Saturday, May 7, 2016

Trauma and Recovered Memories

The American Psychological Association defines trauma as an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, nightmares, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea. There is no doubt that many survivors of trauma suffer terribly due to the after effects of events that are beyond the capacity of the human mind and body to absorb overwhelming physical and emotional stimuli.

Today, many patients come to us with trauma histories, and seek relief from the aftereffects. Here I’ll discuss a particular type of trauma experience, the recovered memory. A recovered memory is a recollection of a traumatic event that the patient was unaware of until it was uncovered during the psychotherapeutic process. Once uncovered, the memory may become the focus of a lengthy therapeutic process often lasting years in which the patient is helped to come to terms with the event.

How is it possible that a traumatic event could not be remembered? It would seem that an event of overwhelming emotional or physical (or both) intensity would be impossible to forget. The rationale involves repression, a concept promoted by Sigmund Freud and others who believe in the psychoanalytic theory of the mind. In repression, traumatic thoughts, impulses, and experiences pass out of consciousness because the conscious mind cannot cope with them. However, Freud believed the events did not disappear from the psyche, but rather remained active in the unconscious mind, where they could still play havoc by resulting in all sorts of emotional disabilities such as anxiety, or even physical symptoms. This concept is so engrained culturally that we may hear in everyday conversation a person with peculiar behaviors referred to in a pejorative manner as “really repressed”.

In medical school, nascent doctors are taught about differential diagnosis, which is basically the process of formulating a list of possible etiologies for a patient’s particular suite of clinical signs and symptoms. So, for example, shortness of breath might be due to lung, heart, or even central nervous system disorders. Medications can also contribute to shortness of breath. Similarly, from a differential diagnosis perspective, psychiatric symptoms like anxiety and depression can have many causes. For some people, there appears to be an inherited, genetic predisposition to these disorders. For others, physical illness can bring on anxious and depressed feelings. Still others experience these emotions when life stressors such as family, job, or financial stressors increase. Finally, for many depression and anxiety appear to arise out of the blue without a clear familial, physical, psychosocial basis.

It is important in approaching any patient in emotional distress that the differential diagnosis be open. If the clinician has the belief that certain mental symptoms are the result of trauma, then by necessity the trauma must be identified. If the patient cannot recall trauma, the clinician who is a believer in repressed memories will search for trauma in therapy using techniques such as hypnosis, guided imagery, and frank suggestion. These approaches have been shown over and over to be highly unreliable and many cases of false recovered memories have been documented. During the 1980’s and 1990’s, there was a veritable explosion in patients who reported that memories of past trauma had been recovered in therapy. Perhaps one of the most tragic cases of recovered memories is discussed in Pulitzer Prize winning author Lawrence Wright’s book “Remembering Satan”. Many other accounts of negative outcomes from recovered memories therapy have been published. Some clinicians practicing recovered memories therapy ended up facing malpractice litigation.

In fact, the scientific study of recovered memories, pioneered by the psychologist Elizabeth Loftus (co-author of “The Myth of Repressed Memory”), has demonstrated that memories are malleable, often unreliable, and subject to change over time. Experiments in the laboratory reveal that in psychologically normal individuals, memories may arise that seem real, but are in fact not based in actual experience (for example, see Patihis and colleagues, PNAS, 110:20947–20952, 2013). Longitudinal studies of those exposed to a single, well documented traumatic event have found that memories of the degree of threat posed by the event become amplified over time (Heir and colleagues, Br J Psychiatry 194:510-514, 2009). Finally, convincing evidence that repressed memories lead to emotional or physical illness has never emerged, despite widespread acceptance of this notion by the psychoanalytic community for over 100 years. Although the mind and body are closely interconnected, there are no scientific data to support memories hidden in the unconscious mind as a source of bodily distress.

