Response to the June 2017 New Yorker Article on the Opioid Epidemic

At this point, I would think that knowledge about the vastness and seriousness of the prescription opioid and heroin epidemic, the biggest threat to American health and well being since the HIV/AIDS epidemic, would be common knowledge. Of course, given the abundance of shiny Internet things to tantalize easily distracted Americans, this is unfortunately not necessarily the case. Thankfully the New Yorker, with their characteristic excellence in reporting, has just released a superb and humanizing article on the opioid epidemic in their June 5 & 12, 2017 issue.

Read the article here.

The piece puts a much-needed human face to the horrors and misery of opioid addiction and the too-frequent death by overdose. Margaret Talbot, the article’s author, zeroes in on Berkeley County, West Virginia, in the heart of a region of the country hardest hit by the epidemic. I don’t want to give away much (because you should actually just read the article) except that the stories are heart wrenching yet balanced, and thorough in way that only the New Yorker can deliver. While the article is largely about the lives of people affected by and fighting against the epidemic, I was disappointed with a couple of points that were either made incorrectly, weakly, or not at all.

First, the article barely talks about how the epidemic arose in the first place. It mentions Purdue pharmaceuticals, the bastards behind Oxycontin (drug name: oxycodone), and that prescription opioid abuse led to heroin addiction but does not describe how the surge in addiction to prescription opioids occurred in the first place. The article describes the main problem with Oxycontin is that it can be crushed and snorted but a 2010 formulation of the drug reduced this risk. While this is indeed true, the article neglects to mention that when someone is first prescribed an opioid like Oxycontin for chronic pain (as was the case in the late 90s and early 2000s despite any evidence for the effectiveness of opioids in the treatment of chronic pain), the addictive potential of opioids often led to opioid substance abuse disorder in people who took it as prescribed (see this comprehensive article for more info). This is the big point, many of the people that eventually abused opioids started down that road by taking the drug as prescribed! Talbot incorrectly frames the big picture problem but she then goes on to correctly describe how those addicted to prescription opioids found their way to the cheaper and more abundant heroin.

The article goes on to mention the CDC’s release of guidelines on opioid prescription but fails to cite that this guidance came out as late as March, 2016, well after the epidemic had already taken root and thousands were already addicted and dying of overdose (I wrote an article on the CDC’s guidelines last year and highly recommend you read that article too if you want to learn more). The CDC’s guidance is mainly about the point I made above, that the over-prescription of opioids is the real cause of the epidemic, not just the crushable version of Oxycontin, and the limitation of opioid prescription is one of the huge policy interventions that is needed.

Later in the article, Talbot introduces us to Dr. John Aldis, a retired U.S. Navy Physician and resident of Berkeley County, WV who took it upon himself to educate people on how to use Narcan (generic drug name: naloxone), the treatment for opioid overdose. Dr. Aldis makes the critical point about the importance of medication-assisted treatments such as Suboxone (generic drug name: buprenorphine) and methadone. I appreciated the point made in the article that some patients may need these vital treatments long-term, or even for life, to combat the all-consuming single-mindedness of opioid addiction. However, beyond this passing mention, I felt that medication-assisted treatment was only weakly covered. There is still a great deal of ignorance about these treatments. Indeed, current HHS secretary Tom Price falsely characterized them as “replacing one opioid with another” and was majorly criticized by addiction experts. The reality is that there is overwhelming scientific evidence (I’ve written plenty on this site) describing the effectiveness of methadone and buprenorphine at 1) keeping addicts off of heroin, 2) allowing them to be able to live their lives without suffering from withdrawals and cravings, and 3) most importantly, keeping them alive. Talbot could have done a much better job of really hammering these points home but she seemed reticent, for some reason, to discuss it in detail in this article.

Finally, the article repeatedly emphasizes the importance of rehab clinics and tells the story of a huge victory for Martinsburg, WV (a town in Berkeley County) when the city council agrees to open a clinic in the town itself. I do not want to discount the importance of an addict assessing their addiction and taking an active role to end it, but this article does miss another critical point: rehab clinics only exist because addiction medicine is not part of medical school curricula and most hospitals are ill-equipped to treat those suffering from addiction. I feel this article could have really made the case for the importance of training for doctors in addiction medicine and the necessary shift that needs to happen for addiction treatment, a move away from overpriced (and often ineffective) private rehab facilities, and to public hospitals. Unfortunately, this point was not made.

Despite these missed opportunities, I commend Talbot and the New Yorker for a well-written article and thank them for this important piece that I encourage all to read.

 

5 Facts on the Opioid Epidemic: National Drug and Alcohol Facts Week

Spilled prescription medication --- Image by © Mark Weiss/Corbis
Spilled prescription medication — Image by © Mark Weiss/Corbis

Well, I’m a little late to the punch on this one but National Drug and Alcohol Facts week has been going and ends tonight. This public awareness campaign is now in it’s seventh year and is all about shattering the myths about addiction.ndafw_logoI might as well throw my belated hat in the ring and share 5 facts about the opioid epidemic.

