Why Opioid Maintenance Does Not Replace One Addiction with Another

Opioid addiction has been declared a national epidemic in America. President Obama called for $1.1 billion in new funding for opioid addiction treatment and research early in 2016.

Opioids are drugs that relieve physical and emotional pain. Opioids include opiates, which is an older term for drugs derived from opium, such as morphine. Common opioids include prescription painkillers such as OxyContin, hydrocodone, Percocet, methadone and Vicodin, as well as drugs like morphine and heroin. Opioids cause a rush of dopamine in the brain, conditioning the brain over time and altering pathways dealing with pleasure, memory, learning, and decision-making.

With continued use, the human body develops tolerance to opioids, which means the body no longer responds to the drugs unless the dose is increased. A person with a highly developed opioid tolerance may take doses to get high that would be lethal for a person without an opioid tolerance.

Unfortunately, people taking opioids illicitly may have an irregular supply, causing their tolerance to fluctuate. Illegal opioids are also of variable potency, and may be laced with stronger, faster-acting opioids like fentanyl. The combination of fluctuating tolerance and unpredictable potency creates a dangerous situation for people using illicit opioids. For example, someone using heroin whose tolerance has dropped may inject what they think is a manageable dose of heroin, not knowing it is laced with fentanyl; the added potency and reduced tolerance could cause an overdose, and this person could be at risk of dying.

Since 2000, opioid overdose deaths in the U.S. have increased 200%.

A nuanced discussion rather than a black-and-white debate

Some discussions about opioid maintenance involve black-and-white/good-or-bad thinking. Let’s explore the nuances of how opioid maintenance works for people with opioid addictions.

Why Opioid Maintenance Treatments Are the Best We Have

The opioid epidemic is alarming especially because so many people with families, dreams, and skills – like anyone else – are affected. People with opioid addictions are taxpayers and citizens of many races, religions, and backgrounds; they are people and they are valuable. How can we prevent them from dying?

Addiction is defined by NIDA as a chronic, relapsing brain disease characterized by repeated behavior despite negative consequences. Relapse rates for addiction are comparable to other chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and hypertension.

Given that relapse is likely and given that reduced tolerance is a primary risk factor for fatal overdose, it follows that maintaining tolerance would reduce overdose deaths. Sure enough, scientific research on opioid maintenance shows that stable doses of full or partial opioid agonists (drugs that completely or partially activate opioid receptors) maintain tolerance and reduce risk of death if a relapse occurs.

“If we really want to stop the overdose epidemic, we need to get serious about providing the only treatment known to reduce the death rate by 50 percent to 70 percent or more: indefinite, potentially lifelong, maintenance on a legal opioid drug like methadone or buprenorphine. The data on maintenance is clear. If you increase access to it, deathcrime and infectious disease drop; if you cut it short, all of those harms rise.”
– Maia Szalavitz, The public scorns the addiction treatment Prince was going to try. They shouldn’t.

How Opioid Maintenance Works

“The principle behind MAT is this: Because opioid addiction permanently alters the brain receptors, taking the drug completely out of someone’s system can leave them less able to naturally cope with physical or emotional stress…”
– Maia Szalavitz

Two drugs are supported by scientific evidence as effective opioid maintenance treatments: buprenorphine, and methadone. A continuous, prescribed dose of either buprenorphine or methadone prevents people from experiencing withdrawals, stabilizes them in recovery, and reduces risk of fatal overdose. These medications do this by maintaining tolerance to opioids. People who are in opioid maintenance programs are not high when they take doses as prescribed (also because of tolerance), and are quite capable of driving a vehicle, going to work, providing childcare, and otherwise living life. Pregnant women who are addicted to opioids are advised to take buprenorphine (Subutex) to stabilize themselves and their babies until delivery.

Buprenorphine

Buprenorphine is a partial opioid agonist, which means that it binds to opioid receptors in the brain with only partial efficacy compared to full agonists (like morphine, oxycodone, and fentanyl). Effects of buprenorphine also have a ceiling dose, beyond which higher doses have no effect. This ceiling effect also means overdose from buprenorphine is less likely. Buprenorphine also affects the mμ receptor, which reduces the effects of additional opioid use.