In recent years, most therapists have come to recognize that recovered memories are often distorted or false, and the popularity of this psychotherapeutic approach has declined significantly from its peak around 1990. Still, the practice lives on. I recently cared for a hospitalized patient who experienced suicidal thoughts after his psychotherapist guided him in recovering memories of childhood sexual abuse. Until the therapy, the patient never had any recollection of abuse. However, the therapist had decided that the patient’s symptoms must be due to repressed memories, and hence patient was guided toward remembering things that he had never before remembered. In the hospital, the patient improved dramatically without any specific treatment other than standard daily cognitive behavioral group therapy. At discharge, the patient revealed that the recovered memories therapy itself had been traumatic and that he now realized the therapy provoked his suicidal thoughts.

When approaching any new patient reporting a history of trauma, it is worth asking if the memory of trauma was elicited during therapy. It is often difficult to obtain independent verification of events from the distant past, but given the unreliability of therapy-recovered memories, the clinician should at entertain alternative hypotheses about the psychological basis for the patient’s distress. Sadly, recovered false memories can often form the basis for a lasting sense of victimization, which can seriously impede opportunities for personal growth and fulfillment. Recovered memories therapy is a failed method from the 1980’s that has not been verified through scientific investigation, and hence has no place in modern, evidence-based psychotherapy. Since the 1980’s there have been significant advances in psychotherapy and medications for anxiety, depression, and other mental conditions that do not involve searching for repressed memories of trauma, and have solid scientific evidence for their efficacy.

But what of the many patients who have truly experienced devastating trauma in the past and seek guidance in coping with their emotions, and moving forward? There are a number of evidence-based psychotherapeutic and medication-based treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that can readily be utilized by the skilled clinician to ease the suffering of these patients (for example, see Greenberg and colleagues, Br Med Bulletin 114:147-155, 2015; Cusack and colleagues, Clinical Psychology Rev 43:128-141, 2016). Cognitive behavioral therapy is an excellent starting point, with a modern antidepressant such as an SSRI added if need be. In addition, many up-to-date clinicians are incorporating new scientific findings and techniques from the field of Positive Psychology that focus on human resiliency and growth after trauma, rather than on victimization and disability (for example, see the findings of Tsai and colleagues, Psychological Med 45:165-179, 2015).

Over 25 years after the recovered memories heyday, the concept still elicits strong opinions among clinicians and patients. However, there is little rationale for employing this technique in clinical practice, and working with the assumption that certain symptoms by definition must be due to a repressed memories is very poor medicine.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Polypharmacy and the Deprescribing Movement

As we get older, the number of medications we take increases. According to 2013 data from the Kaiser Foundation, in California people in the 19-64 age range filled or refilled an average of 11.1 prescriptions per year, whereas those 65 and older the number of prescriptions filled or refilled was 31.4 on average. In my hospital practice, I routinely see elderly patients for changes in mental status who are taking 10 or more medications for a variety of conditions. However, younger and middle aged people with a chronic condition such as diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or pain, as well as psychiatric conditions such as depression or anxiety, are likely to be taking multiple medications. Further, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of medications per person is increasing each year, regardless of age (

Polyphamacy is the practice of simultaneously prescribing multiple medications, often to treat a single medical condition. In the elderly, polypharmacy often involves multiple medications for each of several medical conditions, which results in a truly overwhelming array of tablets, capsules, and liquids that must be ingested daily. Often the medications are prescribed at as many as 4 different times a day, making it virtually impossible to keep track of which pills have been taken at what times. As a result, dosing compliance becomes difficult, as patients inadvertently miss doses or double up on doses in a single day. Cost becomes a major concern, because insurance co-pays on multiple medications, particularly those still under patent protection, rapidly add up.

Polypharmacy not only raises compliance and medication cost concerns, but also can result in serious medical complications. In a study of over 1000 elderly patients presenting to the emergency room with falls, 63% of the fallers were taking 4 or more medications (McMahon and colleagues, Age Ageing. 2014 Jan;43(1):44-50). Among medication classes, opiate painkillers are among the most commonly prescribed, according to data from the Rochester Epidemiology Study. Benzodiazepine tranquilizers, such as diazepam (Valium), chlordiazepoxide (Librium), and lorazepam (Ativan) are also very commonly prescribed in primary care settings as well as in hospitals. In patients with chronic pain, opiates and benzodiazepines are often co-prescribed. Both opiates and benzodiazpeines affect balance, coordination, and mental awareness, markedy increasing the risk of falls and other accidents. The American Geriatrics Society (J AmGeriatr Soc. 2012;60(4):616-631) has published a list of potentially inappropriate medications for older people; the majority of the medications on this list have sedating properties. However, many of these medications continue to be prescribed, often in combination, to older people.