Fact #1: The opioid epidemic in the U.S. has hit all demographic groups, regardless of race, gender, age, location, or socioeconomic status.

Fact #2: Prescription opioid pain medications like oxycodone can be just as addictive as heroin, even if taken as prescribed.

Fact #3: There is no scientific evidence that prescription opioids are effective at managing chronic pain; they are extremely effect for short-term, acute pain.

Naloxone_(1)Fact #4: Naloxone is a drug that counters the effects of opioids and can immediately reverse an overdose; you cannot get addicted to naloxone.

Fact #5: Buprenorphine and methadone are opioids that can help a person to fight their heroin addiction by satisfying their craving for the drug.

To learn more, here’s a short “Best of” from Dr. Simon Says Science on the Opioid Epidemic. Check out the posts below for oodles of info on opioids.

  1. What is naloxone? Should it be available over the counter?
  2. The CDC Fights Back Against the Opioid Epidemic
  3. Is Methadone an Effective Treatment for Heroin Addiction? YES!
  4. Morphine and Oxycodone Affect the Brain Differently
  5. Important: CDC Releases Report on Heroin Epidemic
  6. Methadone Maintenance Therapy Works-End of Story
  7. Paper Review-Initiation into Injection Drug Use and Prescription Opioids
  8. New Review Paper-The Prescription Opioid and Heroin Epidemic

 

The CDC Fights Back Against the Opioid Epidemic

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The CDC has released important information on dealing with the prescription opioid pain medication and heroin epidemic. Opioids are a class of drugs that include pain medications such as morphine, oxycodone, hydrocodone, methadone, fentanyl and others and the illegal drug heroin. I’ve spoken a great deal about this problem in various other posts (see here here here and especially here and here). Just to summarize some of most disturbing trends: the US is experiencing a surge in deaths due to overdose on opioids (overdoses/year due to opioids are now greater than fatalities from car crashes), virtually all demographics (age groups, income levels, gender, race) are affected, and many people addicted to opioid pain pills transition to heroin and as such, a huge increase in heroin abuse is also occurring; teenagers and adolescents are especially hard hit. The CDC’s report, released on Friday, March 18 provides a thorough review of the clinical evidence around prescription opioid pain medications and makes 12 recommendations to help control the over-prescription of these powerful drugs in attempt to reduce the amount of overdose deaths and addiction.

Read the full report.

I finally got around to reading the whole thing and am happy to summarize its main analyses and findings. While the report is intended for primary health care providers and clinicians, the report’s findings are important for anyone suffering from short or long-term pain and the risks vs benefits posed by opioids.

But before I dive into the meat of the report, I wanted to clarify an important issue about addiction to prescription opioids. A false narrative exists that those suffering from addiction are “drug seekers” and it is this group of people that is duping doctors in prescribing them too many opioids while good patients that take opioids as directed are not over dosing or becoming addicted. It’s important to remember that opioids are so powerful anyone that takes them runs the risk of overdosing or becoming addicted after repeated use. Most people suffering from addiction and overdoses during the current prescription opioid epidemic are people that used opioids medically and not for recreation. This is true for youths prescribed opioids for a high-school sports injury, and older patients prescribed opioids for chronic back pain, and many other “regular” people. The CDC released this report to help fight back against the over-prescription of opioids and the severe risks that accompany their use. Doctors and patients alike need to be aware of the risks vs benefits of opioids if they decide to use them for pain therapy.

Hydrocodone (wikimedia.org)
Hydrocodone (wikimedia.org)

The CDC’s report had three primary goals:

  1. Identify relevant clinical questions related to prescribing of opioid pain medications.
  2. Evaluate the clinical and contextual evidence that addresses these questions
  3. Prepare recommendations based on the evidence.

Two types of evidence were used in preparation of the report: direct clinical evidence and indirect evidence that supports various aspects of the clinical evidence (contextual evidence). Studies included in the analysis ranged from high quality randomized control studies (the gold standard for evaluating clinical effectiveness) to more observational studies (not strong, direct evidence but useful information nonetheless).

The report identified five central questions regarding the concerns over opioids:

  1. Is there evidence of effectiveness of opioid therapy in long-term treatment of chronic pain?
  2. What are the risks of opioids?
  3. What differences in effectiveness between different dosing strategies (immediate release versus long-acting/extended release)?
  4. How effective are the existing systems for predicting the risks of opioids (overdose, addiction, abuse or misuse) and assessing those risks in patients?
  5. What is the effect of prescribing opioids for acute pain on long-term use?

Based on a close examination of the clinical evidence from a number of published studies, the CDC found the following answer to these questions.

