It’s telling that the second-most searched term after “Suboxone” on Google is “Suboxone high”. Recovering from opiate addiction is a serious undertaking, and addicts who may have just been prescribed the medication may be eager to learn if its effects are at all similar to other opioid narcotics. Like the older maintenance drug methadone, Suboxone is also sometimes used to treat addiction and physical dependency to other opioids by helping to reduce cravings. Unlike methadone, Suboxone supposedly has a built-in “ceiling” that is supposed to make the drug much harder to abuse. Although this is normally the case, Suboxone addiction can and does happen. Keep reading to learn what Suboxone is, how it works, what the signs of abuse are, and how to get help.
Suboxone is a combination of two drugs: buprenorphine and naloxone. Naloxone is an opiate antagonist, meaning that it actually blocks and reverses the effects of opiate binding in the brain. Due to the fact that it reverses overdoses, naloxone is a preferred first-line treatment in emergency medicine. The other ingredient of Suboxone, buprenorphine, is a weak synthetic opioid that partially binds to opioid receptors in the brain. These are the same receptors involved in binding morphine, other painkillers, and even heroin. Unlike these strong narcotic agents, buprenorphine binds to opioid receptors weakly, producing milder effects and preventing other agents from binding to the same site. In this way, the medication prevents the effects of other opioids. For example, if someone using Suboxone were to take an Oxycontin, they wouldn’t get “high” from it. For people who are addicted to opiates, the weak opioid effect of Suboxone is usually just enough to prevent withdrawal symptoms. This helps the addict feel more comfortable as they go through treatment and recovery.
Suboxone was approved by the FDA in 2002 as a safer alternative treatment to methadone. Doctors in the US began using it to treat opioid addiction the same year, which means medical professionals and addiction teams have had plenty of time to evaluate how effective it is. When used appropriately, studies have shown that it can be of tremendous help to addicts trying to kick an opioid addiction. Another advantage is that, unlike methadone, it doesn’t need to be administered by a doctor—making access to treatment easier. Unfortunately, because it contains buprenorphine, Suboxone can still be abused.
How do you know if someone is abusing Suboxone? The difference between normal maintenance use of the medication and abuse is in the amount being taken as well as the frequency of use.
Like other opioids, Suboxone will produce certain physical “tells” in people that are abusing it:
Besides the physical signs, things like secretive behavior, dishonesty, and extreme changes in mood can also let you know that something may be wrong.
Because buprenorphine only binds partially to opioid receptors, suboxone doesn’t produce the same high as stronger drugs like morphine. That being said, taking it on its own may still produce pleasant, mild analgesic (pain-relieving) effects. Suboxone contains naloxone to produce a “ceiling” effect for opioid binding capability. This basically means that Suboxone has a self-limiting component: no matter how much of it is taken, the effects will feel the same. So how is it possible that this medication can be abused? Suboxone is meant to help users step down from using large amounts of very potent narcotic drugs. Although it contains naloxone, it also does contain an active opioid—meaning suboxone addiction and dependence are still possible.
Unfortunately, there is growing evidence that Suboxone is being misused on a wider scale, probably because so many people are now under treatment for opioid addiction, and Suboxone is more widely available than before in many communities. Although the medication’s “ceiling effect” makes it safer than methadone, it’s still not perfect. It’s important for friends and family of recovering addicts (as well as the American public in general) to be aware that Suboxone does have potential for abuse.
Suboxone’s effects are strongest in people who don’t already have a tolerance to narcotic painkillers. For example, prescription Suboxone may be sold or shared with friends who aren’t being treated for opioid addiction. Another common scenario of abuse is when addicts themselves are unable to step “off” of Suboxone into complete sobriety.
Suboxone is usually part of doctor-supervised treatment for opioid addiction. If it is not being used as directed, abuse and dependence can happen. Like all drugs in its class, buprenorphine can be dangerous, even as part of Suboxone treatment. It is extremely difficult to stop abusing opioids without support! If you or someone you love is struggling with misuse of Suboxone, getting help from experienced addiction professionals is important and potentially life-saving. Contact us now to learn more about how we can help.
Northeast Addictions Treatment Center is a Drug and Alcohol Addiction Treatment Center in Quincy, Massachusetts. Our team has been helping individuals with Drug or Alcohol Addiction live a life of Recovery since 2016.
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