As is true for all opioid medications, the slight variations in the structure of the molecule means that for different people, some medications will work very well and some will not. There would need to be a way to determine quickly whether or not Buprenorphine worked for someone or not, and then a means of determine which would be the best "next alternative" to consider if it did not work for someone.
The harsh reality of my life is that because of the intensity of my pain, I have tried many different opioid medications. While most were weaker in their pain-relieving potency when compared with Buprenorphine, other opioids do not have any "ceiling effect" associated with them, so the more you take the more pain-relieving effects can be felt, and eventually, once the pain sensation has been completely blocked, the individual begins experiencing feelings of pleasure as well. That is almost never going to happen with Buprenorphine. In fact, Buprenorphine will likely not, by itself, completely relieve the pain of anyone whose pain is above moderate levels.
For me, this is acceptable because the trade-off is that Buprenorphine gives me back the mental strength that helps me to better cope with the pain on my own. To me, this is more valuable than raw pain-relieving power because I also need that mental clarity to continue teaching as well.
I have been fortunate, though, to have worked for many years with a progressing pain-management physician--one of the pioneers and leading experts in the field. He and I worked together to try nearly every opioid legally "prescribe-able" along with a few other medications that have been known to have secondary effects of pain relief. Interestingly, many of the medications that I tried, a few of which are even considered especially potent for pain relief (i.e., Fentanyl, delivered directly into the intrathecal space of my spinal cord), made it more difficult for me to fight off the pain because of how they robbed me of my higher brain functions. It creates an interesting dilemma: do I so want to rid myself of the pain that I am willing to just progress through the rest of my life in a mental fog, sleeping most of my day away and being a drain on society and on everyone who cares for me, or am I willing to sacrifice some pain relief to get back my mind and use that mind to fight through the pain and still be alert enough to live life, socialize with loved ones, and contribute to society? I ultimately chose the latter.
For many months during the first few years of the onset of my condition, the tandem of Methadone for long-lasting (8-12 hours) relief along with Oxycodone for "breakthrough" (more intense) pain (2-4 hours) worked best for pain relief. It was not perfect, but it was the best combination of opioids that took the edge off the worst of my pain and got me through my school days well enough so that I could get home and collapse from exhaustion. (Amusingly, despite the fatigue from fighting off the pain all day and the sedation of the medication, I have always struggled to get any significantly restful sleep since the pain started. As a natural cynic, I appreciate the irony that I am completely exhausted and yet struggle to stay asleep for more than 30-45 at any time.)
Well, as I continued to try different medications, without significant success, it finally came time to try one final medication, this Buprenorphine. However, unlike the others, my doctor said that I would have to completely wean myself off of the existing regimen of medication before I could try the Buprenorphine. I would need to go without any pain relief except for what I could get from my spinal cord stimulator for 48-72 hours while my body worked through the existing supply of Oxycodone and (particularly the) Methadone. It was a scary prospect for trying a medication that might not have any relieving effects for me at all, particularly because it would take another 48-72 hours following my last dose of Buprenorphine before I would able to restart my original opioid regimen.
You see, Buprenorphine doesn't get along with other opioids. Unlike my previous regimen of taking both Methadone as a slow-release medication and Oxycodone for the most intense, "breakthrough" pain, Buprenorphine is only for long-lasting relief and cannot be combined with any other pain relievers. It will completely block the pain-relieving effects of the other opioids in your system so well, that it is now replacing Methadone as the drug of choice to help people overcome addiction to narcotics.
Having very few options, because the status quo was simply not acceptable, I waited for a longer break during the school year (I believe that it was Christmas time) to cease those regular opioids and try the Buprenorphine. Fortunately for me, I noticed other benefits right away, as did my family. Within two days of switching to Buprenorphine, while my pain was reduced a little less effectively, my thinking ability, memory recall, and even my personality (which I hadn't even noticed was as affected as it was) came back. For the first time in a couple of years, I felt like "me" again, and while the medication did not relieve the pain as well as the Methadone-Oxycodone tandem, with my mental faculties back again, I was better able to cope with the moderate pain I was still feeling. The combination of the spinal cord stimulator and Buprenorphine had brought me to a point where I was able to reclaim much of what had been lost with the onset of my pain disorder!
Making the switch to Buprenorphine and reclaiming my thinking, memory, and personality was like reaching the peak of Mount Everest, but I needed to muster up all of my courage and put together a safety net of loved ones around me to support me through the process. Without those things in place, the temptation to just give in and go back to my regular meds without even trying the Buprenorphine would have been the most likely outcome. However, now that I achieved that, I am still enduring the process of scaling back down, a journey I suspect will last me the remainder of my lifetime.
I still struggle daily to fight off the moderate to severe pain I am always feeling, but I know from experience that without the neurostimulator and Buprenorphine, my pain is both constant and so excruciating that I doubt I would last more than a couple of days in that state. As it stands now, I have enough of my mental faculties to use my own coping skills to make up the difference I need in pain relief to get through my day until the next day begins anew. It may not be the kind of life that I imagined, but it is a life and I am grateful to be around and coherent enough to appreciate the feeling of helping a student do well in my class or playing catch with my son or watching a movie together with my family. None of this would be possible if I gave into the pain and laid in bed all day.
So my miracle drug is, I believe the solution to this so-called opioid epidemic. It will not only greatly decrease the amount of other opioids in circulation, but there would be virtually no incentive or appeal for those seeking to get high to obtain Buprenorphine.
It would mean a significant movement in re-education though--both for society at large (especially those in pain) and also for the entirety of medical professionals and pharmaceutical companies. More on that in the next blog.
UPDATE: This series and my concluding thoughts on the matter of Buprenorphine is currently on hold. I will seek to resume it and conclude it shortly after the 1st of January 2019.