  1. There is no evidence supporting the benefits of opioids at managing chronic pain. Opioids are only useful for acute (less than 3 days) pain and for cancer pain or end-or-life pain treatment.
  2. Opioids have numerous risks such as abuse and addiction, overdose, fractures due to falling in some older patients, car crashes due to impairments, and other problems. The longer opioids are used the greater these risks.
  3. There is no difference in effectiveness between immediate release opioids and long-acting or extended release formulation. The evidence suggests the risk for overdose is greater with long-acting and extended-release opioids.
  4. No currently available monitoring methods or systems are capable of completely predicting or identifying risk for overdose, dependence, abuse, or addiction but severak methods may be effective at helping to evaluate these risk factors.
  5. The use of opioids for treating acute pain increases the likelihood that they will be sued long-term (most likely because of tolerance and dependence).
Oxycodone (wikimedia.org)
Oxycodone (wikimedia.org)

The CDC also examined what they called contextual evidence or studies that didn’t directly answer the primary clinical questions but still provided valuable, if indirect, information about treatment of pain with/without opioids.

  • Non-medication based therapies like physical therapy, exercise therapy, psychological therapies, etc. can be effective at treating chronic pain for a number of conditions.
  • Non-opioid pain medications such as acetaminophen, NSAIDs, Cox-2 inhibitors, anti-convulsants, and anti-depressants (in some instances) were also effective in treating chronic pain for various conditions and have fewer dangers than opioids.
  • Long-acting opioids increase the risk for overdose and addiction. Higher doses of opioids also increase the risk for overdose.
  • Co-prescription of opioids with benzodiazepines greatly increases the risk of overdoses.
  • Many doctors are unsure of how to talk to their patients about opioids and their benefits vs risks and most patients don’t know what opioids even are.
  • The opioid epidemic costs billions of dollars in medical and associated costs. Its estimated  costs due to treatment of overdose alone is $20.4 billion.

Many other findings and important pieces are information were reported but too many to list here.

Based on all results of the analysis the CDC came up with 12 recommendations in three broad categories. I’ll briefly discuss each recommendation.

Category 1: Determining when to initiate or continue opioids for chronic pain.

  • Recommendation 1: Non-pharmacologic (medication-based) therapy and non-opioid pharmacologic therapy are preferred for chronic pain.
    • The risks of overdose and addiction from long-term use of opioids is very high and benefits for actually treating pain are very low for most people. Therefore, other safer and more-effective treatments should be use first. The discussion of the risks vs benefits needs to be made clear by the patient’s doctor.
  • Recommendation 2: Before starting opioid therapy for chronic pain, clinicians should establish treatment goals with all patients, including realistic goals for pain and function
    • Opioids should be used for the shortest amount of time possible but if used for a long-term treatment, at the lowest effective dose.
    • If a patient suffers from an overdose or seems as if dependence or addiction is developing, a patient may need to be tapered off of opioids.
  • Recommendation 3: Before starting and periodically during opioid therapy, clinicians should discuss with patients known risks and realistic benefits of opioid therapy.
    • The risks are high for the use of opioids and it is necessary for doctors to keep their patients informed about these risks.
    • Doctors should be “be explicit and realistic about expected benefits from opioids, explaining that while opioids can reduce pain during short-term use, there is no good evidence that opioids improve pain or function with long-term use, and that complete relief of pain is unlikely.”

Category 2: Opioid selection, dosage, duration, follow-up, and discontinuation.

  • Recommendation 4: When starting opioid therapy, clinicians should prescribe immediate-release opioids instead of extended-release or long-acting opioids.
    • There appears to be no difference in effectiveness at treating pain between the different types of opioids but the long-acting opioids come with a greater risk for overdose and dependence.
    • Long-acting opioids should be reserved for cancer pain or end-of-life pain.
    • It’s important to note that “abuse-deterrent” does not mean that there is no risk for abuse, dependence, or addiction. These types of formulations are generally to prevent intravenous use (shooting up with a needle) but most problems with opioids occur as a result of normal, oral use.
  • Recommendation 5: When opioids are started, clinicians should prescribe the lowest effective dosage.
    • The higher the dose the greater the risk. A low dose may be sufficient to control the pain without risk for overdose or the development of dependence.
    • Opioids are often most effective in the short-term and may not need to be continued after 3 days.
    • If dosage needs to be increased, changes in pain and function in the patient should be re-evaluated afterwards to determine if a benefit has occurred.
    • Patients currently on high-dose long-term opioids for chronic pain may want to consider tapering down their dosage.
      • Tapering opioids can be challenging can take a long-time due to the physical and psychological dependence. Tapering should be done slowly to and the best course of dosage should be determined specifically for the patient.
    • Recommendation 6: Long-term opioid use often begins with treatment of acute pain. When opioids are used for acute pain, clinicians should prescribe the lowest effective dose of immediate-release opioids and should prescribe no greater quantity than needed.
      • Evidence suggests that using an opioid for acute pain can start a patient down a path of long-term use. This should attempted to be avoided by using a low dose if opioid is selected to treat acute pain.
      • Acute pain can often be effectively managed without opioids with non-medication-based therapies (like exercise, water aerobics, physical therapy, etc.) or non-opioid medications (like acetaminophen or NSAIDs).
    • Recommendation 7: Clinicians should evaluate benefits and harms with patients within 1-4 weeks of starting opioid therapy for chronic pain or of dose escalation.
      • Opioids are most effective for the first three days and possible up to a week. If long-term therapy is decided upon, treatment should regularly be reassessed and reevaluated (at least every 3 months for long-term therapy).

