BLOG: MAT, Part 2

MAT––Medication Assisted Treatment. Dr. Hillary Kunins, a clinical addiction expert, dispels the notion that treating an addiction patient with medication is simply exchanging one drug with another. Here is a link for a 2 min video where Dr Kunins offers a simple explanation of why physical dependence is not the same as addiction.

Here are the drugs that are currently in use for opioid addiction. Methadone has historically been used for heroin addiction, since the early 1970’s, when it was authorized by the FDA but restricted to daily dispensing clinics. Because it is an opioid-like drug, it has tended to only keep addicts alive, but never really able to be drug-free.

Nearly a half-century ago, buprenorphine was developed in England, where chemists were competing to invent a less addictive painkiller than morphine––it turned out to be far more addictive. It is now sold as Subutex and is an opioid partial agonist. An agonist is a chemical that binds to a receptor and activates it, producing a biological response. Like heroin, buprenorphine attaches to the brain’s opioid receptors creating euphoria, but it does not plug in as completely, so its effects are reduced. It is slower acting and longer lasting, attenuating the rush of sensation and eliminating the plummets afterward. But there is still potential for abuse and it can produce side effects such as respiratory depression.

Naloxone (Narcan, Evzio, injectable or intranasal spray) was patented in 1961, and is an opioid antagonist—meaning that it binds to opioid receptors and can reverse and block the effects of other opioids by displacing them from the opioid receptor sites in the brain.Whereas an agonist causes an action, an antagonist blocks the action of the agonist. It has been used in hospital “code arrest” emergency situations for decades. It was used on me before a surgery when I had been given too much anesthesia and was beginning to go in to respiratory arrest. It is being carried by emergency personnel and families of addicts because it can very quickly restore normal respiration to a person whose breathing has slowed or stopped as a result of overdosing with heroin or prescription opioid pain medications.

Naltrexone (Vivitrol, monthly injection) is an opiate antagonist that is more slowly released than naloxone. It is primarily used to manage opioid dependence or alcohol dependence and abuse by blocking neural pathways to the brain for dopamine neurotransmitters. It requires going through complete withdrawals and detoxification first because it will not work until opioids are out of the system. People who try to take opioids after taking naltrexone are at risk for opioid overdose and death since it takes using large amount of opioids to overcome its effects.

Suboxone––four parts buprenorphine, one part naloxone––was approved by the FDA in late 2002. Generally, although not accurate, when the word “buprenorphine” is used, people are referring to Suboxone. In addition to side effects from the buprenorphine in Suboxone, if a person has been taking it for a long time and they no longer receive it, they will suffer withdrawal symptoms similar to those suffered when stopping other forms of opiates. And, suffering from these withdrawal symptoms can worsen underlying mental disorders like anxiety or depression. At times, withdrawal can become overwhelming, which happened to jL, which sends patients into buprenorphine abuse and dependency. This has created a debate over the use of Suboxone and Subutex for addiction treatment.

A new study in The Lancet (January 27, 2018), sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), compared the effectiveness of extended-release naltrexone with buprenorphine-naloxone in the US. The results were both promising and disappointing. While naltrexone is as effective as buprenorphine-naloxone once treatment begins, it is also significantly more difficult to actually start naltrexone because of the prolonged detox period—which can span more than a week—that buprenorphine-naloxone does not.

The biggest regret we have had since our son’s death in 2014 is that we did not take his doctors advice and have John Leif on Suboxone. There were many reasons that went into this decision, but the main one was that our health insurance did not pay the costs for any “mental health” coverage. Since we had so many years of our son’s relapses and recovery expenses, we decided to let him just “try harder” with the 12-steps and a sober living house. Sadly, it was not enough for a young man who desperately wanted to be clean and free of his enslaving addiction––he need MAT and we believe he would be alive today if he had been given that option.

Finding Help Thru The Maze

My husband and I just returned from a wonder-full vacation in Europe. We felt privileged and blessed in every way. Although we were enjoying our new experiences together, our son’s death from a heroin overdose was never far below the surface. We carry a lingering pain, knowing that although we tried our best to help our son, the three of us could never seem to find our way through the maze of dead ends and wrong turns for the right treatment for his increasing dependence on the substance that would eventually take his life.

While we were in the Netherlands, my husband, a pharmaceutical scientist, was contacted by a client and asked to analyze data from a drug study that was being conducted 15 minutes away from where we were. The human study, in those with opioid addiction and the control group without, is searching for a better medical approach to help addicts when they want to become clean and sober.

