“It’s really hard for me,” says Justin (psuedo-name used to protect confidentiality), a patient who was addicted oxycodone for 5 years and has now been on Buprenorphine/naloxone (Suboxone) and in recovery for the past 6 months at Bicycle Health.
“I have been taking my Suboxone every day, and I’m back to working again and feel much more in control--like I’m doing the right thing. But, my family still does not see it that way. They still don’t trust me, and my friends think I’m just trading one drug for another and that I need to try harder and really get clean.”
Justin is certainly not alone.
For patients who struggle with opioid use disorder—addiction to drugs like oxycodone, hydrocodone, fentanyl, and heroin—acknowledging they have a problem and seeking help can feel incredibly daunting. When this is compounded by good-intentioned friends and family who care but do not fundamentally understand addiction, a patient can feel alone, unsupported, and questioning their recovery.
So, how can we help combat stigma and support patients in their long-term recovery efforts?
In this article, we hope to debunk some common misconceptions about addiction to opioids, Buprenorphine/naloxone (Suboxone), and recovery. We also provide tools and resources to help support patients and their family and friends.
While addiction was once thought to be a “curable” disease, we now know that it is a chronic “bio-behavioral disorder,” meaning that it has lifelong effects on a person’s physical, mental, and emotional health. And, we know that patients in recovery are likely to also battle periods of relapse (1).
“We have really evolved our understanding of the brain disease of addiction,” says Bicycle Health’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Brian Clear. “Over the past several decades, studies have demonstrated that addiction is not a defect of morals or will power. Instead, it is like other chronic diseases, such as high blood pressure (hypertension), asthma, and diabetes, and patients experience bouts of both relapse and recovery and that is normal.”
As this graph shows, relapse during addiction has similar rates to other chronic diseases.
Detoxification is only the first stage of treatment and is rarely sufficient by itself to lead to long-term recovery. In fact, the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), recommends against detox. Why is that?
Dr. Clear explains, “When a person who is used to taking opioids—like percocets or fentanyl—goes into detox and comes out, their brain’s opioid receptors lose tolerance to opioids. If that person then relapses, their brain becomes overwhelmed with opioids which can lead to an overdose and even death.”
That’s why evidence-based medications that help with opioid use disorder—like methadone, Buprenorphine/naloxone (Suboxone) and naltrexone (aka vivitrol)—are so important in recovery.
If a person is detoxed and is not started on one of these medications, they have a 90% chance of relapsing within 60 days (2,3). However, when started on a medication, 40-60% of patients will still be doing well 1 year after detox. Bottom line, robust scientific evidence supports that these medications work to prevent relapse, overdose, and death (4,5).
Buprenorphine/naloxone (Suboxone) is considered an evidence-based treatment for opioid use disorder.
As a partial-agonist, it binds to the opioid receptors of the brain, partially stimulating them so a person does not feel cravings or withdrawal while blocking the brain from things like oxycodone and fentanyl (6,7).
It also has a ceiling effect so that even if a patient takes too much, they will NOT feel “high” and they will NOT overdose. It is thus considered very safe and very effective.
Dr. Clear explains, “The thing I always ask my patients when they are concerned that buprenorphine is a replacement of one drug for another is ‘How do you feel after you take buprenorphine each morning?’ They usually tell me that they feel normal-- not high, not sedated, just normal. Then ‘How do you feel the next morning, before you take buprenorphine?” And the answer is the same-- no craving, no withdrawal, just normal. That’s nothing like other opioid use.”
He further elaborates, “I see buprenorphine like I see medication for diabetes and high blood pressure. If taking it each morning helps my patients get up and go to work, pay their bills, reconnect with their values, enjoy life, and take better care of themselves, then it should be taken every day.”
After patients have become addicted to opioids, their brains get biochemically rewired through various pathways that involve reward, memory, and mood. It thus takes a while to rewire these pathways: It usually takes a minimum of 6 months to start to rewire and at least 18 months for the pathways to operate closer to normal (8,9).
“This is really a marathon and not a sprint,” Dr. Clear explains. “It takes years for a person to rebuild their lives—to develop routines like working, a support system of trusting family and friends, and healthy coping mechanisms.”
He elaborates, “Treatment with Suboxone allows stabilization of opioid receptors so that patients are able to make changes in their lifestyle to allow ultimate recovery rather than cycles of relapse. Medications should be coupled with treatment approaches-- like therapy, exercise, relaxation strategies, spiritual connections, sleep, good nutrition, and overall self care, so that when patients do get stressed or have triggers, they can employ healthy coping mechanisms and avoid relapse.”
Recent scientific recommendations also suggest that patients should be on medications like Buprenorphine ‘as long as they need to be’ and there is no rush to come off it (10).
So knowing what we do—that patients NOT on medications for opiate addiction have high rates of relapse; that Suboxone is a safe and effective treatment for opioid addiction; that it helps patients feel normal and gives the brain the chance to rewire so patients can go about living their lives—how do we combat stigma and respond to family and friends who remain skeptical?
Bicycle Health uses Suboxone in its treatment program to achieve proven success. To learn more about the success rates and safety of Bicycle Health’s telemedicine addiction treatment in comparison to other common treatment options, call us at (844) 943-2514 or schedule an appointment here.