Category 3: Assessing risks and addressing harms of opioid use.

  • Recommendation 8: Before starting and periodically during continuation of opioid therapy, clinicians should evaluate risk factors for opioid-related harms. Clinicians should incorporate into the management plan strategies to mitigate risk, including considering offering naloxone.
    • Specific risk factors for the specific condition that patient is using opioids for should be considered when developing the treatment plan.
    • Naloxone blocks the effects of opioids and can immediately revive someone that has experienced an overdose. Naloxone should be offered to patients if a patient is using opioids at high-dose for long-term therapy or previously suffered an overdose.
  • Recommendation 9: Clinicians should review the patient’s history of controlled substance prescription using state prescription drug monitoring program (PDMP) data to determine whether a patient is receive opioid dosages or dangerous combinations that put him or her at risk for overdose.
    • PDMPs are state-run databases that collect information on controlled prescription drugs dispensed by pharmacies and in some states, physicians too.
    • While the clinical evidence was unclear if PDMPs were accurate at predicting overdose or addiction, the contextual evidence supported that “most fatal overdoses were associated with patients receiving opioids from multiple prescribers and/or with patients receiving high total daily opioid dosage.”
    • PDMP should be consulted before beginning opioid therapy and during the course of treatment if used for long-term therapy and this data should be discussed with the patient.
    • However, PDMP data must be used cautiously as some patients are turned away from treatment that would otherwise have benefited.
  • Recommendation 10: (not a general recommendation but to be considered on a patient-by-patient basis) When prescribing opioids for chronic pain, clinicians should use urine drug testing before starting opioid therapy and consider urine drug testing at least annually to assess for prescribed medications as well as other controlled prescription drugs and illicit drugs.
    • Urine drug tests can reveal information about potential risks due to combinations with other drugs not reported by the patient (e.g. benzodiazepines, heroin).
    • Urine testing should become standard practice and should be done prior to starting opioids for chronic therapy.
    • Clinicians should make it clear that testing is intended for patient safety and is not intended to deprive the patient of therapy unnecessarily.
  • Recommendation 11: Clinicians should avoid prescribing opioid pain medication and benzodiazepines concurrently whenever possible.
    • Strong evidence suggests that many overdoses occurred in patients prescribed both benzodiazepines and opioids. The two should never be prescribed together if at all possible.
  • Recommendation 12: Clinicians should offer or arrange evidence-based treatment (usually medication-assisted treatment with buprenorphine or methadone in combination with behavioral therapies) for patients with opioid abuse disorder (addiction).
    • Many patients using opioids for chronic pain now may have become physically and psychologically addicted to them and should be offered treatment (estimated at 3-26% of patients using opioids for chronic pain therapy).
    • Methadone and buprenorphine are proven, safe, and effective-treatments that retain patients in treatment and that satisfy an opioid addict’s cravings, prevent relapse to abusing opioids/heroin, and allow the patient to live a normal life (read my blog post on methadone).
    • Behavioral therapy/individual counseling in combination with medication-based treatment may improve positive benefits of treatment even further.
    • However, access to these medications can be extremely limited in some communities due to availability (methadone is restricted to clinics and clinicians need certification in order to prescribe buprenorphine) or cost (treatment often is not covered by insurance).
    • Urine testing or PDMP data may help to reveal if a patient has become addicted and if so, treatment should be arranged.

In Summary, the main takeaways from the report are:

  • Opioids are associated with many risks such as overdose, abuse, dependence, addiction, and others (e.g. fractures from falling or car-crashes due to impairment).
  • No evidence exists that opioids are effective for treatment of chronic pain (with the exception of cancer and end-of-life pain).
  • Opioids are most effective for short term (3-7 days) and in immediate-release formulations.
  • Non-medication based therapies and non-opioid medications are preferred for treatment of chronic pain.
  • Doctors need to clearly explain the risks vs benefits of opioid therapy with their patients.
  • If decided as the best course of action for a particular patient, opioid therapy needs to be repeated re-evaluated to make sure it is still working to alleviate pain.
  • The prescription drug monitoring programs are useful tools that should be consulted prior to beginning therapy in order to help determine a patient’s history with opioids and risk for abuse or overdose.
  • Naloxone should be made available to patients using opioids for long-term therapy in order to prevent possible overdoses.
  • Access to medication-based treatments (methadone or buprenorphine) for dependent individuals should be provided.

Concluding Thoughts

In 1995 Purdue pharmaceuticals released OxyContin (oxycodone, one of the most common prescription opioid pain medications) and launched an enormous push for doctors to use opioids as the primary treatment for chronic pain. The enormous surge in in prescriptions of oxycodone (500% increase from 1999-2011) followed this marketing campaign. One of the most disturbing aspects revealed by the CDC’s report is that despite this surge in prescriptions, there is a complete lack of data on the effectiveness of opioids for long-term chronic pain therapy.

