Presenter: Dr Joanne Ferguson, FRANZCP, FAChAM, staff specialist psychiatrist, Rozelle Hospital. Medical Director, McKinnon Unit.
Topic: Withdrawal management and detoxification-with a focus on complicated patients. [Although this was based on a talk given by Dr Ferguson, the summary also includes audience discussion and input from the three authors.]
Dr Ferguson stressed that the McKinnon Unit is not a �detoxification� ward but a medical unit which manages drug and alcohol withdrawals. The term detoxification is commonly used to refer to "chemicals, drugs, and food additives in the processed foods that we eat....", so that the general public, as well as our patients, may conceptualise drug withdrawal as a removal of such toxins: bringing to mind colonic irrigation, detox diets like Lemon Detox, herbal laxatives and high-fibre diets eliminating caffeine, meat and processed food, and associated treatments such as lymphatic drainage and massage.
Dr Ferguson used clinical cases to illustrate principles and pitfalls of withdrawal management. Since this is often undertaken in private with minimal problems and no interventions at all, she chose to deal with the more complicated cases such as those with dual diagnosis, dual or triple dependency and/or chronic illnesses.
The first case was a 47 year old labourer who had relapsed after 3 years opioid abstinence. On presentation he was using MS Contin (slow-release morphine) 100mg to 500mg injected each day, to a maximum of up to 800mg in the 16 hrs before admission, with no withdrawal symptoms. He was also taking 10-15 x 5mg diazepam tabs daily (50-75mg daily). He was agitated and tremulous on arrival at the detox unit.
The early signs of irritability, anxiety and enlarged pupils (possibly due to general sympathomimetic arousal) were attributed to benzodiazepine withdrawal, where onset of symptoms is typically after 16 hours or so. Tremor is unusual as a symptom of opioid withdrawal, and might help point to benzodiazepine withdrawal.
The benzodiazepine withdrawal regime at McKinnon Unit is to give 20mg diazepam 2nd hourly, to a maximum of 80mg in 24 hours, reducing to 60mg daily, then 35mg daily, 20mg daily then nil. Dr Ferguson told us that formal scoring of benzodiazepine withdrawal has not been shown to have any predictive value.
Regarding opiate withdrawal there are usually early signs such as enlarged pupils, sweating, pallor, agitation, goose flesh, lacrimation and runny nose. After that, nausea, melancholia and hyperalgesia can occur. At 36-48 hours, abdominal cramps, nausea, diarrhoea, mild leg aches are seen. By this stage, the enlarged pupils usually settle. Beyond this time, at 48-72 hours, there is more prominent aching of the leg and back muscles, abdominal pain and diarrhoea.
For opiate withdrawals at McKinnon Unit the regimen is to give buprenorphine sub-lingual tablets 4mg +4mg+4mg in the first 24 hours. However, with a poor response to this drug initially, this patient needed a further 4mg making 16mg in the first day off heroin. (four-times daily buprenorphine dosing has more to do with service related issues than evidence base).
In this case the patient suffered a protracted withdrawal syndrome, with the need to reintroduce buprenorphine on day 11. This was probably due to the mixed withdrawal syndrome, and possibly inadequately treatment of the opioid withdrawals early on. It may be that buprenorphine doesn't quite have the "grunt" to provide adequate symptom control in some patients.
The second case was a 24 year old methamphetamine-dependent man with schizophrenia, who lived with his family and was on disability support pension. He was taking quetiapine (Seroquel) 600mg bd, amisolpride (Solian) 800mg daily, citalopram (Cipramil) 40 mg daily, and had also been smoking a gram of �ice� daily for 8 months and taking alprazolam (Xanax) 2mg bd � prescribed by a GP.
Withdrawal symptoms of agitation, hallucinations and religious preoccupation settled with diazepam 60mg in 24 hours. He then slept, was quiet and left against medical advice after 4 days, clearly unhappy with continuing treatment (and diazepam had been reduced significantly by then).
Dr Ferguson posed the question of whether there is a withdrawal period from amphetamine use at all, or whether it is just a �recovery period�. Hence symptomatic treatment for agitation and sleeplessness may be provided with medications such as chlorpromazine, olanzapine and/or diazepam: there is some evidence of amphetamine users accessing olanzapine (Zyprexa), as well as the more commonly available benzodiazepines, for self-medication of the amphetamine "come-down". The only thing known to help profound listlessness would be to extend the stimulant use, something Australian doctors are mostly not yet comfortable doing. However, the period of �come-down� is always self limited if the patient can remain drug free.
