The opiates, or opioids, strictly speaking, include all the naturally occurring alkaloids in opium, which is prepared from the seed capsules of the poppy Papaver somniferum. For clinical purposes, the term opiate refers only to the alkaloids that have a high degree of analgesic activity, i.e., morphine. The terms opioid and narcotic-analgesic designate drugs with actions similar to those of morphine. Compounds that are chemical modifications of morphine include diacetylmorphine, or heroin, hydromorphone (Dilaudid), codeine, hydrocodone, oxycodone (OxyContin), and from the Victorian era and later, laudanum and paregoric. A second class of opioids comprises the purely synthetic analgesics: meperidine (Demerol) and its congeners, notably fentanyl, methadone, levorphanol, propoxyphene (Darvon), loperamide (the active ingredient in Imodium), and diphenoxylate (the main component of Lomotil). The synthetic analgesics are similar to the opiates in both their pharmacologic effects and patterns of abuse, the differences being mainly quantitative.
Opioids activate G-coupled transmembrane receptors, meaning they influence neuronal activity through the intermediate of cAMP; the receptor types are denominated as mu, delta, and kappa. An understanding of the clinical effects of opioids is clarified by the knowledge that these receptors are concentrated in the thalamus and dorsal root ganglia (mu receptors, pain), amygdala (affect) and brainstem raphe (alertness), and Edinger-Westphal nuclei (pupillary miosis). Receptors in the brainstem, also of the mu type, are involved in modulating respiratory responses to hypoxia and hypercarbia (respiratory suppression). Receptors are also widely distributed in neural components of other organs, particularly the gastrointestinal tract, accounting for the constipation that is an effect of the administration of this class of drugs.
Because of the common, and particularly the illicit, use of opioids, poisoning is a frequent occurrence. This happens also as a result of ingestion or injection accidentally or with suicidal intent, errors in the calculation of dosage, the use of a substitute or contaminated street product, or unusual sensitivity. Children exhibit an increased susceptibility to opioids, so that relatively small doses may prove toxic. This is true also of adults with myxedema, Addison disease, chronic liver disease, and pneumonia. Acute poisoning may also occur in persons who are unaware that opioids available from illicit sources vary greatly in potency and that tolerance for opioids declines quickly after the withdrawal of the drug; upon resumption of the habit, a formerly well-tolerated dose can be fatal.
Unresponsiveness, shallow respirations, slow respiratory rate (e.g., 2 to 8 per min) or periodic breathing, pinpoint pupils, bradycardia, and hypothermia are the well-recognized clinical manifestations of acute opioid poisoning. In the most advanced stage, the pupils dilate, the skin and mucous membranes become cyanotic, and the circulation fails. Later in the course, pulmonary edema may arise, or aspiration pneumonia may become evident as summarized the review of opioid overdose by Boyer. The immediate cause of death is usually respiratory depression with consequent asphyxia. Patients who suffer a cardiorespiratory arrest are sometimes left with all the known residua of anoxic encephalopathy (see Chap. 40). Mild degrees of intoxication are reflected by anorexia, nausea, vomiting, constipation, and loss of sexual interest. Toxicology screens for opiates may be useful but action must be taken before the results of these tests are completed.
This consists of the support of ventilation and administration of naloxone (Narcan), or the longer-acting nalmefene, both specific antidotes to the opiates and also to the synthetic analgesics. The dose of naloxone in adults is usually 0.05 mg and repeated in larger increments (the second dose is typically 2 mg) every 2 min to a dose of 15 mg intravenously as outlined by Boyer. For children, a higher initial dose of 0.1 mg/kg is recommended. The improvements in circulation and respiration and reversal of miosis are usually dramatic. Failure of naloxone to produce such a response should cast doubt on the diagnosis of opioid intoxication. If an adequate respiratory and pupillary response to naloxone is obtained, the patient should nonetheless be observed for up to 24 h and further doses of naloxone (50 percent higher than the ones previously found effective) can be given intramuscularly as often as necessary. An intravenous infusion of naloxone has been recommended if a long-acting narcotic is the cause of overdose. (It is well to inspect the patient for the presence of unnoticed fentanyl patches and establish if a long-acting drug has been available for abuse.)