To be fair though, “Big Pharma” is not the sole culprit in this crisis. One argument is that pharma was responding to the need of clinicians for an increased demand by patients for management of chronic pain. It is very disturbing though that the push for the use of opioids for long-term management was initiated without any supporting evidence. This is another example of how medicine must be guided by evidence-based principles and not on personal beliefs and values or medical tradition and culture.

It’s important to remember that some patients do tolerate opioids well and these patients may find them beneficial at treating their chronic pain condition. The guidelines do stress frequent reevaluation of the benefits vs risks of opioids and for some patients benefits will outweigh the risks.

Finally, the CDC’s guidelines are not legally binding. These are recommendations and not laws or regulations. This means no doctors are not legally required to comply with any of the CDC’s recommendations. Hopefully some or all of these recommendations will be formalized into formal laws and regulations because many of them are extremely important in regulating these powerful and potentially dangerous drugs.

(Also check out the Diane Rehm Show’s hour-long discussion of the report. As usual, the show offers a high quality analysis and discussion from a panel of experts.)

Is Methadone an Effective Treatment for Heroin Addiction? YES!

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NEW BLOG POST FOR ADDICTIONBLOG IS UP NOW! ALL ABOUT METHADONE.

CHECK IT OUT!

Why is Addiction a Brain Disease?

I started as a contributor for the blog network addictionblog.org.

addiction blog logo copy

Read my first post, published today!

WHY IS ADDICTION A BRAIN DISEASE?

Promising Shifts in Policy Towards Addiction Prevention and Treament

Spilled prescription medication --- Image by © Mark Weiss/Corbis
Spilled prescription medication — Image by © Mark Weiss/Corbis

 

Normally a search for drug addiction in Google news pulls up a similar thread of articles: arrests of dealers and addicts, big drug busts, a crime committed by a user or dealer, somebodies mug shot. Basically, the news tends to cover only the drug enforcement and criminal aspects of the drug addiction problem. This is unsurprising since for the past few decades the lens in which we view addicts and addiction has been smeared by the “War on Drugs”, which views drug users as criminals and deviants and seeks to punish rather than treat. However, with advances in medical technology, advances in neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and a host of related fields, we understand addiction at the neurochemical and physiological level better than we ever have before. A shift in attitude that acknowledges addiction as a medical disease that needs to be treated as such (well established in the scientific community) is finally making its way into public consciousness, and most importantly, public policy.

SFN 2015 LogoI was recently at the 2015 Society for Neuroscience Conference, an enormous gathering of neuroscientist from around the world, held Oct 17-21 in Chicago. The conference hosts an overwhelming number of lectures, symposia, and workshops for scientists to share the latest developments in research in Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, stroke, learning and memory, brain development, addiction, and many others neuroscience sub-disciplines. Several special lectures on neuroscience related-topics are also held and I had the pleasure of attending one of these special lectures given by the Honorable Jed S. Rakoff, Senior US District Judge for the Southern District of New York and founding member of the MacArthur Foundation Project on Law and Neuroscience, which researches issues on the intersection of law and neuroscience. Judge Rakoff spoke on how new advances in neuroscience research such as improved neuroimaging technologies and greater understanding into human cognition and decision-making, is changing how the law treats defendants. Significantly, Judge Rakoff spoke frequently about addiction, and he acknowledges what many do, that those arrested for non-violent offenses should be treated, not brutalized. However, he explained that many judge’s hands are tied when it comes to sentencing due to laws in place that set mandatory minimums for drug offenders. Judge Rakoff believes these mandatory minimum laws should be eliminated if progress is to be made toward providing treatment, rather than prison sentences, for drug addicts. It was refreshing to hear this come from such a distinguished judge and I hope it is a bellwether for changes in our legal system.

Of course, laws cannot changes without lawmakers to change them. But we may be seeing the beginning of shift in drug addiction policy for the first time in years.

The epidemic of addiction to prescription opioids and heroin has been making news for months now. I’ve blogged about this epidemic in several posts. One covering a review article describing the epidemic, another sharing an excellent article in the Huffington Post about the epidemic and available treatments for opioid addiction, and most recently, an important report released by the Centers for Disease Control that names opioid addiction as one of the counties top public health crises. Following this latter groundbreaking report by the CDC, policy-makers are finally starting to wake up to the problem.

In a speech in on October 21 in Charleston, West Virginia, one of the areas in the country worst hit by the opioid problem, President Obama held an hour-long public forum in which he promised $133 million dollars to combating the prescription opioid and heroin problem. The President gave about a 15-minute introduction to the event, which entailed some of the most refreshing comments about addiction to ever come from a US President.

Watch the full speech here:

President Obama began by citing shocking statistics stated in the CDC report concerning the surge in deaths due to prescription opioids, “More Americans now die from drug overdoses than from motor vehicle crashes…The majority involve legal prescription drugs.” He went on to talk about heroin as an extension of prescription opioid abuse, “4 out of 5 heroin users start with prescription opioids”.

