to be called an unsympathetic jerk! But doctors are paid the big bucks to tolerate such things, and to keep the long-term health of patients in mind. And for many people with chronic pain, opioids will provide a good month or two, but for the price of many years of misery.

I’ve been told by patients “I don’t care about the risks, doc– I’d rather have three good months and then die, then have twenty years in pain.” I reply, “that’s why these medications require a doctor to consider things very carefully, and a good doctor would not allow someone to make that decision.” I’m sure that some people will be angered by that attitude. But the approach is similar to how we handle many other illnesses, where we encourage patients to tolerate short-term misery for long-term benefits. Many patients would refuse chemotherapy and give up on life if not pushed to move forward. And to depressed patients, suicide can appear a reasonable option. I’m a fan of free will, but I recognize that we don’t always choose our paths through life with full insight.

Even with full knowledge of the reasons to avoid narcotics, some doctors really struggle over withholding opioids.  I find it somewhat ironic that the doctors who are too ‘kind-hearted’—i.e. who want to please patients so much that they cannot deny even that which is bad for them—are the ones who end up getting into trouble.  The Iowa doctor is being sued over several of the deaths, likely by relatives of the patients who pled the hardest for pain pills!  Talk about good deeds not going unpunished!

But there are aspects of the case in Iowa that do not argue well for the doctor. Several of the patients who died were only seen once, but treated with narcotics for years. The DEA requires that patients are prescribed no more than 90 days of narcotic medication at one time (divided on three monthly prescriptions). I presume that patients were picking up scripts every three months, without having appointments each time. Such a practice is not strictly illegal (not that I am aware of, anyway), but the standard of care would be to evaluate patients on potent opioids every three months, or even more frequently. And one news article stated that the doctor had tens of thousands of pain patients. As a full-time practitioner with less than 1000 patients, I wonder how so many patients could be managed by one physician.

When I write about this topic I receive angry comments from some readers. Some attack me personally with comments like “I’m glad I’m not YOUR patient!” or “I hope YOU have to suffer with horrible pain some day!” I realize that this is a very hot topic, and my only intent is to educate and inform, to help people understand what is happening in the minds of physicians. Of course, the care of patients should not be determined by the need for doctors to protect their own interests. But at the same time, it is understandable that doctors are affected by headlines announcing the imprisonment of other doctors facing the same treatment decisions.

Bottom line– there are very good reasons to avoid using opioids for nonmalignant chronic pain. Just giving patients what they want, and ignoring the danger of opioids, will likely result in criminal and civil prosecution. But that reason is secondary to the most important thing– the promise all doctors make to first, do no harm. And patients should realize that their doctors may be withholding narcotics for that reason alone.

Avoiding Precipitated Withdrawal

I received the following question earlier today:

Hello Dr. Junig, I am opiate dependent or rather an opiate addict. I want to seek treatment because I can’t continue this life style. I have questions about treatment. Do I have to be in full withdrawals when I go to see a doctor? Is it true that most doctors probably won’t see me because they have too many patients already? I know Suboxone works for my withdrawals. I’ve stuck in this rollercoaster for at least four years and now I know it’s time for me to seek help.

My thoughts:

My comments, as always, are intended to increase general knowledge about buprenorphine and to promote discussion between patients and their doctors.  They are not intended to take the place of a relationship with a ‘real’ doctor!

The appropriate waiting period before starting Suboxone– ‘induction’– depends on the person’s opioid tolerance, and on the specific opioid that the person has been taking.  An opioid-free delay before induction reduces the amount of opioid agonist bound to the receptor, and lowers tolerance to some extent.  Starting Suboxone or buprenorphine is likely to cause precipitated withdrawal when either 1. There is agonist binding at the mu receptor, or 2. There is very high opioid tolerance.

It is hard to give exact guidelines, as every person reacts a bit differently.  But in general, people match up well for Suboxone induction if they are taking about 60-80 mg of oxycodone equivalents per day.  Someone on that amount of agonist, who waits over 12 hours, will generally do well at induction, unless the person has been taking methadone.  In that case, a longer waiting period is beneficial.  How long?  As long as possible, and at least a few days.  Even so, the transition from methadone to buprenorphine is difficult, often causing headaches or minor withdrawal symptoms for several days.  The best response to precipitated withdrawal is to take the prescribed dose of Suboxone/buprenorphine each day, without trying to overcome the symptoms by taking more of an agonist or extra Suboxone.  Doing so only lengthens the period of withdrawal, and considerably increases the risk of death.

If a person is taking a very low dose of an agonist, or taking a weak agonist like hydrocodone, the problem at induction isn’t withdrawal, but rather opioid intoxication, causing respiratory depression and nausea.  Nausea during induction is much more likely to signify relative overdose, NOT withdrawal.  Patients who have nausea and vomiting from buprenorphine or Suboxone should NEVER take a second respiratory depressant or sedative!  When in doubt differentiating between withdrawal and opioid intoxication, the pupils are a good guide.  Withdrawal comes with LARGE pupils.

