SAN FRANCISCO – . Eighty-five percent of patients who were titrated up to 32 mg remained in treatment for 1 year vs. 22% of those who never went higher than 16 mg, and those on higher doses stayed in treatment 3.83 times longer than those who didn’t.
“Simply put, we demonstrated better retention in treatment if patients were given higher buprenorphine doses when they complained of opioid craving,” said Andrew Gilbert, a medical student at California Northstate University, Elk Grove, Calif. He is lead author of a poster presented at the 2023 annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association.
There’s an ongoing debate over ideal doses of buprenorphine (Suboxone), an opioid that’s used to help treat withdrawal symptoms in users of drugs such as heroin and fentanyl. Some sources recommend lower doses. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, for example, says “ideally, average dosing does not exceed 16 mg” in ato the drug’s usage, referring to the sublingual form. (A long-lasting injectable is also available.) says 24 mg is the maximum, and “higher doses have not shown a clinical advantage.
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‘Significantly higher’ retention
For the new study, researchers tracked 328 patients who were treated for opioid use disorder at the Transitions Buprenorphine Clinic of Sacramento from 2010 to 2017. They were followed until 2022. Their average age was 36, 37.2% were female, 75.0% were White, and 24.1% had a history of overdose.
Clinicians titrated up the doses of buprenorphine to address withdrawal and craving. Five patients never went past 4 mg, and two of them stayed in treatment for a year. Nine of 19 who went up to 8 mg stayed in treatment for 1 year, and 4 of 21 did among those who reached 12 mg.
“Our data suggest that the highest rate of patient dropout is at the beginning of treatment, and that there is significantly higher treatment retention in patients on greater than 24 mg or higher of buprenorphine,” the researchers wrote.
Mr. Gilbert said clinicians start at 8 mg the first day in patients who haven’t taken buprenorphine before, then they go to 16 mg the second day. “We then reevaluate in at least 1 week, oftentimes sooner if the patient’s opioid craving is uncontrolled, and determine if 16 mg is too low, too high, or the correct dosage for the patient.”
If a dose of over 32 mg is needed, clinicians turn to the long-lasting injectable form of the drug, study coauthor Neil Flynn MD, MPH, former medical director of the Transitions Buprenorphine Clinic of Sacramento, said in an interview. “We controlled craving with this form for every patient that did not have opioid craving relief with 32 mg. We believe this form achieved opioid craving cessation due to increased buprenorphine blood levels and increased ratio of unmetabolized buprenorphine to metabolized buprenorphine in our patients.”
According to Dr. Summers, it’s clear that too-low doses hurt the recovery process. “If we prescribe subtherapeutic doses of buprenorphine, our patients will experience opioid craving, which leads to treatment dropout and most likely to relapse. Higher doses of buprenorphine are more likely to cease opioid cravings, leading patients to remain in treatment for longer periods of time.”
Mr. Gilbert said buprenorphine has few side effects, which include decreased libido and hot flashes in both men and women. Testosterone therapy can relieve these symptoms in men, he said, but “unfortunately, we do not have any good medications for reversing this side effect in women. Further research should investigate eliminating this side effect in women.”
Mr. Gilbert declined to comment on the extra cost of higher doses since that is outside the scope of the study.