In patients with chronic pain, knowledgeable practitioners often prescribe modern antidepressants such as venlafaxine or duloxetine, as these have demonstrated efficacy in many chronic pain disorders, even when the patient does not complain of depression. However, contrary to popular belief, these antidepressants are not without side effects, particularly in the elderly. Antidepressants such venlafaxine and duloxetine, as well as other widely prescribed antidepressants such as fluoxetine and citalopram, result in a small but significant in increase the risk of fractures in the elderly. The increased risk is probably due to antidepressant induced dizziness, as well as a possible direct effect on bone metabolism. Modern antidepressants also frequently induce hyponatremia (low serum sodium), which has repeatedly been associated with falls. When the antidepressant is added to opiate painkillers and benzodiazepine tranquilizers in the elderly patient with chronic pain, the risks of falls and other accidents are compounded.

An important reason why polypharmacy effects on balance, coordination, and level of awareness are of particular concern in the elderly is the change in neurologic and musculoskeletal function that occurs with aging. At 80 years of age most people experience a signficant decline in muscle mass, strenth, balance, joint range of motion, cardiac output, and maximum breathing capacity. Together, these changes may result in a condition termed frailty, which has various definitions but can include weight loss, lack of endurance along with easy exhaustion, loss of grip strength, difficulty arising from a chair, and decreased overall physical activity. There is often mild cognitive impairment. When medications promoting sedation, cognitive changes, or impairment of balance and muscle strength are prescribed to the frail elderly, the risk increases for falls, hip fractures, motor vehicle accidents, and other serious injury. Further, medications impairing mobility directly promote frailty by limiting overall activity, which in turns accelerates the process of decline. There is a strong positive correlation between the number of medications prescribed, and frailty in the elderly (Cullinan and colleagues Age Ageing. 2016 Jan;45(1):115-20). Although frail elders may be prescribed more medications in an attempt to correct conditions leading to frailty, it is certain that prescribing medications that affect cognition and mobility promote frailty.

Polypharmacy can result in both additive as well as interactive adverse events. One of the most common examples of additive effects I see is prescribing multiple sleeping medications in patients with insomnia. So for example, a patient complaining of insomnia may receive zolpidem (Ambien) for sleep, at increasing doses, but get little relief. Then a second agent, often a classic benzodiazepine such as temazepam (Restoril), may be prescribed, and then perhaps the sedating antidepressant trazodone (Desyrel), given usually at a dose lower than that used in treating depression. The end result is that during the night and the next morning the patient is quite intoxicated by this medication combination. This increases the risk for falls, transient cognitive impairment, auto accidents, impaired job performance, and when used for long periods of time may actually induce depression. Often, I am astonished to find that these patients have never had a comprehensive evaluation with a sleep specialist, nor have they been instructed in basic non-pharmacologic means for treating insomnia such as sleep hygiene, regular exercise, and decreasing alcohol intake. Even more astonishing is when I find that patients taking heavy doses of multiple sleep medications are then co-prescribed stimulants such as methylphenidate (Ritalin) or amphetamine (Adderall) to combat daytime sleepiness, which has been induced by the sedative aftereffects of the sleeping medications. These toxic sedative-stimulant combinations often result in the patient eventually being hospitalized for detoxification.

