Buprenorphine implants – study results

This week I read an article in the latest issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association describing the results of a randomized controlled trial comparing implantable buprenorphine compared to placebo. Buprenorphine implants are four (five for some patients) small cylinders, inserted just under the skin of the upper inner arm. They are each about an inch long, and release medication up to about six months.

Buprenorphine (brand names Suboxone or Subutex) works well for the treatment of opioid addiction, but only if the patient takes it every day. Like other doctors, I have some patients who occasionally stop taking buprenorphine, so they can use illicit opioids to get high. This problem is eliminated with buprenorphine implants, because the patient receives a steady level of buprenorphine for as long as the implants are in place.

The other problem with Suboxone tablets has been its diversion from patients to the black market. Granted, it’s the safest opioid on the streets, given the ceiling on its opioid effect, but diversion to the black market isn’t desirable to doctors or law enforcement. But the implants, for obvious reasons, can’t be diverted, or at least would be extremely difficult to divert.

In this trial of the buprenorphine implants, patients were randomized to receive either placebo implants or buprenorphine implants. The patients and study evaluators didn’t know who had placebo implants and who had the real thing.

The results surprised no one. The buprenorphine implants were much more effective than the placebo implants. Patients with buprenorphine implants were retained in treatment longer and used less illicit opioids, both at week 16 and week 24. After six months, the implants were removed. The implants were fairly safe, with main problems being related to pain, swelling, or infection at the implant site. In the buprenorphine group, most common side effects compared to placebo were headache and insomnia.

This study is hopeful, but of course the real question is how do buprenorphine implants compare to the sublingual (under the tongue) Suboxone tablets and film? More studies are on the way. But for patients I worry might stop their Suboxone to relapse now and again, and in patients I worry might sell their Suboxone, these implants will be a good option when they become available.

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