Because it is safer than methadone, buprenorphine can be prescribed by physicians as pills or sublingual films, often under the brand names Suboxone or Subutex. Subutex is buprenorphine alone, while Suboxone also contains naloxone, an opioid antagonist. Suboxone was created to discourage misuse. When Suboxone is taken orally as directed, the opioid partial-agonist effects of buprenorphine predominate. If Suboxone is injected, however, the naloxone blocks opioid receptors and prevents the person from getting high. In an opioid dependent individual, the naloxone precipitates withdrawal effects.

Methadone

Methadone is a full opioid agonist, and does not have ceiling effects like buprenorphine. For this reason, it is considered to have higher misuse potential and is only administered by SAMHSA-certified opioid treatment programs, usually methadone clinics. However, a 2014 Cochrane review of studies comparing methadone and buprenorphine determined that people are less likely to drop out of methadone programs.

Given the complexity of addiction, and the complexity of factors uniquely affecting each person, individuals with addiction need individualized treatment. Only the individual, in consultation with one or more physicians well-educated in opioid use disorder and its treatment, may decide.

“Extensive literature and systematic reviews show that maintenance treatment with either methadone or buprenorphine is associated with retention in treatment, reduction in illicit opiate use, decreased craving, and improved social function. … Further work is needed to directly compare each medication and determine individual factors that can assist in medication selection. Until such time, selection of medication should be based on informed choice following a discussion of outcomes, risks, and benefits of each medication.
Dr. Gavin Bart, 2012 (Emphasis added)

How Opioid Maintenance Treatments Discourage Misuse

Just as it is impossible to eliminate all supplies of illegal drugs, law enforcement and treatment providers cannot wholly prevent diversion and misuse of buprenorphine or methadone. In fact, in trying to reduce misuse of buprenorphine, authorities have restricted access to buprenorphine maintenance treatment, limiting the number of buprenorphine patients a doctor can treat at any one time.

Still, treatment providers, pharmaceutical manufacturers, legislators, and law enforcement continue to try to limit the potential negative impacts of opioid maintenance treatments. Methadone, for example, is only given in take-home doses if patients can provide drug-free urine for several months.

However, because Suboxone can be diverted to people who were not prescribed the medication, it can still be misused. People who do not have a tolerance for opioids can still get high on Suboxone, up to the ceiling effect. Arguably, it’s a safer high than heroin because it is less likely to cause fatal overdose, but it’s still an illegal high.

In this case, as citizens, we have to weigh the risks of the diversion of partial agonist, buprenorphine, with full agonists like heroin, morphine, fentanyl, and oxycodone. If the goal is to reduce overdose deaths and crime associated with the opioid epidemic, buprenorphine will remain an important tool despite diversion.

Why People Dependent on Drugs Are Not Addicted

People taking medicine for depression, diabetes, and many other chronic illnesses become physically, literally dependent on their drugs to stay healthy. In most of these cases, however, these people are not addicted to their medicines. Even chronic pain patients, who become physically dependent on their painkillers and suffer withdrawals without them, typically do not develop addiction – only 8-12% of chronic pain patients become addicted to pain medication.

Dependence and addiction are very different, and understanding this may sometimes make the difference between life and death. Addiction is defined by persisting in a behavior despite negative consequences. People who are only dependent on a drug suffer withdrawals, and are then free to continue their lives – they do not go looking for more of the drug or persist despite negative consequences. People who are dependent and addicted, however, will continue to seek the drug even after withdrawals are over.

In the case of opioid addiction, people are still at risk for relapse after withdrawals are through, and may die from a relapse if their tolerance drops. To treat opioid addiction, rather than only opioid dependence, opioid maintenance treatment – recommended by the World Health Organization, the Office of National Drug Control Policy, and others to be continued indefinitely, perhaps life-long – is necessary to keep people stable and to prevent fatal overdoses.

How Opioid Maintenance Disrupts Addiction Patterns

Addiction happens when people at risk due to trauma history, mental illness and other factors take a drug which they are predisposed to experience as extraordinarily rewarding. In the brain, when a person has an exciting new experience, the reward system responds with a release of dopamine and other neurotransmitters telling us it’s something we want to do again. Certain drugs are more likely to cause a magnified reward response in the brain, releasing far more dopamine than ordinary experiences.

The reward system helps people to learn which experiences are good and which are bad. Because some people biologically experience some drugs as more rewarding than anything else, they learn to associate the drug, and any cues relating to its use (paraphernalia, locations, people, symbols) with immense reward. Their brains begin to respond to the cues, more even than the drug itself, which reinforces use.

