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The Other Side of Suboxone

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It’s become a commonly prescribed medical treatment for opioid addiction. In some cases, doctors prescribe Suboxone with the intention of stabilize those struggling with continued, compulsive abuse of illicit or prescription opioids to then, one day, slowly taper off the treatment drug itself entirely. At least, that’s the goal.

But it doesn’t always happen that way.

The Scoop on Suboxone

Like heroin and other opioids, Suboxone has its own risks, side effects, and withdrawal symptoms. When used in accordance with prescribed parameters, Suboxone helps stabilize and maintain many people in recovery from opioid use disorders. However, if misused, taking this drug may cause additional problems and dangers for the user.

Just what is Suboxone? In a nutshell, it’s an opioid substance used to treat recovery from other opioids. Suboxone’s primary active component is buprenorphine.1 Buprenorphine is a partial opioid agonist; it binds to and activates opioid receptors in a manner similar to other opioid drugs, but by doing so, it elicits relatively weaker effects than commonly-abused drugs like heroin and prescription painkillers like oxycodone. 2,3 In other words, it attaches to the same brain opioid receptors but doesn’t produce the same high.

Suboxone is unique from other treatment drugs such as methadone (and buprenorphine monotherapy) in that it is formulated in combination with naloxone, which is an opioid antagonist.3,4 As an antagonist, the naloxone binds to and inhibits the activation of opioid receptors, which can prevent a person from experiencing the effects of an opioid drug.4 The combination is designed to discourage users from abusing Suboxone by methods such as dissolving the drug in solution for injection since they will not achieve a high from the drug. That’s the good news.

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Suboxone Side Effects

The buprenorphine in Suboxone has several potential side effects.

Common minor side effects include:1,3

  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Constipation
  • Muscle aches/cramps.
  • Sleep disturbances.

More serious side effects of buprenorphine may include:2,3

  • Blurred vision.
  • Confusion.
  • Lightheadedness/dizziness.
  • Drowsiness and unusual fatigue
  • Breathing difficulties such as slowed breathing.

Withdrawal Effects

In addition to these side effects, the abrupt discontinuation of buprenorphine could also lead to withdrawal. If a person has been taking this medication for a long period of time and they no longer receive it, they may be at risk of developing withdrawal symptoms similar to those associated with other opioid drugs. The severity of symptoms experienced depends on the degree of physiological dependence, which itself develops as a factor of dose and duration of use. Common withdrawal symptoms may include:1,3

Chronic use of opioids can lead to the development of drug tolerance and dependence.

  • Opioid cravings.
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Mood swings
  • Abdominal cramps.
  • Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
  • Excessive sweating

Opioid withdrawal symptoms can exacerbate underlying mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. When this treatment drug is misused, recurrent episodes of opioid withdrawal become more likely and can take their toll on a person as they further drive a compulsive cycle of buprenorphine misuse.

Historically, there has been an ongoing debate concerning the use of Suboxone for addiction treatment. The truth of the matter is that Suboxone helps thousands of people overcome their addictions. But there’s a flip side to this issue; as a drug with potentially-reinforcing opioid effects of its own, Suboxone is itself sometimes a target for abuse, which can further an individual’s addiction and recovery struggles.

No matter where you stand on the issue, it’s important to do your research and understand the facts before starting down this, or any other, treatment path.

Additional Reading:   Recovery Roundtable – Should Doctors Be Allowed to Prescribe More Suboxone?

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Senior Medical Editor
Dr. Thomas received his medical degree from the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine. During his medical studies, Dr. Thomas saw firsthand the multitude of lives impacted by struggles with substance abuse and addiction, motivating him to seek a clinical psychiatry preceptorship at the San Diego VA Hospital’s Inpatient Alcohol and Drug Treatment Program. In his post-graduate clinical work, Dr. Thomas later applied the tenets he learned to help guide his therapeutic approach with many patients in need of substance treatment. In his current capacity as Senior Medical Editor for American Addiction Centers, Dr. Thomas, works to provide accurate, authoritative information to those seeking help for substance abuse and behavioral health issues.
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