Category Archives: Drug Evaluations

Effective Treatment of Heroin Withdrawal in Corrections

Imagine this: You’re practicing medicine and a patient comes to you with an illness. You make the diagnosis and then say to the patient, “I can see that you are very sick. And there is a highly effective treatment for your condition that would make you feel a lot better. It’s simple and it isn’t even expensive. But, you know what? I’m not going to give it to you! You’re not sick enough. Come back tomorrow. If you’re sicker tomorrow—well, if you’re sick enough—I will treat you then. But not right now.”

Crazy, right? We’d never do such a thing.

But . . . the problem is, we frequently do that exact thing with our heroin withdrawal patients. I’m not singling out correctional medicine practitioners here. I think that, in general, heroin withdrawal is treated better in correctional settings than it is in the community. Nevertheless, it is a fact that heroin withdrawal is often not properly treated in jails and prisons. I have seen it.

I believe that there are four main reasons that some facilities do not appropriately treat heroin (and other opioid) withdrawal. Continue reading

Medications at High Risk for Diversion and Abuse In Correctional Facilities

The practice of Correctional Medicine has many strange differences from medicine outside the walls. It took me a couple of years to get comfortable with the various aspects of providing medical care to incarcerated inmates. Of all of these differences, one that stands out in importance is the fact that many seemingly benign medications are abused in correctional settings.

Of course, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has established a list of drugs known to have potential for abuse and even addiction. The DEA even ranks these drugs according to the severity of this risk. Schedule I drugs carry the most risk, followed by Schedule II, and so on, all the way down to Schedule V, which are thought to have the least risk.

However, the drugs that we are talking about here are not on the DEA’s list. These are medications that are not abused (or, at least, not thought to be abused) in mainstream medical settings. But these drugs are, in fact, abused and diverted in jails and prisons.

The reasons for this are somewhat complex, but in my mind, it boils down to this: These are drugs that have psychoactive effects that mimic, to some degree, the effects of the drugs on the DEA Schedules. If you are addicted, or even if you just like to get high once in a while, and you can’t obtain your preferred drugs of abuse because you are incarcerated, these are the drugs that can serve as an alternative in a pinch.

It is critically important for medical professionals in corrections to know which seemingly benign drugs have the potential to be abused and diverted. Even if a particular inmate doesn’t care about getting high himself, he can still profit by selling these drugs to others who are. Vulnerable inmates can be (and are) bullied into obtaining these drugs for distribution–if we make them available. Continue reading

Correctional Medicine: The Principle of Fairness

I am often asked by my non-correctional colleagues what it is like to work in a jail. I tell them that practicing correctional medicine is different in many ways than medicine in the “free” world. Many of them scoff at this. How could the practice of medicine be different in a jail than it is anywhere else? “Medicine is medicine,” they say.

But correctional medicine is different. In my experience, if you just throw a practitioner into a jail or prison clinic without any training, he likely will not do well. It took me two full years before I was comfortable in my sick call clinics and I am still learning things as I go. Experience matters in Corrections!

This is obvious to those of us who have experience working in jails and prisons. But how do you explain the intricacies of a jail medical clinic to an outside physician? I have thought about this a lot over the many years I have practiced correctional medicine and I have come up with several concrete examples of how correctional medicine is different from medicine “on the outs.” The first, and perhaps the most important, difference is the Principle of Fairness.Unknown-1 Continue reading

Taming the Beast—Gabapentin. Ban It or Regulate It?

In my last post, I began with a question from Christy.  Her facility was considering banning gabapentin from their facility due to rampant abuse and diversion problems.  My last post dealt with gabapentin’s interesting history and the evidence base for off-label gabapentin prescribing.  This JailMedicine post will deal with the pros and cons of banning gabapentin versus creating rules to regulate gabapentin use and hopefully minimize diversion and abuse. Continue reading

Taming the Beast: Gabapentin

A reader recently wrote

At our facility, one of the most abused drugs in Neurontin. I am the trying to formulate when this medication will be continued. My question is if the following is acceptable in your opinion:
Neurontin will not be given for any indication not approved by the FDA. The only indications approved by the FDA is for epilepsy and PHN after shingles. Now the question remains how can you tell what the indication of prescribing the Neurontin was? The therapeutic dose for the treatment of epilepsy is 900 to 1800mg a day divided into three times a day not to exceed 3600 mg per day. If you come to our facility on 300mg at night, this clearly indicates that the drug was not given for the two recommended doses so therefore, it can be assumed it was given for insomnia- which we do not treat at our facility. The Neurontin would be canceled and we would observe for signs and symptoms of withdrawal for the next 5 days.
Does this sound reasonable and do you know of a substitution for the treatment of diabetic neuropathy that is less abused in the jail setting?

Well, you’re not alone, Christy! Gabapentin is one of the most abused and diverted drugs at all correctional facilities that I know of! (I’m going to use the generic term “gabapentin” interchangeably with the brand name “Neurontin” in this article). In fact, I was recently in a meeting with the commissioner of a certain state’s Department of Corrections to give an update on medical services in his prisons and the very first question he asked was about gabapentin. Gabapentin! Think of all the things he could have been concerned about—Hepatitis C for example—and instead, he asked about the security problems caused by gabapentin diversion.

In my experience, gabapentin is one of the “Big Three” non-DEA regulated drugs with the potential for diversion and abuse in a prisons and jail. The other two are Seroquel and Trazodone. The important difference is that Seroquel and Trazodone both allow easy substitution of another, less abused, cousin. Gabapentin, not so much.  More on that later.