Naloxone has less direct effect on consciousness, however, and the patient may remain drowsy for many hours. This is not harmful provided respiration is well maintained. Although nalmefene has a plasma half-life of 11 h, compared to 60 to 90 min for naloxone, it has no clear advantage in emergency practice. Gastric lavage is a useful measure if the drug was taken orally. This procedure may be efficacious many hours after ingestion, as one of the toxic effects of opioids is ileus, which causes some of the drug to be retained in the stomach. Concerns of precipitating opioid withdrawal by giving naloxone are generally unfounded.
Once the patient regains consciousness, complaints such as pruritus, sneezing, tearing, piloerection, diffuse body pains, yawning, and diarrhea may appear. These are the recognizable symptoms of the opioid abstinence, or withdrawal, syndrome described later. Consequently, an antidote must be used with great caution in an addict who has taken an overdose of opioid, because in this circumstance, it may precipitate withdrawal phenomena. Nausea and severe abdominal pain, presumably because of pancreatitis (from spasm of the sphincter of Oddi), are other troublesome symptoms of opiate use or withdrawal. Seizures are rare.
Just 50 years ago there were an estimated 60,000 persons addicted to narcotic drugs in the United States, exclusive of those who were receiving drugs because of incurable painful diseases. This represented a relatively small public health problem in comparison with the abuse of alcohol and barbiturates. Moreover, opioid addiction was of serious proportions in only a few cities—New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, and Detroit. Since the late 1960s, a remarkable increase in opioid (mainly heroin) addiction has taken place. The precise number of opioid addicts is unknown but is currently estimated by the Drug Enforcement Administration to be well more than 500,000 (a disproportionate number in large cities). The problem assumes enormous importance when one recognizes that one-quarter of addicts are seropositive for HIV and are the chief source of transmission of AIDS to newborns and to the heterosexual nonaddicted population.
Etiology and Pathogenesis
A number of factors—socioeconomic, psychologic, and pharmacologic—contribute to the genesis of opioid addiction. The most susceptible subjects are young men living in the economically depressed areas of large cities but significant numbers are found in suburbs and in small cities. The onset of opioid use is usually in adolescence, with a peak at 17 to 18 years; fully two-thirds of addicts start using the drugs before the age of 21. Almost 90 percent engage in criminal activity to obtain their daily ration of drugs but most of them have a history of arrests or convictions predating their addiction. Also, many of them have psychiatric disturbances, conduct disorder and sociopathy being the most common ("dual-diagnosis," in psychiatric jargon). Monroe and colleagues, using the Lexington Personality Inventory, examined a group of 837 opioid addicts and found evidence of antisocial personality in 42 percent, emotional disturbance in 29 percent, and thought disorder in 22 percent; only 7 percent were free of such disorders. Vulnerability to addiction was not confined to one personality type.
Association with addicts is the apparent explanation for becoming addicted. In this sense, opioid addiction is contagious, and partly as a result of this pattern, opioid addiction has attained epidemic proportions. A small, almost insignificant proportion of addicts are introduced to drugs by physicians in the course of an illness. Thus there has been a regrettable tendency not to prescribe opiates to patients with acute or chronic pain (e.g., cancer pain) because of the risk of addiction.
