What is Buprenorphine?

Buprenorphine is a medication that's widely used to treat opioid addiction. It's a semi-synthetic opioid that's derived from thebaine, which is an alkaloid of a type of poppy plant.

How Buprenorphine is Used to Treat Addiction

Withdrawal symptoms associated with an addiction to heroin, OxyContin, Vicodin or another opiate can be excruciating. Symptoms typically include flu-like symptoms such as:

  • Hot and cold sweats
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

Perhaps the most intense of the symptoms are the cravings associated with opiate detox.

Buprenorphine is used during detox to reduce the severity of withdrawal symptoms, and it's also used as an alternative to methadone for long-term maintenance of an opiate addiction. In the latter case, buprenorphine is administered for several weeks, months or even years to prevent the onset of withdrawal symptoms so that an addicted individual can focus on restoring her life.

Available at the Doctor's Office

Buprenorphine is a partial opioid agonist, which means that while it acts on opioid receptors in the body, the effects are much weaker than those of full opioid agonists like heroin, codeine and even methadone. Because it's considered safer and less likely to be misused than methadone, which is administered on a daily basis through a special clinic, buprenorphine can be prescribed by a physician for home use. This makes treatment more convenient and more private.

In addition to its reduced effects and lower potential for misuse, buprenorphine carries a ceiling effect, which means that at higher doses, the effects don't become any more pronounced.

Buprenorphine + Naloxone = Suboxone

Although buprenorphine isn't as widely abused as other opioids, it does have the potential for abuse. When crushed and snorted or injected, buprenorphine can cause effects similar to, if weaker than, full-agonist opioids. That's why in 2002, the FDA approved Suboxone, a combination of buprenorphine and the synthetic opioid naloxone, to treat opioid addiction.

As an opiate antagonist, naloxone blocks the effects of opiates on opioid receptors. Naloxone by itself is available to the public by prescription in the form of Evzio, an auto-injector that can be used by friends or family members if a loved one overdoses on heroin or another opiate. Naloxone reverses the effects of opiates, including respiratory depression, to buy an overdose victim more time until emergency personnel arrive.

When combined with buprenorphine in Suboxone, naloxone ensures that if tablets are crushed and snorted or injected by someone addicted to opiates, the naloxone will dominate and the effects of the buprenorphine will be blocked. As a result, withdrawal symptoms will set in.

The ability to use buprenorphine to treat opiate addiction in the privacy of a doctor's office helped change the general attitude toward using medications to treat drug addiction, and it's now widely used across the country to help scores of people successfully beat an opiate addiction.

Suboxone Abuse

Despite the safeguards, Suboxone and other forms of buprenorphine are nevertheless abused, often in combination with other drugs, such as benzodiazepines. This combination causes marked respiratory depression and can quickly lead to a fatal overdose.

Signs that someone you love is abusing Suboxone are similar to those of other opiates and include:

  • Watery eyes
  • Marked drowsiness
  • Insomnia
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Slurred speech
  • Apathetic mood

Long-term abuse can lead to hair loss, a loss of interest in sex and the inability to control one's emotions or cope effectively with stress.

Help is Available for Opiate Addiction

If you or someone you love is addicted to heroin, prescription pain relievers, or buprenorphine in any form, help is available. A high-quality treatment program will help you successfully detox, and various therapies will help you address the issues behind the addiction. It's never too late to regain control over your life, improve your physical and mental health and restore broken relationships. Overcoming an opiate addiction isn't easy, but it can be done with help—you can do it, too.

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