In order to get a handle on gabapentin, I think it is important to understand where it came from and why it has not approved by the FDA for most of the reasons it is prescribed nowadays. B_beuRNW8AEYOgn

Continue reading

Proton Pump Inhibitors: Dependency and Risk

I recently saw yet another patient come into the jail who was worried about one particular drug in a long list of medications he was taking—his Nexium. “I can’t miss a day of taking Nexium” he said, “It has to be refilled right away!” He was more concerned about Nexium than his blood pressure meds, his diabetes medications or his mental health medications. There was a lot of Nexium-anxiety on display.

And the funny thing is, this happens all the time! I have seen lots of jail patients wedded to their proton pump inhibitor, whether Nexium, Prilosec, Protonix or what ever. A prescription of a PPI often becomes a lifelong need.

I think it is important for all prescribers to understand why this is so. And why, despite this, it is not a good idea for most people to be on PPIs for long periods of time. Prescribers tend to under-estimate both the potential harms of long-term PPI use and the potential for patients to become dependent on them.

To this end, today’s Jail Medicine post presents two “Must Know” papers about Proton Pump Inhibitors. Continue reading

How Effective is the Influenza Vaccine? How About Tamiflu?

One of the greatest concepts I have run across since I finished school is the Number Needed to Treat (abbreviated NNT). NNT was never taught back when I went to medical school (we had barely given up The Four Humors!). Instead, we were taught “the p-value.” Does anyone else remember the p-value? The p-value of a study, it turns out, is a relatively poor measure of study validity, partly because it implies an “all-or-nothing” kind of understanding of studies: either the study is “valid” (meaning a p-value of >95%) or it is not. Either the treatment being studied works or it does not. And if a treatment works, it must work for all people.

Of course, in real life, this is not the case. No drug is universally good or bad. All drugs help some people, harm some people (with adverse side effects) and make no difference one way or another in some people. These numbers can be derived from any study’s data. There is even a fabulous website devoted to this where you can look up the NNT and its corollary, the Number Needed to Harm (NNH) for all sorts of drugs and treatments (found here).

Since it is influenza season and time for us to get our flu shots (I got mine yesterday), I thought it would be a great time to see how beneficial the flu vaccine is.  What is the NNT for the flu vaccine?  And while we are at it, why don’t we also look at the data on oseltamivir (Tamiflu) while we’re at it?

Influenza Ward, Great Pandemic 1919

Influenza Ward, Great Pandemic 1919

Continue reading

Ammonia Capsules Are a Great Tool for Assessing Pseudoseizures

The question of whether a seizure-like event is a true epileptic seizure or some type of pseudoseizure is often very hard to sort out. Oftentimes (in fact, most of the time) these events do not happen in front of us. We just hear reports from the deputies of “something happening–looked like a seizure.” Or perhaps the patient himself will tell us that he had an seizure, like the patient I saw recently who told me “I’ve had four seizures this week.” Of course all of them were un-witnessed by anyone else.

Even though you might suspect that these un-witnessed seizure-like events are pseudoseizures, you should be very cautious about labeling such events “fake.” The absolute worst mistake that you as a medical provider can make in these cases is to declare an event “fake”—and be wrong. Until you are very sure, it is better to assume that un-witnessed events are real–or at least keep that possibility in the forefront of your mind. Until you have more evidence, you just don’t know for sure.

That is why it is so valuable when a patient has one of these seizure-like events right in front of you. This is the one opportunity to use objective findings to distinguish a true epileptic seizure from a pseudoseizure. I discussed in my last post the various differences in presentation between epileptic seizures and pseudoseizures, such as the nature of the shaking, eye deviation and a post-ictal period. Unfortunately, however, none of these findings are perfect.040 Continue reading

Changes in Hypertension Treatment? Why Yes! The Recommendations of JNC 8

As we all know from long experience, hypertension is the single most commonly seen and treated condition in primary care medicine. It is an important risk factor for strokes, heart attacks, kidney failure and overall death. It has been exhaustively studied. And yet there is still significant controversy over hypertension, including how to define it and what the best agents for treatment are.
Against this background, The 2014 Evidence-Based Guideline for the Management of High Blood Pressure in Adults was released last December in JAMA. It was written by the 8th Joint National Committee, and so, of course, is referred to as JNC 8.

JNC 8 has a couple of important and surprising changes from JNC 7. One of these, at least, is controversial enough that some members of the committee rebelled and released a dissenting “Minority Report” (apologies to Tom Cruise). Today’s JailMedicine post is a summary of JNC 8 recommendations and changes to JNC 7.20140430 Continue reading

Skeletal Muscle Relaxers Do Not Relax Skeletal Muscles!

Today’s post is an opinion piece. Personally, I think that skeletal muscle relaxers like cyclobenzaprine, methocarbamol and chlorzoxazone are over prescribed for acute and chronic musculoskeletal pain, both in the outside world but especially in corrections. The main reason for this, I think, is that prescribers misunderstand what muscle relaxers do. Contrary to their name, muscle relaxers do not relax muscles, at least as they are commonly prescribed. Muscle relaxers are sedatives, pure and simple, and should be prescribed with that fact in mind. Instead of telling patients (and ourselves) that “I am prescribing a muscle relaxer for you,” in the interest of full disclosure, we should be saying “I am prescribing a sedative for you.”  Continue reading