Opioid addiction consists of three recognizable phases: (1) intoxication, or "euphoria," (2) pharmacogenic dependence or drug-seeking behavior (addiction), and (3) the propensity to relapse after a period of abstinence. Some of the symptoms of opioid intoxication have already been considered. In patients with severe pain or pain-anticipatory anxiety, the administration of opioids produces a sense of unusual well-being, a state that has traditionally been referred to as morphine euphoria. It should be emphasized that only a negligible proportion of such persons continue to use opioids habitually after their pain has subsided. The vast majority of potential addicts are not suffering from painful illnesses at the time they initiate opioid use, and the term euphoria is probably not an apt description of the initial effects. These persons, after several repetitions, recognize a "high," despite the subsequent recurrence of unpleasant, or dysphoric, symptoms (nausea, vomiting, and faintness as the drug effect wanes).
The repeated self-administration of the drug is the most important factor in the genesis of addiction. Regardless of how one characterizes the state of mind that is produced by episodic injection of the drug, the individual quickly discovers the need to increase the dose in order to obtain the original effects (tolerance). Although the initial effects may not be fully recaptured, the progressively increasing dose of the drug does relieve the discomfort that arises as the effects of each injection wear off. In this way a new pharmacogenically induced need is developed, and the use of opioids becomes self-perpetuating. At the same time a marked degree of tolerance is produced, so that enormous amounts of drugs, e.g., 5,000 mg of morphine daily, can eventually be administered without the development of toxic symptoms.
The pharmacologic (in contrast to psychologic) criteria of addiction, as indicated in Chap. 42 in regards to alcoholism, are tolerance and physical dependence. The latter refers to the symptoms and signs that become manifest when the drug is withdrawn following a period of continued use. These symptoms and signs constitute a specific clinical state, termed the abstinence or withdrawal syndrome (see later). The mechanisms that underlie the development of tolerance and physical dependence are not fully understood. However, it is known that opioids activate an opioid antinociceptive system (enkephalins, dynorphins, endorphins), which are opioid receptors and are located at many different levels of the nervous system (these were referred to earlier and are described in Chap. 8; see also the review of Fields). The desensitization of opioid receptors, probably mainly the mu type, accounts for tolerance through a mechanism of uncoupling of the receptor from the G-protein complex.
The Opioid Abstinence Syndrome
The intensity of the abstinence or withdrawal syndrome depends on the dose of the drug and the duration of addiction. The onset of abstinence symptoms in relation to the last exposure to the drug, however, is related to the pharmacologic half-life of the agent. With morphine, the majority of individuals receiving 240 mg daily for 30 days or more will show moderately severe abstinence symptoms following withdrawal. Mild signs of opiate abstinence can be precipitated by narcotic antagonists in persons who have taken as little as 15 mg of morphine or an equivalent dose of methadone or heroin tid for 3 days.
The abstinence syndrome that occurs in the morphine addict may be taken as the prototype. The first 8 to 16 h of abstinence usually pass asymptomatically. At the end of this period, yawning, rhinorrhea, sweating, piloerection, and lacrimation are manifest. Mild at first, these symptoms increase in severity over a period of several hours and then remain constant for several days. The patient may be able to sleep during the early abstinence period but is restless, and thereafter insomnia remains a prominent feature. Dilatation of the pupils, recurring waves of "gooseflesh," and twitching of the muscles appear. The patient complains of aching in the back, abdomen, and legs and of "hot and cold flashes"; he frequently asks for blankets. At about 36 h the restlessness becomes more severe, and nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea usually develop. Temperature, respiratory rate, and blood pressure are slightly elevated. All these symptoms reach their peak intensity 48 to 72 h after withdrawal and then gradually subside. The opioid abstinence syndrome is rarely fatal (it is life-threatening only in infants). After 7 to 10 days, the clinical signs of abstinence are no longer evident, although the patient may complain of insomnia, nervousness, weakness, and muscle aches for several more weeks, and small deviations of a number of physiologic variables can be detected with refined techniques for up to 10 months (protracted abstinence).