In addition to additive effects, polypharmacy can have interactive effects. A classic example would be prescribing the commonly used antibiotic erythromycin to a patient also taking digoxin for control of atrial fibrillation. The erythromycin inhibits metabolism of digoxin by the liver, resulting in sky-high digoxin levels in the body. This can lead to dangerous changs in cardiac electrical conduction as well as mental status changes such as confusion. Or, a patient taking lithium carbonate for bipolar illness is prescribed a thiazide diuretic for high blood pressure, resulting in impaired kidney clearance of lithium and a toxic reaction including confusion, gastrointestinal distress, tremors, and incoordination. There are many other examples of direct medication interactions, and the complexity of these interactions increases dramatically when the number of medications is large, because some medications may either augment or counteract interactions between other medications. It is extremely difficult to predict the nature and severity of interactions when a patient is taking 10 or more medications, as is the case with many elderly patients.

In psychiatry, polypharmacy usually starts when a patient does not respond to a single agent. There is a vast literature, including results from some excellent clinical trials, on augmentation of antidepressant effects. Unfortunately, the results have not been encouraging. Patients who fail to respond to single antidepressant rarely receive addition benefit by prescribing a second antidepressant agent. Taking more than one antidepressant with essentially the same mechanism of action in the brain is unlikely to help. Thus, simultaneous prescribing of fluoxetine, paroxetine, citalopram, escitalopram, or sertraline is irrational, since they all do about the same thing in the brain. Often the rationale is given that, for example, the patient is at the maximum dosage of say fluoxetine is being given, so therefore paroxetine, should be added to give more of a “boost”. This is wishful thinking. Even co-prescribing agents with different mechanisms of action, such as venlafaxine and bupropion has little empiral support. In fact, antidepressant non-response is one of the biggest problems in clinical psychiatry. All too often it is addressed by layering one medication on top of another with no benefit and sometimes a disabling increase in side effects, not to mention prescription costs to patients. Sadly, I often find that patients referred to me for antidepressant nonresponse are receiving a purely pharmacologic approach in which medications are added one after another without any regard for other effective modalities for treating depression such as psychotherapy, mindfulness, exercise, and others.

The only FDA-approved anti-depressant augmenting agents are secondary generation antipsychotics, such as quetiapine and aripiprazole. In recent years, use of antipsychotic medications for depression has increased dramatically, as pharmaceutical companies have gained FDA approval to broaden the indications for these medications from schizophrenia and bipolar mania to include augmentation of conventional antidepressants. In a longintudinal analysis of office visits for depressions, co-prescribing of an antipsychotic increased from 4.6% in 2000 to 12.5% in 2010 (Gerhard and colleagues, J Clin Psychiatry. 2014 May;75(5):490-7). Modern antipsychotic medications do show efficacy as augmenting agents. For example, a promising, well performed clinical trial indicates that the antipsychotic aripiprazole can augment the effects of antidepressants in geriatric depression (Lenze and colleagues, Lancet. 2015 Dec 12;386(10011):2404-12). Other similar studies exist for younger and middle aged adult populations.

Nevertheless, great caution should be taken in prescribing antipsychotics to augment the effects of conventional antidepressants. Antipsychotics increase the risk for significant side effects including weight gain, increased serum lipids, diabetes, cardiac electrical conduction changes and even irreversible neurologic syndromes. In addition, multiple studies have indicated that antipsychotic use is associated with an increase in the risk of sudden cardiac death, primarily due to lethal cardiac arrythmias. The risk of sudden death due to antipsychotics has been estimated as being 1.5 to 3 times that in the general population (Wu and colleagues, J Am Heart Assoc. 2015 Feb 23;4(2). In elderly individuals, particularly those with dementia, the risk may be particularly high (Maust and colleagues JAMA Psychiatry. 2015 May;72(5):438-45). For these reasons, it is important to use the lowest possible dose of antipsychotics, and in particular to avoid the high doses that are routinely used to treat schizophrenia and bipolar mania. For example, in the Lenze and colleagues study of aripiprazole augmentation in geriatric depression, the median dose in those achieving remission from depression was 7 mg. This is considerably less than the 20 mg dose routinely used in psychotic disorders.

