Imagine taking daily medications prescribed by your doctor — and enduring nausea, chills and the worst flu symptoms ever if you tried to stop. That is a growing dilemma in Minnesota as doctors treat the state’s rising number of heroin and opioid addicts with methadone and buprenorphine to eliminate their cravings and withdrawal symptoms.
Studies have examined whether addicts, having kicked heroin, can then wean themselves off these potent meds. One found relapses within two years for most addicts who tried. Another found a high death rate from suicide or overdoses.
“Very few patients, once they are presented with the data, try to discontinue,” said Dr. David Frenz, who directs addiction treatment at HealthEast.
Finding the answer is urgent. Hospitalizations for heroin addiction have doubled in Minnesota since 2009. Insurers are reporting dramatic increases in prescriptions for buprenorphine medications.
A Star Tribune article last week on drug therapy featured Heidi, 38, who credits the drug Suboxone for helping her achieve sobriety after years of heroin use. She feels guilty, as if she traded one drug for another, but can’t imagine stopping now that her life is stable.
“I’d be so afraid,” she said.
Needing medications for life doesn’t mean they are addictive. Dr. Gavin Bart of Hennepin County Medical Center wrote recently that the meds don’t push people into “maladaptive” or criminal behaviors that are hallmarks of addiction.
“It’s just the opposite,” he said. “Methadone and buprenorphine … improve quality of life and social functioning.”
Weaning patients off the meds is sometimes considered after a year, said Dr. Marvin Seppala of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, if patients have reached points in therapy that suggest it would be safer to try.
A reader, Jason, e-mailed after Tuesday’s story about weaning off Suboxone, which he needed to kick a pain med addiction after knee surgery. “I was literally in the fetal position for the first week, and the worst flu/hangover feeling for the next two weeks,” he wrote. “Only after going back to the doctor for meds to help me withdraw from the Suboxone did I finally start to feel better … three long weeks!”