No longer just reserved for severe pain control or to relieve end of life suffering, today a growing number of people with severe lung disease are using opiate medications to help quell their severe dyspnea . Well, you can now add to that list, a certain asthmatic marathon walker by the name of Steve.
The decision to write a post about the use of opiates to treat my breathlessness was a tough one for me. As a responsible blogger I always worry about the possibility of sending the wrong message, especially when it comes to the use of certain treatments and/or medications. Let me be clear in stating, that I don’t advocate the use of opiates for asthmatics in general… the risk of respiratory depression is just too high. There are however, a small percentage of people who’s obstructive lung disease is so advanced, that nothing else works in quelling their breathlessness. Though opiates should only be used as a last resort in treating dyspnea, they do offer a degree of welcome symptom relief for people like me, so I think their use is important to talk about.
For the past year Ive been taking short acting opiates ( ie hydrocodone (Vicodin)and sometimes Dilaudid or Fentanyl) on an as-needed basis for bouts of prolonged moderate level breathlessness. When I say breathlessness, I’m not referring to the sudden shortness of breath that develops from acute bronchospasm or chest tightening you experience during an asthma flare, rather, I’m talking about the type of breathlessness that’s usually associated with air-trapping and chronically low lung function. There’s a huge difference, and thankfully most asthmatics will never experience this second category.
Starting next month ,they (my palliative care docs), wanna put me on a 30 day trial of continuous low dose methadone (Yes, the heroin withdrawal drug). They believe, that having a constant level of opiates in the bloodstream, is more effective in relieving dyspnea, and is better tolerated, than the shorter acting compounded drugs like vicodin (vicodin has tylenol in it).
My biggest concern about taking methadone or any of these morphine-like drugs, is how they will effect my ability to exercise. The experts claim that it might actually improve my exercise tolerance, because I wont “feel” as breathless. We’ll see about that.
Although physicians want to do all they can to help relieve dyspnea in their patients, fear of respiratory depression and criticism by colleagues has discouraged them from using opiates, even in treating those with end-stage disease. Thankfully, that attitude is slowly beginning to change. Opioids are very effective in relieving dyspnea, although the exact mechanism is not understood. Contrary to common belief, this effect does not result through inhibition of respiratory drive. Relief from the “work of breathing” is a function of steady-state opioid levels, much like steady-state opioid levels relieve pain. Inhibition of respiratory drive results primarily from rising opioid serum levels. Studies have demonstrated significant relief of dyspnea from opioids without significant effects on ventilation or pCO2 levels in common therapeutic doses.
For those of you who aren’t quite familiar the terminology, “dyspnea” is the subjective sensation of breathlessness or difficulty in breathing. It’s basically the experience of shortness of breath. Much like physical pain, we all perceive breathing discomfort differently. The way you perceive shortness of breath is probably different than the way I perceive it, and visa versa. Some of us have a higher tolerance for respiratory discomfort , and some lower. A million things can cause dyspnea, including chemical ,neurological and psychological abnormalities, but it’s usually a result of severe lung or heart problems. Dyspnea can me mild or severe. It can be acute ( abrupt ) or chronic ( long standing). Dyspnea is the main cause of suffering in lung disease patients, and is one of the top reasons why people seek emergency room care. Whatever the cause, dyspnea can be difficult to treat and can make your life miserable.
Why did they put ME on opiates in the first place? After all, I’m just a bad asthmatic , right?
Well, basically because we’ve tried everything else.
My lungs are so messed up , that even when my asthma is not flaring, I’m still short of breath. In fact, I’m pretty much short of breath to some degree … all the time. Because I’ve been this way for so long, for the most part it doesn’t bother me that much ….I’m used to it. But, there are other times when my dyspnea , for whatever reason, gets so out of control and so intense that it becomes overwhelming and unbearable. Left unchecked, the resulting stress, anxiety and increased work of breathing that can emerge from these bouts, can actually fuel a full blown asthma exacerbation, leading to an unwanted date with an endotracheal tube.
I still actively practice all the more common treatment strategies, including daily exercise and stress reduction therapy to better manage my dyspnea. And while these more traditional therapies have probably helped me live longer and cope better with my disease, they haven’t alleviated much of the actual suffering. It’s for this reason, and under the guidance of a palliative care specialist, that I choose to take opiate medications and sometimes ativan to manage my dyspnea.
Update: As of 2011 I stopped taking the methadone. Not because it didn’t help, but because I didn’t like the idea of becoming physically addicted to such a powerful drug. After staying on a low dose (25mg per day) for almost a year, I decided to stop taking the drug completely. Knowing that there could be very serious side effects of weaning off the drug too fast, I did it anyway. I don’t recommend doing this, but it worked for me.