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What Does Suboxone Treat? | Used to Treat Opioid Disorders

Elena Hill, MD, MPH profile image
Medically Reviewed By Elena Hill, MD, MPH • Updated Sep 19, 2023

Suboxone can be used to treat opioid use disorder. 

When combined with treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy, counseling, and support groups, there is strong evidence that Suboxone use can improve a person’s retention in treatment programs and reduce their overall use of opioids.

What Is Suboxone Used to Treat?

Suboxone, which is a combination of buprenorphine and naloxone, can be used as part of a Medication for Addiction Treatment (MAT) for opioid use disorder (OUD).[1] 

It is an evidence-based treatment used for this purpose. This type of medication (meaning combination buprenorphine-naloxone medicine) is one of the two primary MAT drugs used to treat OUD, the other being methadone. 

Like all forms of MAT, Suboxone treatments should be used as part of a comprehensive treatment plan that includes other treatments as well, notably behavioral therapy.

What Is Opioid Use Disorder?

Opioid use disorder is a condition many people colloquially just refer to as opioid addiction.[2] It is characterized by having at least two of the following symptoms related to opioid use:

  • Continued use despite worsening physical and mental health consequences
  • Continued use despite the deterioration of important relationships
  • Notable decrease in social or recreational activities
  • Difficulty performing duties at work or school
  • Spending excessive amounts of time obtaining or recovering from opioid use
  • Taking more opioids than intended at a time
  • Strong cravings to use opioids
  • An inability to decrease the amount of opioids used
  • Using despite being in situations where such use is particularly dangerous
  • Withdrawal symptoms when opioids are not used

To qualify as having OUD, these symptoms must be a repeated occurrence for at least 12 months. Notably, you can still struggle with opioids before that time and should still seek help. You just may not yet qualify as having OUD as defined by the DSM-5.

How Does Suboxone Work?

The buprenorphine in Suboxone operates as what is called a partial opioid agonist.[3] It binds to opioid receptors in the brain, which are the same receptors full opioid agonists, such as heroin or various prescription painkillers, act upon. Buprenorphine activates these receptors but does so less strongly than these full agonists do. 

This reduces a person’s cravings for opioids and reduces the severity of withdrawal symptoms, but it doesn’t produce the same level of euphoria that “true” opioid use does. Even when intentionally misused, buprenorphine can’t generally cause the same kind of high as opioids associated with high misuse potential. Since people who use Suboxone as a Medication for Addiction Treatment (MAT) have a history of opioid misuse, they are not opioid naïve and are unlikely to experience any euphoria at all even if they misuse the medication.

The naloxone in Suboxone helps further decrease its misuse potential. Naloxone is what is called an opioid antagonist, a class of medication that can reverse the effects of opioids. The presence of this drug prevents a user from attempting to inject Suboxone in an attempt to achieve a more intense high.

Does the Type of Opioid a Person Misuses Affect Treatment?

The particular opioid a person struggles with doesn’t typically impact whether Suboxone or similar medications will be a good treatment option beyond whether the drugs are long-acting or short-acting.[4] Depending on the type of opioid use, the amount used, the duration of misuse, and the particular genetic history of a patient will determine how well they will do with Suboxone and how much Suboxone they may need to avoid opioid misuse. 

How Effective Is Suboxone?

The use of Suboxone to help treat OUD is well-supported by evidence.[5] Suboxone has been shown to almost double retention in treatment programs compared to placebo treatments and to significantly reduce opioid-positive drug test rates. While some studies show more impressive results from these treatments than others, the available literature makes it very clear these treatments work.

Buprenorphine generally needs to be taken daily at a dose of 4 to 16 mg a day. Some patient may need lower or higher doses depending on the severity of their opioid dependence. 

Getting Started With Suboxone

To get started, get in contact with a Suboxone prescriber. Suboxone can be prescribed by a primary care doctor, psychiatrist, pain management doctor, or addiction specialist. You can even work with tele-health providers to get online suboxone and pick up your prescription at your local pharmacy.

If you’re overwhelmed and don’t know where to start, SAMHSA (the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) offers a free, confidential helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).[6] Available in English and Spanish, this helpline is designed to help people struggling with substance use or mental health problems get referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups, and community-based organizations.

Opioid use disorder is a serious condition that can greatly damage every facet of your life, and fatal overdose is always a potential every time you misuse these drugs. But thankfully, opioid addiction is treatable. With the help of Suboxone and other treatments, you can live a healthy, balanced life in recovery.

Sources

  1. Buprenorphine Sublingual and Buccal (Opioid Dependence). National Library of Medicine. https://medlineplus.gov/druginfo/meds/a605002.html. January 2022. Accessed September 2022.
  2. Opioid Use Disorder. StatPearls Publishing. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK553166/. January 2022. Accessed September 2022.
  3. How do Medications to Treat Opioid Use Disorder Work? National Institute on Drug Abuse. https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/medications-to-treat-opioid-addiction/how-do-medications-to-treat-opioid-addiction-work. December 2021. Accessed September 2022.
  4. Buprenorphine Quick Start Guide. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. https://pcssnow.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/quick-start-guide.pdf. Accessed September 2022.
  5. How Effective Are Medications to Treat Opioid Use Disorder? National Institute on Drug Abuse. https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/medications-to-treat-opioid-addiction/efficacy-medications-opioid-use-disorder. December 2021. Accessed September 2022.
  6. SAMHSA’s National Helpline. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/national-helpline. August 2022. Accessed September 2022.

Medically Reviewed By Elena Hill, MD, MPH

Elena Hill, MD; MPH received her MD and Masters of Public Health degrees at Tufts Medical School and completed her family medicine residency at Boston Medical Center. She is currently an attending physician at Bronxcare Health Systems in the Bronx, NY where ... Read More


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