The third case was a man aged 45 yrs with hep C, cirrhosis, diabetes and leg ulcers who had been drinking 90 to 120g alcohol daily with up to 15 x 5mg tabs diazepam daily. Single and on a pension, he was still looking after his 13 year old daughter. He was a heavy tobacco smoker as well as using injected heroin every 2 weeks on �pay day�.
The case illustrated how comorbid medical problems can have similar signs to alcohol withdrawal, including elevation of body temperature, and how to discriminate with a proper medical evaluation including blood counts and biochemical measures. Other issues were the need for nicotine replacement for tobacco withdrawal; whether agitation might be due to nicotine replacement or nicotine withdrawal; possible advantages of oxazepam over diazepam for severe liver failure with impaired hepatic drug metabolism (risk of over-sedation from accumulation of diazepam); a lower need for diazepam when unwell or drowsy.
A mild Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome may not need any medication within the first 24 hours, after 2-3 days symptoms of anxiety, sweaty, headaches, insomnia, tremor, mild hypertension and tachycardia may be present. �Generally symptoms are mild and require little in way of medication� however medication eases withdrawal and improves outcomes - diazepam and thiamine are the mainstay. There is no evidence of benefit from more than 100mg thiamine daily, however at least the first dose should be given intramuscularly, as after heavy alcohol use there may be chronic or acute diarrhoea, and oral absorption is often poor. For severe intoxication / withdrawal, for example for drinkers of methylated spirits, 100mg thiamine should be given intramuscularly for at least 3 days.
More severe symptoms are dehydration, diarrhoea, anorexia, nausea, vomiting and weakness and very severe cases may have hypertension (diastolic of 120mmHg or greater can require antihypertensives) panic attacks, marked tremors, fever (however true fever is rare unless with an infectious cause). Seizures and delirium are a sign of treatment failure and should not occur when proper medical treatment available.
Alcohol withdrawals can occur with relatively high blood alcohol levels in heavy drinkers, including those who have reduced their use, so one needs to assess baseline use and more recent use.
Alcohol Withdrawal Scales (AWS) are subjective, with infection/fever and other illnesses as potential confounders, and need to be used thoughtfully and in context. Further, AWS has poor correlation with BP/pulse. Providing diazepam only when AWS >5 means people can be significantly uncomfortable before can get treatment. A kinder alternative may be to treat as soon as the BP is elevated or at the first sign of tremor.
The issue of using vigabantrin (Sabril) for alcohol withdrawal was raised as it may have fewer side effects but is currently only approved for resistant epilepsy.
A fourth case was then described of recurrent withdrawal episodes in a 47 year old alcohol and opiate dependent man on pension living alone in a rental flat, a history of depression and hypothyroidism, and more than 10 admissions to hospitals in 12 months, usually through casualty distressed and unable to cope, out of medication in withdrawal, anxious, but also with several falls and injuries, complicated by MRSA infection, and recently shortness of breath with a possible myocardial infarction.
After prolonged withdrawals (80mgs diazepam for 3 days then reducing over 10 days) he was unable to go to rehabilitation as he was overwhelmed and unable to organise himself.
Issues raise by this case were: therapeutic nihilism - where feelings of despair, hopelessness in treatment providers augment the client's feelings of guilt, shame and hopelessness; and the �GOMER� (get out of my emergency room) syndrome. The patient had some cognitive impairment but not so much to need involvement of the Guardianship Board to manage his affairs. Under the NSW Inebriates Act there has been a trial at Nepean Hospital of compulsory treatment for 2 weeks, with another 2 weeks following where necessary. Patients can also be sent to gazetted Psychiatric Hospital beds. This is not feasible for the great majority.
In general the patient needs to initiate treatment, and we need to recognise and accept the limits of what we can do, focus on symptom management not demand management and have a clear consensus of treatment aims, an agreed plan of treatment and a opt out phase.
Dr Ferguson described protocols for withdrawal management at Rozelle Hospital.
Opiate dependency: - buprenorphine 8-12 mg sublingual per day for 3-5 days, depending on opiate type and quantity. Reduce to 8/6/4/2/2 for last 2days. Symptomatic relief with metoclopramide (Maxalon), hyosine (Buscopan), diazepam (Valium).