Of special significance was the shift in language he used to describe addiction and addicts, which contrasts strongly with the “War on Drugs” rhetoric of the previous administration. Obama said, “This is an illness and we have to treat is as such. We have to change our mindset”, which is something that scientists have been arguing for years but is just now being acknowledged by a US President.

Progress towards treating addiction cannot be made unless the biological and medical realities of the illness are understood and addicts are treated as patients rather than criminals. Indeed, stigma towards addicts is one of the biggest hurdles towards reforming public health policy and attitudes towards addiction and President Obama admitted this, “We can’t fight this epidemic without eliminating stigma.”

Some progress has been made under Obama’s watch and he and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell outlined several addiction reforms. One important change already in place is a stipulation of the Affordable Care Act that requires insurance to cover treatment for substance abuse disorders. Secretary Burwell outlined three points at the forum in West Virgina for an “evidence-based strategy” towards addiction prevention and treatment:

  • Point 1: Changing prescribing practices. This is necessary to stem the over prescription of opioids and the dependence to the drugs that develops in some patients as result.
  • Point 2: Expand medication-assisted treatment programs and to make sure patients can have access to treatment and behavioral counseling that can help them.
  • Point 3: Increased access to naloxone. Naloxone counteracts the effects of opioids and should be a standard medication on hand for any first responder that deals with overdoses.

The details about implementing these strategies were not provided though.

However, Obama’s speech may be coming too late, as Dr. Andrew Kolodny, founder of the Phoenix House Treatment facilities in New York, believes. As reported in New York Times, Dr. Kolodyn is disappointed with Obama’s progress and thinks he has waited too long to take action and says that opioid epidemic problem has gotten considerably worse over under Obama’s watch.

I am anxious to see what changes may occur within the last year of Obama’s presidency in respect to the opioid epidemic. However, if more permanent changes are not made in the law, a conservative Republican president could easily over turn any changes made and revert to a failed Reagan-era “War on Drugs” approach.

Morphine and Oxycodone Affect the Brain Differently

(Neurons. Image from Ana Milosevic, Rockefeller University)
(Neurons. Image from Ana Milosevic, Rockefeller University)

Why are some drugs of abuse more addictive than others?

 This is a central question to the addiction field yet it remains largely a mystery. All drugs of abuse have a similar effect on the brain: they all result in increased amounts of the neurotransmitter dopamine (DA) in an important brain region called the mesolimbic pathway (also known as the reward pathway). One of the core components of this pathway is the ventral tegmental area (VTA), which contains many neurons that make and release DA. VTA neurons communicate with neurons in the nucleus accumbens (NAc). This means that the axons of VTA neurons project to and synapse on NAc neurons. When VTA neurons are stimulated, they release DA onto the NAc, and this is a core component of how the brain perceives that something is pleasurable or “feels good.” Many types of pleasurable stimuli (food, sex, drugs, etc.) cause DA to be released from the VTA onto the NAc (See the yellow box in the diagram below). In fact, all drugs of abuse cause this release of DA from VTA neurons onto NAc neurons.

*Important note: many other brain regions are involved in how the brain perceives the pleasurable feelings of drugs besides the VTA and NAc, but these regions represent the core of the pathway.

"Dopamineseratonin". Licensed under Public Domain via Wikipedia.
“Dopamineseratonin”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikipedia.

Check out these videos for a more detailed discussion of the mesolimbic pathway.

But if all drugs of abuse cause DA release, then why do different drugs make you feel differently? This is a very complicated question but one component of the answer is that different drugs have different mechanisms and dynamics of DA release.

For the opioid drugs like heroin, morphine, and oxycodone, they are able to bind to a special molecule called the Mu Opioid Receptor (MOPR). This action on the MOPR results in an indirect activation of DA neurons in the VTA and a release of DA in the NAc. While all opioid drugs reduce the feeling of pain and induce a pleasurable feeling, they have slightly different properties at the MOPR.

The different properties of the opioids may be a reason why some are more abused than others. For example, a number of studies have suggested that oxycodone may have greater abuse potential than morphine. This means that oxycodone is more likely to be abused morphine.

But do the different properties of morphine and oxycodone on the MOPR affect DA release and is this important to why oxycodone is more likely to be abused than morphine?

Vander Weele et al. 2015 titleThis is the question that scientists at the University of Michigan sought to address. Using several different sophisticated techniques, the scientists looked at differences in DA release in the NAc caused by morphine and oxycodone, two common opioid drugs.

Rats were injected with either morphine or oxycodone and then DA release was measured using either fast-scan cyclic voltammetry or microdialysis. I’ve discussed microdialysis in a previous post but in brief, it involves drawing fluid from a particular brain region at different time points in an experiment and then measuring the neurotransmitters present (using advanced chemistry tools that I won’t explain here).

