A three-part series by Guest Blogger Gloria Englund, MA. Suboxone, Naltrexone, Methadone
I was very uneducated about medications that are affective for substance use disorder (SUD), especially opioid use disorder when my son, Aaron, was still alive. Although he was familiar with Suboxone and methadone, now I believe both of us could have been better informed about how to use methadone along with other support tools that were needed in order to make the treatment the more effective.
Prince’s death has brought the use of Suboxone, a medication that is used to treat opioid use disorder, and the idea of medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for substance use disorders to the forefront of the opioid overdose epidemic. The latest statistic from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) is that 129 people are dying every day in the United States from drug overdose; 80 of those deaths involve the use of an opioid.
I believe the stigma and discrimination that accompany substance use disorders, also accompanies the medications that can be used to quell withdrawals symptoms and lesson cravings for those with substance use disorders as they seek recovery.
MAT can greatly reduce the possibility of relapse which often lead to drug overdose that can result in death.
Suboxone, the MAT treatment that didn’t get in Prince’s body soon enough, is one of these medications that is often used to quell withdrawal and cravings for opioids. What exactly is Suboxone? It’s referred to as a partial agonist because it doesn’t bind to the opioid sites as does a full agonist so it produces much fewer endorphins. Because of its “partial” nature, it is much easier to withdraw from than a full agonist like methadone. Suboxone is the commercial name for buprenorphine (partial agonist) combined with naloxone, an opioid antagonist which is very effective at blocking euphoria when combined with the buprenorphine. Used alone, naloxone (Narcan®) is used to reverse an opioid overdose if administered in a timely manner. Suboxone is also available as a film which is dissolved under the tongue thereby lessening the potential for abuse even more. In May of 2016 the FDA approved a buprenorphine body implant that will dispense medication for up to 6 months but has not stated when in will be available for use.
Other readily used medications are methadone (mentioned above) and naltrexone. Methadone is a long-acting opioid agonist medication that is very effective in treating heroin and prescription pain medication addiction. It can only be distributed at specifically licensed clinics. Initially it needs to be dispensed every day requiring the user to make daily trips to the clinic. When the specific dose is determined that stabilizes the patient, then patients can begin to lessen their visits by receiving seven days of doses divided between two or three days a week and eventually, only coming in once a week to receive all seven days for the next week. This daily commitment combined with the difficulty many have in tapering off the medication (and its potential abuse as a full agonist that can be sedating) often outweighs, for some, the positives of its effectiveness in quelling withdrawal and cravings. Methadone is also much less costly than Suboxone if the user needs to pay out of pocket.
Naltrexone is another MAT drug, but is an antagonist. This means it blocks any opioids from connecting to the receptor sites and can only be used after a patient has completed detoxification from all opioids and all opioid medications like Suboxone or methadone. If a patient uses it while any opioids are in the body, they will go in the immediate withdrawal. Naltrexone is not addictive or sedating and does not result in physical dependence as does Suboxone or methadone. However, poor patient compliance with the daily tablets has limited its effectiveness. A long-acting form of naltrexone called Vivitrol® is now available in a once per month injection eliminating the need for daily use which improves patient compliance. Unlike methadone or Suboxone, anyone licensed to dispense medications can prescribe naltrexone, but the cost may be prohibitive for many.
Note to readers: Part II will run on Thursday, June23, and Part III will run on Thursday, June 30. We will post the full three-part series in our Resource section.