Alcohol: - diazepam (Valium), dose not set, related to dispensing and review issues, maybe 40mg/day and metoclopramide (Maxolon) and antihypertensive.
Cannabis/THC: Symptoms of insomnia, agitation, irritable, appetite change, lasting 1-5 days, for which benzodiazepines - at lower doses than for alcohol withdrawal - , olanzapine (Zyprexa), mirtazapine (Avanza) may be used. There seems to be a consensus not to do inpatient withdrawal for THC, but McKinnon will do it for failed (and well documented) outpatient withdrawal.
In order to access their services, there needs to be a phone assessment of demographics (do they live in the right area?); drug use and co-morbidities; negotiation of a treatment plan (which MAY include withdrawal medication options) and then articulation of the plan: for admission (the person must phone daily at 7am until they can secure a place for admission); and/or outpatient appointments; documentation for MMT/BMT; mental health assessment; and/or other requirements eg plans for subsequent rehabilitation programs.
Some predictors of failure ambulatory treatment (as an outpatient) are (1) poor support of abstinence; (2) poor housing (or no housing); (3) multiple drug use, including withdrawal from one substance and use of others (except nicotine); (4) or severe symptoms of withdrawal.
The question was raised why drug and alcohol practitioners in the community may have difficulty "referring" their patients to "detox" units, and do not receive discharge summaries as from most other hospital services. One answer may lie in the historical development of hospital drug and alcohol services using a psychiatric care model, with a primary client orientation and team based case, as well as possibly some resistance among nursing staff to perceived medical paternalism. Another may be that referring doctors have not acquainted themselves with the protocols of the "detox" unit.
In the second half there were a few case vignettes and selected scenarios:
"I went into hospital to come off alcohol and benzos, and they just gave me Normison and sent me home on the 3rd day ...". This was a 41yo woman with history of alcohol withdrawal fits, alcoholic hepatitis. Some questions raised were:
1. If someone has a history of having fits while taking benzodiazepines, do they need admission for withdrawal management? A. not necessarily
2. Why does anyone need to go into a detox unit to come off benzodiazepines? Surely you can just change them over to diazepam and reduce the dose, in the community. A: supervision issues.
Evidently this patient�s symptoms were assessed as mild in the first 48 hours, predicting little risk of complicated benzodiazepine withdrawal. However it appears to be an early discharge for alcohol withdrawal, depending on the alcohol use history given.
"I get fits when I stop alcohol, but I'm not going back to that detox place - can't you just give me some Valium, Doc?" This was a 54 yo man on methadone, with hepatitis C, cirrhosis and ascites, presenting to a doctor in the community, with blood alcohol 0.06 and withdrawal symptoms of agitation and marked tremor. As alcohol withdrawal is dangerous, Dr Ferguson considered it medically strongly indicated to give some diazepam. However, some doctors may feels apprehensive about medico-legal consequences of giving diazepam to an intoxicated patient outside a supervised setting. It may be safest in small quantities, especially if supervised at the surgery, clinic or pharmacy.
"I need to go somewhere to come off cannabis, but the rehab won't take me because I'm on methadone, and the detox unit say they don't do cannabis withdrawal...." - it was agreed that some people may need to remove themselves from a high exposure environment to stop cannabis use, and this may be difficult when the person in on MMT. Some "detox" units offer this service, while for others it is considered low priority.
Andrew Byrne posed the question of when and why detoxification units started giving opiates to opiate addicts. Previously it was rather unusual, if not unheard of, rather like giving hospital brandy to alcoholics who were drying out. This changed the nature of the treatment from detoxification to �re-toxification� in many or even most opiate admissions. This can even be the case in those intent on short-term abstinence. Especially with a very long acting drug such as buprenorphine, it ensures that detoxification does not even start until a few days after leaving the ward, quite the opposite of the traditional position. The practice does offer patients a �taste� of one maintenance treatment yet this they could just as easily obtain as out-patients, and most opiate addicts have tried such approaches already. This change in treatment policy seems to have happened without any discussion or most importantly, input from drug users themselves. Dr Ferguson explained that compliance and retention are now better after the introduction of buprenorphine. Yet it is hard to understand how this brings patients closer to the goal of opiate abstinence.