Another topic of active debate in psychiatry is antipsychotic polypharmacy. Antipsychotics are routinely used to treat schizophrenia and bipolar mania. Patients with these conditions undergo periodic exacerbations of debilitating symptoms such as hallucinations and delusions. These symptoms respond to antipsychotics, but many times the positive effects can be excruciatingly slow, resulting in prolonged hospitalizations and patient suffering. When antipsychotic response is slow or incomplete, even at high dosages, many clinicians add a second antipsychotic in hopes that it will augment the effects of the first agent.

Data from the national Danish health registers indicate that antipsychotic polypharmacy peaked in 2006 at 30.8% of patients with schizophrenia, but was still highly prevalent in 2012, with 24.6% of patients receiving 2 or more antipsychotics (Sneider and colleagues Eur Neuropsychopharmacol. 2015 Oct;25(10):1669-76). Another recent study from the US showed a similar rate 23.3% polypharmacy among people with schizophrenia (Fisher and colleages, BMC Psychiatry. 2014 Nov 30;14:341). Despite widespread antipsychotic polypharmacy there is little evidence to support this practice, and increasing evidence that it is harmful. For example, a major concern with all antipsychotics is that they alter cardiac electrical conduction, which can lead to potentially lethal arrhythmias. The measure on the electrocardiogram (EKG) used to monitor this is the “QT” interval. When the QT interval lengthens, the risk of an arrhythmia increases. A recent analysis by Barbui and colleagues (PLoS One. 2016 Feb 3;11(2):e0148212) demonstrated that antipsychotic polypharmacy promotes prolonged QT interval. This finding is makes sense, in that QT prolongation by antiopsychotics is dose related, and when two are combined, the dose is effectively increased, even if the dose of the individual agents is low. As a result of widespread antipsychotic polypharmacy, researchers are starting to address the issue with clinical trials. In a carefully performed study, about 80% people with schizophrenia receiving antipsychotic polypharmacy were transitioned to monotherapy without any clinical worsening (Borlido and colleagues J Clin Psychiatry. 2016 Jan;77(1):e14-20). Similar trials are needed to assess whether antipsychotic polypharmacy has any real benefits.

In my experience, the number one clinician error leading to antipsychotic polypharmacy is not waiting long enough for the intial antipsychotic to reach full efficacy. Although there is good evidence that antipsychotics begin to have their positive effects soon after initiation, they may not reach full efficacy until 4 or more weeks. If the initial dosage is low, which is the prudent way to begin most drug treatments, the full onset may take even longer depending on how rapidly the dose is increased. Further, some patients simply appear to take longer than average to respond. In such cases, it is temping to add a second antipsychotic to try to accelerate the process, despite that lack of evidence that this practice results in improvement. Another practice I often see is simultaneous treatment with two antipsychotics each at half maximum dosage. It makes more sense, and reduces polypharmacy, to use a single agent at a dosage near the recommended maximum before considering a second agent.

Among the more popular antipsychotic polypharmacy practices is to combine clozapine with another antipsychotic, there being some evidence for the efficacy of “clozapine augmentation”. Not all studies support clozapine augmentation, and more quality clinical trials are required. Clozapine itself is an emotionally charged topic for patients, families, and clinicians, with some maintaining that it is a “wonder drug” that works when other medications fail. Meta-analyses of antipsychotic efficacy do sometimes show a slight advantage for clozapine compared to other modern antipsychotics. But those findings are largely based on comparisons of clozapine with older antipsychotics, and there are few data comparing clozapine head to head with other modern antipsychotics. In fact, a very recent meta-analysis that considered only the highest quality studies found no advantage for clozapine over other modern antipsychotics (Samara and colleagues, JAMA Psychiatry. 2016 Mar 1;73(3):199-210). Given that clozapine has a particularly unfavorable side effect profile, particularly in the elderly, considerable caution is required when combining this agent with others, especially if high dosages are involved

In the current environment of widespread polypharmacy, the concept of deprescribing has arisen (for a recent review, see Scott and colleagues, JAMA Intern Med. 2015 May;175(5):827-34). Deprescribing is the thoughtful, carefully considered elimination of medications in patients suffering from polypharmacy. The goal is to remove unnecessary or redundant medications, to minimize drug interactions, and to identify if possible non-pharmacologic treatments so as to reduce the number of prescriptions. Clinical pharmacists, especially those specializing in geriatric pharmacy, have played an important role in promoting deprescribing, but the movement is gaining momentum among physicians, too.