Voltammetry is a more technically complicated technique. In brief, it uses electrodes to measure sensitive voltage changes. Since a molecule has specific electrochemical properties, these voltage changes can be related back to a specific molecule, such as the neurotransmitter DA as in this study. Voltammetry may even allow greater temporal resolution (easier to detect very precise changes at very short time frames, like seconds), which may make it more accurate than microdialysis (which can only measure neurotransmitter release on the scale of minutes).

Because each technology has its own limitations and potential problems, the authors used both of these techniques to show that they are observing the same changes regardless of the technology being used. Showing the same observation multiple times but in different ways is a common practice in scientific papers: it increases your confidence that your experiment is actually working and what you are observing is real and not just some random fluke.

The authors administered a single dose of either morphine or oxycodone to rats and then measured the DA release in the NAc as described above. What they found were very different patterns!

Morphine resulted in a rapid increase in DA (less than 30 seconds) but by 60 seconds had returned to normal. In contrast, oxycodone took longer to rise (about 20-30 sec before a significant increase was detected) but remained high for the entire 2 minutes that it was measured. The difference in DA release caused by morphine and oxycodone is striking!

Many other changes were observed such as differences in DA release in different sub-regions of the NAc, different effects on phasic release of DA (DA is often released in bursts), and differences in the other neurotransmitters such as GABA (morphine caused an increase in GABA release too while oxycodone did not). I won’t discuss these details here but check out the paper for more details.

Of course, do these differences in DA release explain why oxycodone is more often abused than morphine? Unfortunately no, there are many other factors (for example, oxycodone is more widely available than morphine) to consider. Nevertheless, this is some intriguing neuroscientific evidence that adds one more piece to the addiction puzzle.

Important: CDC Releases Report on Heroin Epidemic

heroin syringe

On July 10, 2015 the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) on the Heroin epidemic that is sweeping the United States. By the standard of the Internet, this is old news by now but I’m just getting around to writing about it. And the report identifies critical information the public—and public officials—need to be aware of so the more publicity the better.

Download a pdf of the full report or an abbreviated fact sheet

The news is dire.

The big finding from the report is that heroin use has increased overall by 63% between 2002 and 2013 and amongst virtually all demographics regardless of gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status.

Even more striking is heroin deaths have quadrupled between 2002-2013.

Nearly all heroin users have also used at least 1 other drug.

As confirmed by many other reports, abuse of prescription opioid painkillers increases your risk of heroin use 40X! And 45% of heroin users are also addicted to opioid pain medication.

The report offers several viable responses that should be taken to curb the heroin epidemic:

  • Prevent: prevent and reduce abuse of prescription opioid painkillers
  • Reduce: increase the availability of medication-assisted treatment (MAT), which combines proven, effective medications such as methadone and buprenorphine with counseling and behavioral therapies
  • Reverse: expand the use of the naloxone to prevent heroin overdose

Above all, increased education and awareness of the heroin epidemic and medications available to treat addiction (methadone, buprenorphine) and prevent overdoses (naloxone)

The report also argues that states must play a key role in addressing this epidemic through such measures as implementation/expansion of prescription drug monitoring programs, significantly increased availability and access to MAT and naloxone, improved educational programs, and other measures.

For more information see:

http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6426a3.htm?s_cid=mm6426a3_w

http://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/heroin/

Paper Review-Initiation into Injection Drug Use and Prescription Opioids

Lankenau SE, 2012

It’s been a few weeks since my last post. Apologies! Just finished up a big experiment and grant proposal. My goal is to release a few small posts over the next few days and here’s the first:

Numerous reported the dramatic increase in opioid addiction and death’s due to overdose over the past decade. Abuse of prescription opioid pain medication, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, has skyrocketed. Even more disturbing is the surge in addiction to heroin, which was in decline during the 80s and 90s. I already reviewed an article that cites some of the statistics. Read it here.

Some key facts cited in today’s paper:

  • Abuse of prescription opioid drugs has been increasing dramatically over the past decade, especially amongst young people (18-26)
  • Opioids, such as hydrocodone and oxycodone, are the second most abused drug amongst young adults, after cannabis.
  • Very little data exists on initiation of drug abuse (i.e. first drugs abused) among injection drug users.

This study is a epidemiology/public health study that recruited 50 young (under 30), active injection drug users (e.g. heroin users) from New York and Los Angeles and interviewed them about their drug use. Note that this is a small study as far as epidemiology studies go, and the authors admit this and describe it as an exploratory study, but the trends they find are consistent with other studies (see the National Survey on Drug Use and Health).

The conclusions are simple: the majority of injection drug users began by abusing prescription opioids.

The average age for first use of prescription opioids was 12.6 years old and 41/50 reported swallowing (compared to 8 that snorted or 1 injecting). And 30/50 reported getting the prescription opioids from the homes of either immediate or extended family members that had a prescription.

Even more disturbing is that 36/50 injection drug users reported having a prescription for opioid pain medications during their lifetime, which occurred on average at 14.6 years of age. 8 of these 36 reported their opioid abuse began from their own prescriptions.