Opioid maintenance does not involve the cues to which people with opioid addictions respond. Commuting to a methadone clinic is very different from shooting up heroin. Receiving one dose of Suboxone from a designated family member is very different from self-administering indefinite pills. The “people, places, and things” associated with use are changed when a person enters opioid maintenance. Opioid maintenance treatment helps keep neurocognitive cravings and physiological withdrawals at bay while the person rebuilds his or her life to remove cues for use.

In this way, opioid maintenance disrupts the addiction pattern of cue > pursuit of drug > use. Essentially, opioid maintenance attempts to replace an addiction with simpler dependence, rather than with another addiction. The difference between physical dependence and addiction is crucial to understanding why opioid maintenance does not replace one addiction with another.

How Opioid Maintenance Supports Healthy Recovery

At this point, it may seem overly simple to say that because opioid maintenance prevents people from dying, it supports lives in recovery. Still, this is a key truth. Beyond keeping people alive, opioid maintenance allows people to find enough stability to build new lives in recovery.

Many people believe that a person must abstain completely from all drugs in order to truly be in recovery. However, if a person in recovery from addiction needed medical treatment for diabetes and were prescribed insulin, that person would certainly not be expected to abstain from insulin for the ideal of abstinence. Nor would a person refuse needed antibiotics on the principle that they must not take any drugs if they are to be in recovery. Opioid maintenance is no different from these examples of medication for medical necessity.

A person in opioid maintenance treatment is not high. The steady dose of a partial or full-agonist opioid basically establishes a “new normal” biologically – biochemically – without which normalcy is disrupted. A person with depression who benefits from an anti-depressant is said to have a chemical imbalance, which is stabilized by the anti-depressant. Similarly, a person with an opioid addiction has a chemical imbalance from chronic opioid use, and may be unstable without some level of continued opioid administration.

People in recovery from opioid addictions will still need to do everything a healthy person must do to survive and succeed, such as keep a job, pay bills, provide child, pet, or elder care, or maintain a household. In order to be stable enough to manage all of these challenges and the attendant stress, people in recovery from opioid addictions need access to opioid maintenance.

To Sum it Up

  • People with opioid addictions are at risk of dying. As health professionals, concerned citizens, or families and friends, we owe it to people with opioid addictions to do what we can to prevent this.
  • Buprenorphine/methadone maintenance is the only evidence-based treatment that reduces death risk by 50%. To prescribe other treatments without considering maintenance is, frankly, malpractice.
  • People are not high when taking buprenorphine or methadone as prescribed. Opioids produce tolerance in the human body, such that consistent doses no longer make the person high.
  • Opioid maintenance treatments include measures to prevent or discourage misuse. Buprenorphine, as a partial agonist, has a “ceiling” dose, beyond which further amounts have no effect. Suboxone discourages injection misuse by the action of naloxone, which precipitates withdrawal symptoms in opioid dependent individuals. Methadone is primarily delivered in controlled, daily doses in a clinical setting.
  • Addiction is different from dependence. Addiction involves a learned behavior that continues despite negative consequences. Dependence is only the body’s physical adjustment to a drug, and can happen without addiction. Unlike addiction, dependence does not involve persisting in use despite negative consequences.
  • Maintenance disrupts addiction because doses are not rewarding and are not associated with addiction cues. People in opioid maintenance programs are receiving their stable doses of methadone or buprenorphine under very different circumstances than their usual addiction-related rituals. By disrupting the patterns of addiction and providing doses that are not rewarding (do not get the person high), maintenance maintains tolerance and dependence without maintaining or creating addiction.
  • Indefinite maintenance allows people to focus on improving their lives in recovery. Opioid maintenance treatments allow people to lead lives in recovery without worrying about coping with withdrawal symptoms or risking fatal overdose. In the event of a relapse, people can focus on learning which cues to avoid next time – how to prevent another relapse – rather than recovering from a severe overdose or dying.

Further reading:

Why We Have Wait Lists for Opioid Addiction Treatment

What the Opioid Epidemic Means in Virginia

How Ithaca, NY is Addressing America’s Opioid Epidemic

Addiction or Dependence: A Life and Death Difference

How to Talk with Someone About Getting Help with Addiction

This post was last updated on 10/27/16.

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