Although there is ample evidence for the negative effects of polypharmacy, clinical trials of deprescribing are in an early stage. However, results thus far are encouraging. For example, Potter and colleagues (PLoS One. 2016 Mar 4;11(3):e0149984) recently studied frail nursing home residents taking a mean of 9.5 medications, who underwent deprescribing, on average, of 2 medications. There were no adverse effects of the deprescribing protocol, and no clinical worsening. A number of clinical trials have shown that deprescribing benzodiazepines while simultaneously prescribing cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy for insomnia results in fewer medications and improved sleep. The are several criteria for deprescribing available (for example, the “STARTT/STOP” criteria; Mahony and colleagues, Age Ageing. 2015 Mar;44(2):213-8), that have been successfully applied in clinical deprescribing trials. One of the challenges at present is to devise deprescribing protocols that minimize potential withdrawal symptoms, re-emergence of symptoms, and provide sufficient patient support to ensure compliance.

The deprescribing movement dovetails nicely with the principles of conservative prescribing (Schiff and colleagues, Arch Intern Med. 2011 Sep 12;171(16):1433-40), which include starting with only 1 drug at a time, thinking beyond drugs for treatment, practicing strategic and limited prescribing, and being vigilant for medication side effects. Physicians who follow these and other conservative prescribing guidelines will be much less likely to subject their patients to toxic polypharmacy.

In summary, polypharmacy is rampant in modern medicine, particularly among those with chronic conditions, the elderly, and those with intractable psychiatric conditions. The potential for adverse medication interactions and side effects, not to mention the cost in wasted health care dollars, is high. Evidence-based prescribing, proactive deprescribing when appropriate, and emphasis on non-pharmacologic treatments when possible can be of great benefit in reducing polypharmacy.

Oddly, I’ve found that in promoting deprescribing, I sometimes run into resistance from psychiatric colleagues who view this approach as “anti-medication”. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Deprescribing seeks to achieve more elegant, parsimonious, and patient-centered prescribing to maximize efficacy and minimize side effects. There is great emphasis today on finding genetic, brain imaging and other biomarkers to “personalize” prescribing in psychiatry and other fields of medicine. For patients experiencing polypharmacy, a careful deprescribing approach can result in a considerably closer match between medications and the patient, and is easily implemented by any thoughtful physician.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Opiates, Mood, and Cognition

Today opiate painkillers are prescribed more and more frequently. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) figures show a 300% increase in prescription opiate pain medications since 1999. The CDC also states that almost 2 million people in the US either abused or were dependent on these agents in 2013. Opiate pain medications include hydrocodone, oxycodone, morphine, codeine, and others. They are sold under familiar brand names such as Vicodin, Norco, Percocet, Oxycontin, and MS Contin. There is absolutely no question that these medications are highly effective in treating acute pain, such as that after trauma or a surgery, and also in treating pain associated with cancer. In fact, in patients with terminal illnesses with significant pain, they may be underutilized, resulting in unnecessary suffering. Yet, in patients with chronic, non-cancer pain (such as low back pain), these medications have significant side effects that may result in changes in mood, memory, coordination, and even basic functions such as breathing and gastrointestinal activity. For this reason, many authorities, including the CDC, are calling for a reassessment of opiate prescribing for chronic, non-cancer pain. I’ll discuss some of the pros and cons of these medications from a psychiatric perspective.

A major psychiatric concern with opiates is their tendency to cause substance induced mood disorder and substance induced cognitive disorder. This means that after taking a “substance” such as a prescription medication, street drug, or even alcohol for an extended period, the person develops a mood disorder, usually depression, or a cognitive disorder, meaning their memory and ability to carry out complex tasks becomes impaired. For opiates, there is striking new evidence from an epidemiologic study that long term use results in depression. Scherrer and colleagues (Ann Fam Med 2016; 14:54-62. doi: 10.1370/afm.1885) studied the records of over 100,000 patients. They found that the longer a person takes opiate pain killers, the greater the risk of depression. Interestingly, the opiate dose was less important than the duration of treatment in predisposing to depression. Sometimes patients with pain experience a temporary improvement in mood when starting opiates, because their pain is decreased. However, these new data show that long term use can readily lead to depression.