Habituation, the equivalent of emotional or psychologic dependence, refers to the substitution of drug-seeking activities for all other aims and objectives in life. It is this feature that fosters relapse to the use of the drug long after the physiologic ("nonpurposive") abstinence changes seem to have disappeared. The cause for relapse is not fully understood. Theoretically, fragments of the abstinence syndrome may remain as a conditioned response, and these abstinence signs may be evoked by the appropriate environmental stimuli. Thus, when a "cured" addict returns to a situation where narcotic drugs are readily available or in a setting that was associated with the initial use of drugs, the incompletely extinguished drug-seeking behavior may reassert itself.
The characteristics of addiction and of abstinence are qualitatively similar with all drugs of the opiate group as well as the related synthetic analgesics. The differences are quantitative and are related to the differences in dosage, potency, and length of action. Heroin is 2 to 3 times more potent than morphine but the heroin withdrawal syndrome encountered in hospital practice is usually mild in degree because of the low dosage of the drug in the street product. Dilaudid (hydromorphone) is more potent than morphine and has a shorter duration of action; hence the addict requires more doses per day, and the abstinence syndrome comes on and subsides more rapidly. Abstinence symptoms from codeine, while definite, are less severe than those from morphine. The addiction liabilities of propoxyphene, a weak opioid, are negligible. Abstinence symptoms from methadone are less intense than those from morphine and do not become evident until 3 or 4 days after withdrawal; for these reasons methadone can be used in the treatment of morphine and heroin dependency (see further on). Meperidine addiction is of particular importance because of its high incidence among physicians and nurses. Tolerance to the drug's toxic effects is not complete, so that the addict may show tremors, twitching of muscles, confusion, hallucinations, and sometimes convulsions. Signs of abstinence appear 3 to 4 h after the last dose and reach their maximum intensity in 8 to 12 h, at which time they may be worse than those of morphine abstinence.
As to the biologic basis of addiction and physical dependence, our understanding is still very limited. Experiments in animals have provided insights into the neurotransmitter and neuronal systems involved. As a result of microdialyzing opiates and their antagonists into the central brain structures of animals, it has been tentatively concluded that mesolimbic structures, particularly the nucleus accumbens, ventral tegmentum of the midbrain, and locus ceruleus are activated or depressed under conditions of repeated opiate exposure. Thus, chronic opiate usage increases the levels of intracellular messengers (G-proteins) as noted earlier that drive cAMP activity in the locus ceruleus and in the nucleus accumbens; blocking the expression of these proteins markedly increases the self-administration of opiates by addicted rats. As in alcoholism, certain subtypes of the serotonin and dopamine receptors in limbic structures have been implicated in the psychic aspects of addiction and habituation. These same structures are conceived as a common pathway for the impulse to human drives such as sex, hunger, and psychic fulfillment. Camí and Farré reviewed the neurochemical mechanism of addiction.
The diagnosis of addiction is usually made when the patient admits to using and needing drugs. Should the patient conceal this fact, one relies on collateral evidence such as miosis, needle marks, emaciation, abscess scars, or chemical analyses. Meperidine addicts are likely to have dilated pupils and twitching of muscles. The finding of morphine or opiate derivatives (heroin is excreted as morphine) in the urine is confirmatory evidence that the patient has taken or has been given a dose of such drugs within 24 h of the test. The diagnosis of opiate addiction is also at once apparent when the treatment of acute opiate intoxication precipitates a characteristic abstinence syndrome.
Treatment of the Opioid Abstinence Syndrome
Views on the nature of drug addiction and appropriate methods of treatment are as much national and sociologic as they are biologic. Berridge has reviewed some of these historically based factors in reference overall "harm reduction" by using heroin itself to treat heroin addiction. One approach that has achieved some degree of success over the past 40 years has been the substitution of methadone for opioid, in the ratio of 1 mg methadone for 3 mg morphine, 1 mg heroin, or 20 mg meperidine. Because methadone is long acting and effective orally, it needs to be given only twice daily by mouth—10 to 20 mg per dose being sufficient to suppress abstinence symptoms. After a stabilization period of 3 to 5 days, this dosage of methadone is reduced and the drug is withdrawn over a similar period. An alternative but probably less effective method has been the use of clonidine (0.2 to 0.6 mg bid for a week), a drug that counteracts most of the noradrenergic withdrawal symptoms; however, the hypotension that is induced by this drug may be a problem (Jasinski et al).