Several other interesting trends can be found in this study but the conclusions are pretty stark: injection of heroin began with abuse of pain pills.

Clearly tighter control of available prescriptions and careful monitoring of prescription opioids is required to help control their abuse among adolescents. However, the specific policy recommendations and medical attitude changes necessary are complex. Hopefully the more knowledge about the topic will provide an impetus for this important and necessary discussion.

New Review Paper-The Prescription Opioid and Heroin Epidemic

(Image by Mark Weiss/Corbis)
(Image by Mark Weiss/Corbis)

A new paper published online in January 2015 by Kolodny et al. provides an overview of the epidemic of addiction to opioid prescription medications and heroin which is sweeping through the United States. Numerous news outlets from the Huffington Post to the New York Times have been covering this disturbing trend. This important review paper is being released at a critical time.

Kolodny et al TitleYou can find the complete article here.

The authors do an excellent job of outlining the epidemic from a public health perspective. I just wanted to summarize some of the paper’s main points and findings:

  • Abuse of prescription opioid pain relievers (OPR) and heroin is reaching epidemic levels
    • From 1999-2011, oxycodone (a common OPR) use has increased by 500%
    • From 1997-2011, there has been a 900% increase in individuals seeking treatment to for opioid addiction
    • From 2004-2011, there has been a doubling in ER visits due to non-medical use of OPR
    • The author’s highlight that there is a disturbing correlation between the rise in opioid sales, opioid overdose deaths, and opioid addiction (See the figure below)
(Figure 1 from Kolodny et al. 2015)
(Figure 1 from Kolodny et al. 2015)
  • The authors contend that the cause of our current epidemic is rooted in:
    • The development of new opioid medications such as OxyContin (an extended release form of oxycodone introduced in 1995)
    • The over-prescription of OPR coupled with a shift in medical attitudes towards the treatment of chronic pain
    • A series of studies suggesting that long-term opioid use does not result in addiction. We now know this to be false.
      • According to a recent study, 25% of chronic pain patients treated with OPR fit criteria for opioid addiction and 35% for opioid abuse disorder
  • The public health issues related to non-medical use of OPR are significant
    • Heroin use has drastically increased over the same period as OPR abuse
    • 4 out of 5 current heroin users report that their addiction began with abuse of OPR (See here for more information).
    • Overdose deaths and hospitalizations as a result of OPR have been strikingly high since 2002. See the graphs below.
(Figure 4 from Kolodny et al. 2015)
(Figure 4 from Kolodny et al. 2015)
  • Using an epidemiologic approach, the authors outline a prevention strategy for opioid addiction broken down into primary, secondary, and tertiary interventions.
    • Primary prevention
      • Reduce the incidence of the disease condition: opioid addiction (ie prevent new addiction cases)
      • Education of prescribers regarding OPR use
        • The risks of chronic OPR use, such as addiction and respiratory depression (difficulty breathing), are high
        • Little data exists for the effectiveness of long-term OPR use in helping chronic pain patients
      • Substitution of OPR for non-opioid pain relievers must be strongly encouraged
      • Prevention of OPR use amongst adolescents
        • Caution in OPR prescribing
          • Most youths that experiment with them get OPR from family or friends who have an OPR prescription
        • Change the perception that OPR use is less risky than heroin use
          • In reality the risk of addiction to OPR is as high as it is for heroin
    • Secondary Prevention
      • Identify and treat opioid addicts early in their disease
        • Identify users of OPR that are detected by prior to more significant health problems or transition to heroin use
        • Difficulty in diagnosing opioid addiction
          • Urine toxicology screens in some cases
          • Use of prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs) to identify patients who seek prescriptions from multiple doctors
    • Tertiary prevention
      • Treatment and rehabilitation of opioid addiction
        • The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) estimates 2.1 million Americans are addicted to OPR and 467,000 to heroin.
        • Combination of pharmacologic and psychosocial treatments
          • Psychosocial therapies (residential treatment centers, mutual-help programs, 12-step programs) can be effective for some patients but should be use in combination with pharmacologic treaments
        • Pharmacologic treatments such as methadone and buprenorphine (Suboxone) are safe and highly effective
          • They work by effectively blocking cravings without causing the “high” the OPR and heroin cause
          • However, fewer than 1 million addicts are receiving these treatments
          • Significant federal limitations exist to buprenorphine prescription
            • See my Post on this topic, which links to an important Huffington Post article on the topic
        • Harm-reduction approaches
          • Needle-exchange programs to reduce HIV transmission
          • Naloxone for treatment of overdose deaths
    • Conclusions
      • Prescription opioid and heroin addiction are reaching epidemic levels in the United States
      • A coordinated public health effort of federal and state agencies, health care providers and insurers, treatment/recovery initiatives and the research community is required to deal with this crisis.

For more statistical information, consult the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

Also, see the data section of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services (SAMSHA) for statistics related to non-medical use of OPR and heroin.