Buprenorphine and Suboxone are two prescription drugs that are an integral part of the opioid epidemic, and efforts to help slow the number of deaths occurring as a result. Both drugs can operate within medication-assisted treatment options for people who are struggling with opioid dependence. People wonder what the relationship is between buprenorphine and Suboxone, and if they’re the same thing. If not, what are the differences?

What Is Medication-Assisted Treatment?

Opioids, also called narcotics, are incredibly addictive drugs. When someone uses opioids, they trigger a reward response in the brain. The brain is conditioned to seek out pleasurable stimuli. Opioids release a flood of neurotransmitters responsible for pleasurable feelings. The brain wants to repeat this when it’s exposed, and the cycle of addiction is born. Addiction is considered a chronic, recurring disease of the brain. While taking opioids for the first time may be voluntary, when someone is addicted, their drug use is compulsive and outside their control.

There’s also the element of physical dependence, which can happen with or without an addiction. When someone is dependent on opioids, they will go into withdrawal symptoms if they stop using them. Detox programs can help alleviate the discomfort of opioid withdrawal and increase the likelihood of a person successfully recovering.

Medication-assisted treatment or MAT programs are offered at many professional detox centers, or they can be done in an outpatient setting. MAT means that medications are provided to help reduce withdrawal symptoms. Then, the theory is that the patient will be more equipped to begin intensive addiction treatment. Evidence shows that some MAT programs are successful as addiction treatment models.

There are a few different prescription medicines commonly used in MAT. In the past, methadone was one of the primary medications used for opioid dependence and addiction. The main reason methadone started to fall out of favor was many people were replacing their opioid issue with a methadone issue. Methadone is also an opioid and can be habit-forming.

There are more recent introductions with fewer side effects. One option is called buprenorphine, which is a generic drug.  Buprenorphine is unique because it does not need to be done in a specific clinic setting, it can be dispensed in a physician’s office. It provides more accessibility for treatment, but it’s still important to participate in a rehab program when using buprenorphine. There’s also Subutex, which is a brand name variation of buprenorphine. One of the most popular MAT prescriptions is called Suboxone. Suboxone is a combination of buprenorphine and naloxone.

How Are Buprenorphine and Suboxone Different?

There is a misconception that Suboxone and buprenorphine are the same things. Buprenorphine is an active ingredient in Suboxone, but so is naloxone. Buprenorphine is a partial opioid agonist. It activates the same receptors as opioids like heroin or oxycodone, but only partially. Buprenorphine has effects similar to opioids but at a much lower level. For example, if someone takes buprenorphine they’re not likely to feel high unless they took a dangerously large amount or weren’t opioid-dependent. Buprenorphine can be potentially addictive, but the risk is lower compared to other opioids. Buprenorphine can also cause an overdose, but it’s a lower risk than if you were abusing heroin. The objective of giving a patient buprenorphine during detox is to help avoid uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms and drug cravings that could derail the remainder of their treatment progress.

The addition of naloxone makes Suboxone different than something like Subutex, which only contains buprenorphine. Naloxone is an opioid antagonist, meaning it blocks the effects of opioids. If someone takes Suboxone as instructed, they won’t notice any effects of naloxone. If someone tries to abuse it by injecting, the naloxone will block the feeling of being high. The naloxone can also cause precipitated withdrawal. Rapid-onset opioid withdrawal is difficult if not impossible to reverse once it begins. This mechanism of action is one of the reasons Suboxone is becoming the preferred option for medication-assisted treatment.

Regardless of whether a doctor prescribes Suboxone or buprenorphine, it’s important to realize that these drugs aren’t a cure-all for opioid dependence or addiction. These medications are intended to be used during detox and make it easier for the patient to move into full treatment. Treating a person with subtance use disorder is complex and requires specialized care and therapy. Medications can help with the physical aspects, but not the lifestyle, social and psychological elements contributing to opioid addiction. Medications also aren’t able to help you sustain a successful recovery following treatment.

It’s difficult and almost impossible to overcome opioid dependence or addiction without professional help. If you’d like to find out more about entering rehab, paying for it, or just addiction in general, The Recovery Village is here.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.