Michael I. Casher, Daniel Gih & Joshua D. Bess
Conventional practice typically has focused on treating active substance use first rather than using simultaneous treatments. Prejudice, fear, and misinformation can influence
this decision. We believe these cases lie on a continuum. At one extreme, ignoring
a past or present SUD may lead a remitted patient toward relapse, or further delay recovery for an active user. At the other end, psychiatrists who overreact to a remote history of substance use may deprive patients of legitimate pharmacologic symptom relief. Most cases lie somewhere in the middle.
A literature review does not support the assertion that the use of these medications leads to future substance use or worsens active use, especially for stimulants. In fact, stepwise—as opposed to concurrent— treatment for both conditions actually may delay recovery and increase patients’ risk for morbidity. We outline issues involved in these complex clinical situations, point out controversies, review relevant research data, and offer guidelines for treatment
benzodiazepines in general medicine and psychiatric practice, based upon their considerable sedative/hypnotic, anxiolytic, anticonvulsant, and muscle-relaxant properties.
Recommendations regarding benzodiazepine use for anxious patients with a history of SUD are not clear-cut. First, it often is difficult to determine whether the patient truly has an anxiety disorder or is suffering anxiety symptoms secondary to substance use and/or withdrawal. In addition, even if a diagnosis of a separate anxiety disorder is established, psychiatrists debate how to treat such patients. Some clinicians maintain that benzodiazepines should be used only for acute detoxification, and that ongoing benzodiazepine use will lead to relapse or benzodiazepine dependence. However, in a prospective study of 545 alcohol use disorder (AUD) patients receiving benzodiazepines for anxiety disorders, Mueller et al found no association—at 12 months or at 12 years—between benzodiazepine use and AUD recurrence. Furthermore, there was no
difference in benzodiazepine usage when comparing patients with and without an AUD.
Geriatric patients who take benzodiazepines are at risk for falls and hip fractures. Although older dementia patients are at particular risk for cognitive problems— including frank delirium—secondary to benzodiazepine use, patients of all ages are susceptible to these medications’ deleterious neurocognitive effects.
Benzodiazepines can lead to excessive sedation, thereby impairing performance at work or school, and have been implicated as a cause of motor vehicle accidents. Finally, a serious drawback to benzodiazepine use is possible lethality in overdose, especially when combined with alcohol.
Benzodiazepine prescribing should not be taken lightly. Always analyze the difference between benzodiazepines’ well-documented efficacy and their adverse effect profile. This risk-benefit analysis becomes much more complex for patients with SUDs.
- severe alcohol dependence (ie, long-term use)
- intravenous drug use
- comorbid alcoholism and antisocial personality disorder.
patients show similar vulnerability—up to 56% of patients screen positive for substance substance abuse or dependence.
Vulnerability to addiction in severely ill psychiatric patients is thought to be related to several factors, including:
- use of drugs as self-medication
- genetic predisposition
- environment/lifestyle that supports substance abuse
- neurobiologic deficits that lead to lack of inhibition of reward-seeking behaviors.
Bipolar disorder patients in particular score high on measures of sensation seeking, which leaves them vulnerable to abusing all classes of substances.
In a 6-year study of 203 patients with severe psychiatric illnesses and SUDs, Brunette et al found that these patients were 2.5 times more likely than patients with severe psychiatric illness alone to abuse prescribed benzodiazepines. In an analysis of Medicaid records, Clark et al found similar vulnerability in patients with major depressive disorder (MDD) and SUD. Not only did these patients show a higher rate of benzodiazepine use than patients with MDD without SUD, but the dual-diagnosis group also gravitated toward more addictive high-potency/fast-acting benzodiazepines, such as alprazolam, estazolam, or triazolam.
Methylphenidate, mixed amphetamine salts, lisdexamfetamine, and atomoxetine are FDA-approved for adult ADHD. Both stimulant classes (methylphenidate and amphetamine-based products) are equally effective for ADHD. In addition, stimulants are used to treat narcolepsy, cognitive disorders such as traumatic brain injury, and as augmentation to antidepressants for MDD. ADHD affects 5% to 12% of children, and >60% of patients remain symptomatic into adulthood and require continued treatment. In particular, problematic inattention may persist throughout adulthood. ADHD does not appear to be an independent risk factor for SUDs in children and adolescents. However, substance use increases sharply as ADHD patients enter late adolescence and adulthood, and eventually becomes a problem for 20% of adolescents and adults with ADHD. Conversely, 17% to 50% of patients with alcohol, cocaine, or opioid dependence have co-occurring ADHD.
Withholding ADHD treatment based on concerns about future or increased current substance abuse is unfounded. A meta-analysis of 6 studies that included 674 medicated and 360 unmedicated patients with ADHD who were followed at least 4 years demonstrated that childhood treatment of ADHD with stimulants reduces the risk of developing alcohol and other drug disorders in adulthood. Regarding the effect stimulants have on active substance use, a 12-week, double-blind, randomized controlled trial of 48 cocaine-dependent adults with ADHD showed methylphenidate did not change cocaine abuse or craving, but did improve ADHD symptoms.
Clinicians also must assess whether untreated ADHD symptoms impair patients’ work or other activities. Driving is a particular concern because ADHD is associated with risky driving habits, motor vehicle accidents, traffic violations, and driving license suspensions. In a study that administered cognitive tests to adults with ADHD, methylphenidate treatment improved cognitive performance related to driving (eg, better visual-motor coordination under high-stress conditions, improved visual orientation, and sustained visual attention). It is likely this effect could be generalized to other activities where safety is important. Finally, appropriate stimulant treatment may improve participation in rehabilitative programs. Despite their positive effects, stimulants can have adverse effects and consequences. In routinely prescribed dosages, methylphenidate and amphetamines can cause symptoms related to sympathetic activation, including anxiety, tics, anorexia/ weight loss, and sleep disturbance. A 5-year study of 79 school-age children prescribed methylphenidate, dextroamphetamine, or pemoline, which is no longer available in the United States, showed a significant association between adherence to stimulants and persistence of physiological (eg, headaches, insomnia, anorexia) and mood-related (eg, irritability, dysphoria) side effects. Stimulants’ sympathomimetic properties also can lead to dangerous drug-drug interactions with monoamine oxidase inhibitors. For both methylphenidate and amphetamines, overdose can lead to seizures, cardiac toxicity, dysrhythmias, and hyperthermia. All stimulants carry an FDA “black-box” warning that lists increased risk of cardiac complications, sudden death, and psychiatric complications such as psychosis or mania
Educate patients and caregivers about the risks of taking a controlled substance, including misuse, diversion, and theft. Provide and document explicit instructions that the patient will receive stimulants from only a single provider. Remind patients that state and federal authorities closely track controlled medications. Finally, a “stimulant contract” or “benzodiazepine contract,” similar to a pain or narcotic contact, may be useful to formally document discussions about appropriate medication use.