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.
“Buprenorphine acts similar to opioid agonists in lower doses, with the same addictive potential as oxycodone or heroin. In higher doses—doses above 8 mg or 8000 micrograms per day—the ‘ceiling effect’ eliminates interest and cravings for the drug.”
I’m not sure I followed this. Can you explain more? What would you think about someone who is taking 1-2mg of Suboxone twice a day without a prescription, and says they want to stay on that dose once they find a prescriber? Are they better off on 8mg or more per day, or would it be ok for a prescriber to keep them at the lower dose? Is the answer the same if they hope to taper off the medication completely within a year (they don’t feel able to do this on their own right now, but hope to be able to when some life circumstances change). Thanks!
This gets a bit complicated, but I’ll do my best. A couple background issues; buprenorphine has a ‘ceiling’ to its effect, meaning that beyond a certain dose, increases in dose do not cause greater opioid effect. That is the mechanism for how buprenorphine blocks cravings.