If a person is taking a very high dose of agonist each day– over 150 mg of oxycodone or methadone, for example— that dose should be tapered down over time, to the equivalent of 40 mg of methadone per day.  Unfortunately, some people cannot carry out or tolerate such a taper.  In those cases, it may be better to have the person in a controlled environment, and wait as long as possible before induction.  Even if tolerance is very high, a person will often do well if off opioids completely for 4-5 days or more.  Of course, that’s easier said than done!

There is a cap on the number of patients that doctors can treat for addiction using buprenorphine.  Doctors can have up to 30 patients at first, and can petition the DEA to increase to 100 patients after a year.  It is frustrating to keep people who are desperate for help on a waiting list— especially when there is no limit on the number of pain patients that a doctor can treat using opioid agonists!

Suboxone relieves withdrawal symptoms when taken properly.  But the main function of buprenorphine/Suboxone is to eliminate the obsession to take opioids, and to allow patients to move forward in life without substances.  People do best if besides Suboxone, they focus on other principles of recovery, determined with their physician or with a counselor.  The point of Suboxone, in my opinion, is to learn to tolerate ‘life on life’s terms.’  That includes dosing at most twice per day, and learning to say ‘no’ to the minor cravings that most people have, even on Suboxone.

I’m glad you are looking for help– and I wish you the best!

Avoiding Precipitated Withdrawal

I received the following question earlier today:

Hello Dr. Junig, I am opiate dependent or rather an opiate addict. I want to seek treatment because I can’t continue this life style. I have questions about treatment. Do I have to be in full withdrawals when I go to see a doctor? Is it true that most doctors probably won’t see me because they have too many patients already? I know Suboxone works for my withdrawals. I’ve stuck in this rollercoaster for at least four years and now I know it’s time for me to seek help.

My thoughts:

My comments, as always, are intended to increase general knowledge about buprenorphine and to promote discussion between patients and their doctors.  They are not intended to take the place of a relationship with a ‘real’ doctor!

The appropriate waiting period before starting Suboxone– ‘induction’– depends on the person’s opioid tolerance, and on the specific opioid that the person has been taking.  An opioid-free delay before induction reduces the amount of opioid agonist bound to the receptor, and lowers tolerance to some extent.  Starting Suboxone or buprenorphine is likely to cause precipitated withdrawal when either 1. There is agonist binding at the mu receptor, or 2. There is very high opioid tolerance.

It is hard to give exact guidelines, as every person reacts a bit differently.  But in general, people match up well for Suboxone induction if they are taking about 60-80 mg of oxycodone equivalents per day.  Someone on that amount of agonist, who waits over 12 hours, will generally do well at induction, unless the person has been taking methadone.  In that case, a longer waiting period is beneficial.  How long?  As long as possible, and at least a few days.  Even so, the transition from methadone to buprenorphine is difficult, often causing headaches or minor withdrawal symptoms for several days.  The best response to precipitated withdrawal is to take the prescribed dose of Suboxone/buprenorphine each day, without trying to overcome the symptoms by taking more of an agonist or extra Suboxone.  Doing so only lengthens the period of withdrawal, and considerably increases the risk of death.

If a person is taking a very low dose of an agonist, or taking a weak agonist like hydrocodone, the problem at induction isn’t withdrawal, but rather opioid intoxication, causing respiratory depression and nausea.  Nausea during induction is much more likely to signify relative overdose, NOT withdrawal.  Patients who have nausea and vomiting from buprenorphine or Suboxone should NEVER take a second respiratory depressant or sedative!  When in doubt differentiating between withdrawal and opioid intoxication, the pupils are a good guide.  Withdrawal comes with LARGE pupils.

If a person is taking a very high dose of agonist each day– over 150 mg of oxycodone or methadone, for example— that dose should be tapered down over time, to the equivalent of 40 mg of methadone per day.  Unfortunately, some people cannot carry out or tolerate such a taper.  In those cases, it may be better to have the person in a controlled environment, and wait as long as possible before induction.  Even if tolerance is very high, a person will often do well if off opioids completely for 4-5 days or more.  Of course, that’s easier said than done!

There is a cap on the number of patients that doctors can treat for addiction using buprenorphine.  Doctors can have up to 30 patients at first, and can petition the DEA to increase to 100 patients after a year.  It is frustrating to keep people who are desperate for help on a waiting list— especially when there is no limit on the number of pain patients that a doctor can treat using opioid agonists!

Suboxone relieves withdrawal symptoms when taken properly.  But the main function of buprenorphine/Suboxone is to eliminate the obsession to take opioids, and to allow patients to move forward in life without substances.  People do best if besides Suboxone, they focus on other principles of recovery, determined with their physician or with a counselor.  The point of Suboxone, in my opinion, is to learn to tolerate ‘life on life’s terms.’  That includes dosing at most twice per day, and learning to say ‘no’ to the minor cravings that most people have, even on Suboxone.

I’m glad you are looking for help– and I wish you the best!