How does long term opiate use cause depression? Opiates decrease activity in nervous system overall, and in fact high doses of opiates will cause sedation and even loss of consciousness. Chronic opiate use may decrease activity of key nerve cells involved in regulation of mood and hence lead to depression. To correct this situation, the opiates should be stopped, so the activity of the nervous system can return to normal. This allows the mood to return to a normal, baseline state.

Sometimes antidepressants are prescribed to treat depression in heavy opiate users, without stopped or decreasing the opiates. This approach is unwise. Because opiates alter brain function, antidepressants cannot exert their therapeutic action as they otherwise would do. Further, combining opiates with antidepressants, many of which have side effects such as sedation, can result in potentially dangerous and unpredictable drug interactions. For example, opiates can potentiate the serotonergic actions of common antidepressants such as fluoxetine, leading to a toxic state. In the case of monoamine oxidase inhibiting antidepressants, interactions with opiates can be fatal. In general, “polypharmacy” with drugs acting on the central nervous system is unwise. A far better strategy is to “deprescribe” the opiate, and then see if the mood returns to normal. If not, then an antidepressant, or psychotherapy, or both, may be given.

Another concern with long term opiate use is negative effects on cognition. Cognition encompasses a variety of brain functions including memory, attention and concentration, orientation to place and time, language skills, calculations, planning and foresight, and others. In some patients with significant pain, it appears that opiates can improve cognition by allowing them to focus their thinking rather than being distracted by pain. On the other hand, opiates inhibit awareness and cause sedation, so other patients, particularly elderly ones, may experience a marked decline in cognition with chronic opiate use. Fortunately, this cognitive change is reversible when the opiates are discontinued. Before a patient with cognitive changes were diagnosed as having an irreversible disorder such as Alzheimer’s disease, it is essential that sedated medications such as opiates be discontinued to see if cognition improves.

Even without opiate use, many patients with chronic, non-cancer pain experience depression. There appears to be a two-way vicious cycle: the greater the pain, the more the discouragement and depression. And, the lower the mood gets, the more readily the pain sensations enter into awareness. This is a key point: low mood increases pain awareness. Improved mood results in decreased pain awareness, even if the physical basis for the pain, for example disk disease in the spine, has not changed. When chronic opiate use is added to the mix in a patient with chronic pain and depression, the mood can plummet to dangerous levels – suicidal thoughts may arise, which are particularly concerning when a ready means for self-harm such as opiates are at hand.

Thus, there are definite advantages to discontinuing opiates if you are experiencing depression, forgetfulness or other changes in cognition, or side effects such as chronic constipation or incoordination and falls. Or, if the opiates are no longer alleviating pain, or if you find yourself on a never-ending cycle of increasing pain and increasing dose. However, as many people have found, opiates can induce a psychological and even a physical dependence. Although we may imagine that only users of street opiates like heroin experience an unpleasant withdrawal syndrome when they quit, this also occurs when discontinuing prescription opiates abruptly. Yet, it is possible to gradually wean completely off prescription opiates if you receive the proper support and medical supervision, as well as alternative medical and non-medical means of managing the pain disorder that resulted in the original opiate prescription. I’ll discuss these approaches in a future blog.

Strangely, although there is ample evidence of overprescribing of opiate pain medications for chronic, non-cancer pain, there is also concern that in the case of the terminally ill, particularly those with cancer, in many cases opiates are under-prescribed. This has prompted state medical boards, such as that in California, to mandate education for physicians on end of life issues and appropriate, humane use of opiates in terminally ill patients. It is a paradox that opiates may be under-utilized in terminally ill patients out of concerns for addiction or abuse, whereas for patients with chronic pain, which many times can be adequately treated by non-pharmacologic means, opiates are over-utilized.