In Europe, addicts who could not be detoxified and kept free of drugs by any other means have been given diacetylmorphine, the active ingredient in heroin, with some success when compared in clinical trials to methadone (see Oviedo-Joekes et al). Special settings that are capable of medical reversal of overdose are required but the notion of overall reduction in personal and societal harm seems to be attained by even this seemingly extreme measure.
A rapid detoxification regimen that is conducted under general anesthesia was popular in a number of centers as a means of treating opiate addiction has now been largely abandoned for reasons of safety but it could be resurrected if other more conventional approaches continue to be futile. The technique consisted of administering increasing doses of opioid receptor antagonists (naloxone or naltrexone) over several hours while the autonomic and other features of the withdrawal syndrome were suppressed by the infusion of propofol or a similar anesthetic, supplemented by intravenous fluids. Medications such as clonidine and sedatives were also given in the immediate postanesthetic period. There are substantial risks involved in this procedure and several deaths have occurred for which reason it has been all but abandoned. Furthermore, a number of patients continue to manifest signs of withdrawal after the procedure and require continued hospitalization.
Treatment of Opiate Habituation
This is in some ways far more demanding than the treatment of opioid withdrawal and can be best accomplished in special facilities and programs that are devoted wholly to the problem. These are available in most communities. The most effective ones have been the ambulatory methadone maintenance clinics, where more than 100,000 former heroin addicts are participating in rehabilitation programs approved by the FDA. Methadone, in a dosage of 60 to 100 mg daily (sufficient to suppress the craving for heroin), is given under supervision day by day (less often with long-acting methadone) for months or years. Various forms of psychotherapy and social service counseling often administered by former heroin addicts are integral parts of the program.
The results of methadone treatment are difficult to assess and vary considerably from one program to another. Even the most successful programs suffer an attrition rate of approximately 25 percent when they are evaluated after several years. Of the patients who remain, the majority achieves a degree of social rehabilitation, i.e., they are gainfully employed and no longer engage in criminal behavior or prostitution.
The usual practice of methadone programs is to accept only addicts older than age 16 years with a history of heroin addiction for at least 1 year. This leaves many adolescent addicts untreated. The number of addicts who can fully withdraw from methadone and maintain a drug-free existence is very small. This means that the large majority of addicts now enrolled in methadone programs are committed to an indefinite period of methadone maintenance and the effects of such a regimen are uncertain.
An alternative method of ambulatory treatment of the opiate addict involves the use of narcotic antagonists, of which naloxone and naltrexone are the best known. The physical effects of abusing narcotics are thereby partially blocked, and there may be some degree of aversive conditioning if withdrawal symptoms are produced. Naltrexone is favored because it has a longer effect than naloxone, is almost free of agonist effects, and can be administered orally. Similar results have also been achieved with cyclazocine in a small number of highly motivated patients; this drug is administered orally in increasing amounts until a dosage of 2 mg/70 kg body weight is attained. The drug is taken bid (for 2 to 6 weeks) and is then withdrawn slowly.
More recently, interest has centered on the use of sublingual buprenorphine for the treatment of heroin (and cocaine) abuse; this drug has both opioid agonist and antagonist properties; it mutes the effect of withdrawal, also serves as an aversive agent, and its abuse potential is relatively low. A randomized trial conducted by Fudala and colleagues has demonstrated the superiority over methadone of a combination of buprenorphine and naloxone combined with brief counseling in keeping opioid addicts in treatment and abstinent of abused drugs. This approach has been available in Europe for many years and has been adopted in the United States under a Department of Health–supervised program for primary care offices. In addition, there is evidence, based on animal experiments and experience with small numbers of addicts, that it may be useful for the treatment of dual dependence on cocaine and opiates (see Mello and Mendelson), but this has not been confirmed in other clinical trials.
