I have written about this topic multiple times, but perhaps a summary is appropriate. More and more evidence and clinical experience suggest that buprenorphine is best considered a long-term ‘remission agent’ for opioid dependence. Such a conclusion would have been obvious years ago if not for the hesitancy to do what has been suggested by addictionologists for decades, and treat opioid dependence as a DISEASE. While many people pay lip service to addiction being a chronic illness, the reluctance, particularly by AODA counselors, to fully accept a medication for the condition is clear evidence of the stigma that continues to force addiction into the realm of ‘character.’ AODA counselors would do well to do some serious soul-searching on this issue– at least in my opinion.
While remission therapy with buprenorphine will likely become the standard treatment for opioid dependence, there will be some cases where tapering off buprenorphine is appropriate. The problem in such cases is that the taper process causes withdrawal, which stirs up all of the self-disgust, fear, and shame that predispose an addict toward relapse. As I have discussed, a long-term injectable formulation (such as Probuphine, currently in the FDA approval process) would be useful for tapering off buprenorphine. The final piece of the equation would be effective treatments for opioid withdrawal.
A number of medications are rumored to help reduce the symptoms of opioid withdrawal. I’ll mention a few of the medications that I have used to treat withdrawal, or that I have read about in scientific studies or case reports.
- Clonidine is the ‘standby’ agent for treating opioid withdrawal. The medication reduces CNS excitation by effects at alpha-2 adrenergic receptors, causing less release of epinephrine and norepinephrine by central and peripheral nerve terminals. Symptoms of withdrawal are reduced by about a third, and the primary side effect is sedation.
- Some medications target specific components of withdrawal; Imodium (generic name loperamide) reduces bowel cramping and diarrhea; benzodiazepines reduce anxiety (but are themselves addictive); ibuprofen and acetaminophen reduce muscle aches and headache; stimulants or wellbutrin reduce fatigue (perhaps for severe symptoms, but use of stimulants would be considered controversial at best).
- Proglumide is an antagonist of two classes of receptors for a gastro-intestinal hormone called ‘cholecystokinin’, or CCK. Proglumide used to be used in the US and elsewhere to treat gastric ulcers, before more effective medications like histamine blockers were developed (e.g. cimetadine). There are a number of chemicals structurally related to proglumide that have similar actions, that include enhancing analgesia caused by opioids, treating Parkinsons disease, and enhancing the release of growth hormone. Proglumide appears to ‘reset’ tolerance to opioids in people who are physically dependent, and also to reduce symptoms of withdrawal. Proglumide appears to have dropped of the face of the planet; if you search for the medication you will find it available in chemical supply houses in China, but not available through pharmaceutical companies. I recently received contact from a person claiming that proglumide is available through a company based in Pakistan, but I have not yet verified the information. Stay tuned.
- I recently came across an article with some fairly convincing evidence that symptoms of withdrawal are reduced by the anti-anxiety medication buspirone. A study found that self-reported withdrawal symptoms of opioid addicts were greatly reduced by treatment with buspirone, which is a pretty safe, inexpensive medication that is not itself addictive.
- Ondantreson is an anti-nausea medication used during chemotherapy and surgery. I have seen several studies demonstrating a reduction in opioid withdrawal from the medication, which like buspirone is fairly safe and is not addictive. Ondantreson is, however, more costly.
I have treated patients in withdrawal using gabapentin, specifically to reduce sweating and hot flashes. I do not know if it works, or if the people who liked it were getting a placebo response. I have not seen reports in the literature showing this benefit.
- I have mentioned the recent approval of transdermal buprenorphine, called ‘BuTrans.’ This formulation provides a lower range of doses of buprenorphine, in the tens to hundreds of micrograms (one tablet of Suboxone contains 8000 micrograms of buprenorphine). This lower dosed formulation may find usage for tapering.
Do you have other suggestions for treating opioid withdrawal? If so, please share them in the comments below or over at SuboxForum . Of course, these medications must NOT be taken ‘on the street,’ but rather should be discussed with your physician if and when the time comes to taper off buprenorphine.