A study recently completed by Harvard Medical School and McLean Hospital found that patients who are addicted to prescription opiate painkillers have a better chance of treatment success if they take a drug called Suboxone. Despite the positive results of the study, the use of Suboxone for treatment of opiate drugs is controversial.( Find out what suboxone detox is like).
The study involved 653 people who were addicted to prescription painkillers and who were treated with Suboxone, which is a mixture of buprenorphine and nalaxone. This was the first large-scale clinical trial that tested different treatment options for the growing problem of prescription drug abuse. The study focused on the abuse of prescription opioid drugs like OxyContin, Vicodin and Percocet rather than illicit drugs like heroin or cocaine.
Suboxone helps treat opioid addiction by mirroring many of the effects of opioid drugs while reducing drug cravings. During the 12-week clinical trial, 49% of participants were able to maintain sobriety without experiencing depression while taking Suboxone. All of the test subjects had a short history of addiction and had not previously sought treatment.
Despite the success rate of Suboxone in treating addiction, researchers found that more than 90% of test subjects relapsed into opiate use when they stopped taking it. Stanford University professor Keith Humphreys compares the use of Suboxone to methadone, which is used to treat heroin addiction. According to Humphreys, substituting one drug for another often has to continue for a year or more to be effective, and for some patients must continue indefinitely.
Roger Weiss, a Harvard professor who was part of the team that conducted the study, says there are plans to conduct a long-term follow up study to determine how subjects respond to Suboxone over a period of several years.
The study showed that whil Suboxone can be effective in treating prescription drug abuse over the short term when administered in an outpatient setting with weekly checkups, the likelihood of patient relapse when weaned from Suboxone is very high. Many prescription drug addicts will be faced with the choice of trying to detox from prescription painkillers without medication or developing a dependency on Suboxone as part of treatment.
According to some addiction specialists, Suboxone can be a lifesaver for people who have been addicted to prescription drugs for some time and whose dosage levels are escalating. The growing sales numbers for Suboxone indicate that many doctors are already using it for treatment of opiate addiction. In 2002, Suboxone and a similar drug call Subutex were prescribed for about 20,000 people. In 2009, that number had grown to 640,000.