Medical and Neurologic Complications of Opioid Use
In addition to the toxic effects of the opioid itself, the addict may suffer a variety of neurologic and infectious complications resulting from the injection of contaminated adulterants (quinine, talc, lactose, powdered milk, and fruit sugars) and of various infectious agents (injections administered by unsterile methods). The most important of these is HIV infection, but septicemia, endocarditis, and viral hepatitis may also occur. Particulate matter that is injected with heroin or a vasculitis that is induced by chronic heroin abuse may cause stroke by an incompletely understood occlusion of cerebral arteries, with hemiplegia or other focal cerebral signs. Amblyopia, probably as a result of the toxic effects of quinine in the heroin mixtures, has been reported, as well as transverse myelopathy and several types of peripheral neuropathy. The spinal cord disorder expresses itself clinically by the abrupt onset of paraplegia with a level on the trunk below which motor function and sensation are lost or impaired and by urinary retention. Pathologically, there is an acute necrotizing lesion involving both gray and white matter over a considerable vertical extent of the thoracic and occasionally the cervical cord. In some cases, a myelopathy has followed the first intravenous injection of heroin after a prolonged period of abstinence. We have also seen two cases of cervical myelopathy from heroin-induced stupor and a prolonged period of immobility with the neck hyperextended over the back of a chair or sofa.
In addition, we have observed several instances of a subacute progressive cerebral leukoencephalopathy after heroin use, similar to ones that occurred in Amsterdam in the 1980s, the result of inhalation of heroin or an adulterant (Wolters et al; Tan et al). Most instances of this leukoencephalopathy are the result of inhalation of heated heroin vapor in a practice known as "chasing the dragon." The clinical presentation has varied but generally includes stupor, coma, and death, after a latent period of hours or days. In one of our patients, the white matter changes were concentrated in the posterior regions of the hemispheres and in the internal capsules and, in one striking case, in the cerebellar white matter. The MRI is fairly characteristic and the white matter is vacuolated, sparing U-fibers, as indicated by Ryan and colleagues, with an appearance that some authors have indicated simulates the spongiform change of prion disease. The pathophysiology is unknown but adulterants or mitochondrial damage has been suggested.
A similar leukoencephalopathy has also been reported in cocaine users, although a hypertensive encephalopathy or an adrenergic-induced vasculopathy may have played a role in these cases.
Damage to single peripheral nerves at the site of injection of heroin and from compression is a relatively common occurrence. However, bilateral compression of the sciatic nerves, the result of sitting or lying for a prolonged period in a stuporous state or in the lotus position, has occurred in several of our patients. In sciatic compression of this type, the peroneal branch has been more affected than the tibial, causing foot-drop with less weakness of plantar flexion. More difficult to understand in heroin abusers is the involvement of other individual nerves, particularly the radial nerve, and painful affection of the brachial plexus, apparently unrelated to compression and remote from the sites of injection. Possibly in some instances there was a vasculitis affecting peripheral nerves.
An acute generalized myonecrosis with myoglobinuria and renal failure has been ascribed to the intravenous injection of adulterated heroin. Brawny edema and fibrosing myopathy (Volkmann contracture) are the sequelae of venous thrombosis resulting from the administration of heroin and its adulterants by the intramuscular and subcutaneous routes. Occasionally, there may be massive swelling of an extremity into which heroin had been injected subcutaneously or intramuscularly; infection and venous thrombosis appears to be involved in its causation.
The diagnosis of drug addiction always raises the possibility of an assortment of infectious complications: AIDS, syphilis, abscesses and cellulitis at injection sites, septic thrombophlebitis, hepatitis, and periarteritis from circulating immune complexes. Tetanus, endocarditis (mainly caused by Staphylococcus aureus), spinal epidural abscess, meningitis, brain abscess, and tuberculosis have occurred less frequently.