Use and misuse of opioid agonists in opioid addiction

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In addition to federal regulations, we propose a 4-step approach to evaluate eligibility for opioid replacement therapy based on existing guidelines.37–39

Step 1: History and physical examination

The history should give particular attention to the patient’s cardiac, pulmonary, and hepatic status, with consideration of the risks of any medical comorbidities (eg, bacterial endocarditis, HIV and HCV infection) that might influence treatment.37

It is also essential to evaluate for any contraindications or drug interactions before prescribing methadone or buprenorphine.38

Contraindications to methadone maintenance include40:

  • Cor pulmonale
  • Methadone hypersensitivity
  • Pseudomembranous colitis
  • Selegiline use (due to risk of serotonin syndrome)
  • Ileum paralyticus.

Contraindications to buprenorphine use include:

  • Hypersensitivity to naloxone or buprenorphine
  • Impaired liver function (due to the risk of inadvertent overdose associated with slowed metabolism).

Concurrent use of alcohol or illicit benzodiazepines is a relative contraindication to both methadone and buprenorphine due to the risk of respiratory depression and overdose.37 Likewise, avoid coprescribing opioid agonists and benzodiazepines whenever possible. Obtain a complete list of current medications and query a prescription-monitoring database to determine whether any controlled substances are currently prescribed.37

During the physical examination, look for stigmata of intravenous drug use such as track marks or abscesses37 and document any physical findings consistent with intoxication or withdrawal. Patients must be completely detoxed or in withdrawal before beginning buprenorphine induction; premature induction can precipitate withdrawal.38

A discussion of pregnant patients with opioid use disorder is beyond the scope of this paper. However, it is incumbent on the prescriber to inquire whether the client is pregnant or intends to become pregnant and what birth control methods are in place.

Step 2: Assess psychiatric status

Assessment of the patient’s psychiatric status, including an assessment of alcohol and other drug use, will help determine his or her eligibility for opioid agonists.37 To prepare for the need to manage patients with psychiatrically complex issues, it is helpful to develop relationships with addiction specialists and psychiatrists who are familiar with opioid replacement therapy in your area. This will make it easier to collaborate on patients’ care.

Ask all patients directly about suicidal or homicidal ideation. Any patient with active suicidal or homicidal ideation should be assessed for need of immediate hospitalization by a psychiatrist or another qualified mental health professional. Patients with a history of suicidal ideation should be monitored closely by a mental health professional throughout treatment.37

Many if not most patients with opioid use disorder have concurrent psychiatric disorders, and the interplay between these disorders is complex.40,41 Depression, for example, can precede and even precipitate drug use (an observation supporting the “self-medication theory”).42 If the underlying depressive disorder is not addressed, relapse is nearly inevitable.

It has also been shown that both chronic opioid use and withdrawal can exacerbate aversive emotional states. This escalation of symptoms may result from the pharmacologic effects of opioids or from psychosocial sequelae that can arise from chronic opioid use.41 In this situation, maintaining abstinence can lead to resolution of depressive symptoms. As depression and opioid use can occur together, successful treatment requires equal attention to both illnesses.

Other common comorbidities in patients with opioid use disorder include posttraumatic stress disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, antisocial personality disorder, and concurrent substance abuse disorders.43 The confluence of antisocial personality disorder is particularly important, as patients with antisocial personality disorder display disruptive and maladaptive behaviors.

Identify any psychotropic medication that is prescribed and check carefully for drug interactions. This applies especially to methadone, as many psychiatric medications also prolong the QT interval. Moreover, patients may not be forthcoming about the use of psychiatric medication.

Find out whether the patient is using any other addictive substances, particularly those that affect the central nervous system, as those who use fentanyl, benzodiazepines, or alcohol are at the highest risk of overdose.31 Often the best option for those with concurrent substance use disorders is inpatient detoxification followed by residential rehabilitation care. Either buprenorphine or methadone can then be initiated upon return to an outpatient setting.

Step 3: Assess psychosocial status

To what extent do the patient’s home environment and support systems promote a drug-free lifestyle? Unfortunately, the psychosocial status of many of these patients is fragile, and they may live in areas where illicit drugs are readily available (which can be urban, suburban, or rural), making it difficult to stay substance-free.38

Generally, lifestyle modifications are needed to transform maladaptive behaviors and promote an environment conducive to long-term recovery. Referrals to social services to address housing, vocational needs, and entitlements may be helpful.39

Step 4: Assess readiness to change

According to one model, people go through 5 stages when changing a behavior: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation for action, action, and maintenance.43 In general, the further along the stages a patient is, the more appropriate he or she is for office-based treatment with buprenorphine.39

The level of change can be assessed with tools such as Stages of Change Readiness and Treatment Eagerness Scale (SOCRATES). Use of stage-specific strategies may enhance a patient’s readiness to cease opioid use.43

Precontemplation. Those in the precontemplation stage are not ready to think about changing their behavior.43 They may be unaware of or unwilling to consider the risks associated with their opioid use and resistant to the idea of quitting. Engagement with opioid agonists for individuals in this stage is low and dropout rates are likely high.

Thus, the proper approach for “precontemplators” is to help them develop some ambivalence about their opioid use. One tactic is to involve the patient in a discussion of the personal benefits and risks of opioid use.

Contemplation. Individuals in the contemplation stage have begun to weigh the costs and benefits of opioid use and express ambivalence about it.44 Because the patient is willing to explore the risks of ongoing use and consider the benefits of treatment, the goal in this stage is to elicit a commitment from the individual to seek treatment.

Preparation. The person in this stage moves from thinking about treatment to planning what action to take.45 As the individual prepares to enter treatment, indecision tends to resurface, as well as self-doubt about his or her ability to change. During this stage, it is important for the provider to spell out goals (abstinence) and strategies (eg, counseling, medication) and enhance a sense of self-efficacy.

Action and maintenance. Patients in these stages engage in treatment and employ new strategies to abstain from opioid use. Maintaining these behaviors can be a daily struggle. Expressing confidence in the patient’s ability to abstain from use will support his or her progress. Behavioral interventions such as strategic avoidance of triggers and engagement in alternative activities (eg, support groups, exercise, faith-based practices) will help to maintain abstinence.


Opioid use disorder, like many chronic illnesses, requires long-term attention to attain successful patient outcomes. The opioid agonists methadone and buprenorphine are the mainstay of treatment for it, conferring benefits such as reducing opioid use and preventing relapse.

Candidates for opioid agonist therapy should undergo a multidisciplinary assessment, including an evaluation on the patient’s readiness to change his or her opioid use.

Patient education should include a discussion of the risks of methadone (eg, respiratory depression, fatal overdose, and QTc prolongation) and buprenorphine (eg hepatotoxicity) and their benefits (eg, controlling craving, decreasing the risk of relapse). Patients should also be educated about overdose and diversion.

Despite the difficulties inherent in treating patients with opioid use disorder, when used appropriately, opioid agonist therapy can be lifesaving for patients struggling with long-term opioid addiction.

Acknowledgment: We thank Katelyn Colosi, BS, and Drs. Susan Wolfe, Dennis Bouffard, and Sinha Shirshendu for their helpful comments.

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A rational approach to opioid use disorder in primary care

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