From the Journals

Short-acting opioids needed for withdrawal in U.S. hospitals, say experts



Short-acting opioids may complement methadone and buprenorphine for opioid withdrawal symptoms in U.S. hospitals, say authors of an opinion piece calling for rethinking current strategies for opioid withdrawal in this country.

The commentary by Robert A. Kleinman, MD, with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, and department of psychiatry, University of Toronto, and Sarah E. Wakeman, MD, with the division of general internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, and Harvard Medical School, Boston, was published in Annals of Internal Medicine.

Currently, short-acting opioids are not recommended in the United States for opioid withdrawal symptoms (OWS) management in the hospital, the authors wrote. Instead, withdrawal symptoms are typically treated, followed by methadone or buprenorphine or nonopioid medications, but many patients don’t get enough relief. Undertreated withdrawal can result in patients leaving the hospital against medical advice, which is linked with higher risk of death.

Addiction specialist Elisabeth Poorman, MD, of the University of Illinois Chicago, said in an interview that she agrees it’s time to start shifting the thinking on using short-acting opioids for OWS in hospitals. Use varies greatly by hospital and by clinician, she said.

Dr. Elisabeth Poorman, University of Washington, Seattle

Dr. Elisabeth Poorman

“It’s time to let evidence guide us and to be flexible,” Dr. Poorman said.

The commentary authors noted that with methadone, patients must wait several hours for maximal symptom reduction, and the full benefits of methadone treatment are not realized until days after initiation.

Rapid initiation of methadone may be feasible in hospitals and has been proposed as an option, but further study is necessary before widespread use, the authors wrote.

Short-acting opioids may address limitations of other opioids

Lofexidine, an alpha-2-adrenergic agonist, is the only drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration specifically for OWS.

“However,” the authors said, “more than half of patients with OWS treated with lofexidine in phase 3 efficacy trials dropped out by day five. Clonidine, another alpha-2-agonist used off label to treat OWS, has similar effects to those of lofexidine. “

Therefore, short-acting opioids may complement methadone and buprenorphine in treating OWS in the hospital by addressing their limitations, the authors wrote.

Dr. Kleinman and Dr. Wakeman also say short-acting opioids may help with starting buprenorphine for patients exposed to fentanyl, because short-acting opioids can relieve withdrawal symptoms while fentanyl is metabolized and excreted.

Supplementation with short-acting opioids within the hospital can relieve withdrawal symptoms and help keep patients comfortable while methadone is titrated to more effective doses for long-term treatment, they wrote.

With short-acting opioids, patients may become more engaged in their care with, for example, a tamper-proof, patient-controlled analgesia pump, which would allow them to have more autonomy in administration of opioids to relieve pain and withdrawal symptoms, the authors wrote.

Dr. Kleinman and Dr. Wakeman noted that many patients who inject drugs already consume short-acting illicit drugs in the hospital, typically in washrooms and smoking areas, so supervised use of short-acting opioids helps eliminate the risk for unwitnessed overdoses.


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