Half a world away from home we were reminded of people struggling with opioid addiction. And half a world away, there is still shame and stigma attached to being an addict, and there are parents, families, and friends living with the pain of watching someone they love not actually living life but hanging on from day to day, never knowing when their loved one will be another statistic in the world-wide epidemic in which there are few viable options for help.

The ongoing opioid crisis has drawn attention to the widening gap between the high need and limited access to substance use treatment in the United States. A recent Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration report found that of 21.7 million Americans in need of substance use disorder treatment, only 2.35 million received treatment at a specialty facility. This led to a new study recently published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine, where several researchers and physicians searched for the predominant barriers for addicts receiving treatment (https://scienmag.com/study-looks-at-barriers-to-getting-treatment-for-substance-use-disorders).

Four broad themes were identified:
Patient Eligibility – Difficulties in determining patient eligibility for a particular and appropriate treatment center.
Treatment Capacity – Even if a patient is eligible, providers have trouble finding out whether space is available.
Knowledge of Treatment Options – Health care providers may not understand the levels of available and appropriate care for substance use treatment.
Communication – Difficulties in communication between referring providers and treatment facilities contribute to delays to starting treatment. The need for direct referral – “from the emergency department to a bed” – is particularly high for patients with opioid use disorders.

“Access to substance use disorder treatment is often a maze that can be difficult to navigate for both providers and patients,” Dr. Blevins and coauthors write. Yes, and it was even more so for those of us who found our teenager using heroin in the early 2000’s. No one was talking, our doctors had no experience with opioid addiction, treatment options were extremely hard to find and expensive, and for many of us, not covered by insurance.

For those of us who tried so hard to maneuver our way through the maze, we continue to live with the pain from feeling that we failed our son in a million different ways, while we tried so hard to get it right. May our being open about our experiences help those of you still living a tension-filled life find the answers you need to get you through the maze quickly so there may be a different outcome for you or your loved one.

Access to Medications for Addiction?

In a conversation with a friend, she felt that drug addiction was basically related to poor choices and that recovery was also just a matter of choosing to stop. I guess at the core of it, she is right. An addict needs to decide they want to stop – but then what? Do they just exert will power, go through withdrawals and possibly a 12-step program, then all is well?

Sadly, this simplistic approach will not work for most opiate addicts. The physical changes that have taken place in the brain that cause the addiction need time – and lots of it – to even partially regenerate. The Ohio Society of Addiction Medicine recently posted this (https://ohsam.org/2018/01/12):

“Studies…have found that opioid addiction medications in general cut all-cause mortality among opioid addiction patients by half or more. The CDC, National Institute on Drug Abuse, and World Health Organization acknowledge their medical value.”

The blog continues to discuss the lack of access that the majority of addicts in America have to the three medicines that specifically treat opioid addiction and some of the reasons for it:

“A major reason for that is stigma. These medications are often characterized as ‘replacing one drug with another’…This fundamentally misunderstands how (opioid) addiction works. The problem is not drug use per se; most Americans, after all, use caffeine, alcohol, and medications without major problems. The problem is when drug use becomes a personal or social burden — risk of overdose or leading someone to commit crimes to obtain drugs.  Medications for opioid addiction, by staving opioid withdrawal and cravings without leading to a significant risk of overdose, mitigate or outright eliminate those problems — treating the core concerns with addiction.”

Then there is the issue of large segments of the country without doctors who can prescribe buprenorphine/naloxone due to licensing limits – and the costs for patients.

“In a 2016 report by the surgeon general, just 10 percent of Americans with a drug use disorder obtain specialty treatment…attributing the low rate to severe shortages in the supply of care, with some areas of the country lacking affordable options for any treatment — which can lead to waiting periods of weeks or even months.” By then, it is too late for many addicts seeking help.

“Another reason for the treatment gap is a lack of federal attention…the Cures Act committed $1 billion over two years…woefully short of the tens of billions annually that experts argue is necessary to deal with the opioid epidemic…the total economic burden of prescription opioid overdose, misuse, and addiction of $78.5 billion in 2013, about a third of which was due to higher health care and addiction treatment costs.”

I can say that our son desperately wanted to be free of his addiction that started when he was too young to realize the ball and chain that would drag him down and keep him from his hopes and dreams – and eventually take his life. Thankfully, he did have access to some medical help. Incredibly, even after so many relapses, his father and I felt he could beat his addiction without medication – if he just worked harder. We were sadly mistaken.