For Family and Caregivers

What is an opioid?

Opioids are a class of drugs that frequently have a moderate or high level of addictive potential. Many are very effective for treating pain, and doctors frequently prescribe them for patients who have acute (like after an accident) or chronic (such as cancer) painful conditions. There are many opioid medications, such as Codeine, Vicodin, Percocet, Percodan, Demerol, Dilaudid, Morphine, Roxicet, Roxicodone, Oxycodone, OxyContin and Opana. Methadone, LAAM (short for levo-alpha-acetyl methadol), and buprenorphine (i.e. the active ingredient in Subutex and Suboxone) are also opioids.

Why are opioids used to treat addiction?

Many family members wonder why doctors use buprenorphine to treat opioid addiction, since it is in the same family as pain pills and heroin. Some of them ask, “Isn’t this substituting one addiction for another?”

The three medications used to treat addiction to pain pills and heroin—methadone, LAAM and buprenorphine—are not “just substitution.” The effects produced by these medications differ in important ways from the effects produced by, for example, the overuse of pain pills or an injection of heroin. These medications don’t produce the same kind of quick high that pain pills or a shot of heroin will produce, and they remain in the body a longer time—so the person doesn’t need to keep taking them several times a day (the way they take most illicit opioids).

Since the medications are prescribed by a physician, the patient is on a stable and regular dose—unlike the often chaotic pattern of use with illicit opioids. Many medical studies since 1965 show that maintenance treatment helps to keep patients healthier, helps to keep them from getting into legal troubles, and helps to prevent them from getting transmissible diseases like hepatitis and AIDS. The same studies also show improvements in education and employment, as well as the preservation of family units.

What is the right dose of buprenorphine?

Family members of persons who have been addicted to opioids have watched as their loved ones use a drug that makes them high, or loaded, or have watched the painful withdrawal which occurs when the drug is not available. Sometimes the family has not seen the “normal” person for years. They may have seen the person misuse doctors’ prescriptions for narcotics to get high. They are rightly concerned that the person might misuse or take too much of the buprenorphine prescribed by the doctor. They may watch the patient and notice that the patient seems drowsy, or stimulated, or restless, and think that the buprenorphine will be just as bad as the illicit opioids they were using.

Every opioid can have stimulating or sedating effects, especially in the first weeks of treatment. The “right” dose of buprenorphine is the one that allows the patient to feel and act normally—the patient should not experience withdrawal (too little medication), and they should not be excessively drowsy during the day (too much medication). It can sometimes take a few weeks to find the right dose. During the first few weeks, the dose may be too high, or too low, which can lead to withdrawal, daytime sleepiness, or trouble sleeping at night. The patient may ask that family members help keep track of the timing of these symptoms, and write them down. Then the doctor can use this information to adjust the amount and time of day for buprenorphine doses.

Once the right dose is found, it is important to take it on time in a regular way, so the patient’s body and brain can get back to a normal way of functioning.

How can the family support good treatment?

Even though maintenance medication treatment for opioid addiction works very well, it is not a cure. This means that the patient will continue to need the stable dose of buprenorphine with regular monitoring by the doctor for some period of time—ideally at least a year. At that point, the goal would be to try and taper the patient off of the medication and maintain their recovery without the assistance of medication. This is similar to other chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, or asthma. These conditions can be treated, but there is no permanent cure, so patients often stay on the same medication for a long time. However, with appropriate behavioral modifications and life adjustments, many patients with chronic illnesses can get to a point where they can control their condition without the assistance of medication. While being assisted with buprenorphine, though, the best way to help and support the patient is to encourage regular medical care, and not skipping or forgetting to take the medication.

Medication for opioid addiction is an important part of treatment, but addictions are complicated medical conditions, and often aspects of the illness outside the person (such as the availability of a drug, the people with whom the patient socializes, etc.) can play a powerful role in the disorder. Family members can support both the regular and appropriate use of Suboxone, and the other treatments (such as counseling) that are recommended by the doctor. It might be necessary or appropriate for spouses, significant others and/or other family members and friends to participate in counseling with the patient and/or independent of the patient for their own benefit.


For recovery to be successful, it is essential for the patient to have, in addition to the medication, regular counseling. It has been seen that medication alone will not get the patient better. The counseling will address many things including what lead up to the development of the addiction,  and how to stay away from the triggers of drug use. At times, the patient may not even know what events lead him to use opiates, but this will be explored.

All patients in our program will have individual counseling sessions with licensed or certified staff specializing in addictions care. Some patients may also require additional mental health therapy outside of our program or benefit from participation in group therapy. These appointments are key parts of treatment, and work together with the Suboxone treatment to improve success in recovery from opiate addiction. Sometimes family members may be asked to join in family therapy sessions, which also are geared to improve addiction care.


Many patients use some kind of recovery group to maintain their sobriety (such as Narcotics Anonymous, Rational Recovery, Smart Groups or 12-Step Programs). It sometimes takes several visits to groups to find the right “home” meeting. In the first year of recovery some patients go to meetings every day, or several times per week. These meetings work to improve success in treatment, in addition to taking buprenorphine and the individual counseling. Family members may have their own meetings, such as Al-Anon, to support them in adjusting to life with a patient who has addiction.

Regular medical care

Patients will have ongoing visits for both counseling and doctor supervision. Most visits will be for counseling and the interval will be determined by the treatment team based on dynamic clinician assessment of the patient’s progress and need for support. Visits with the doctor will vary in frequency based on both time in treatment and clinical need. Patients will be seen by the physician no less than every six months while being treated with medication. If a patient misses an appointment, they may not be able to refill the medication on time, and may even go into withdrawal, which could be dangerous. The patient may be asked to bring the medication container to each visit, and may be asked to give urine samples at the time of the visit.

Special medical care

A complication of drug addiction in many is the development of significant, and sometimes lethal, infectious diseases. In this case, patients may need care for other needle-related problems, such as Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, or HIV disease. They may need to see their primary care doctor for blood work, or see several speciality physicians for these illnesses.

Taking the medication

Buprenorphine is unusual because is must be dissolved under the tongue, rather than swallowed. This allows the medicine to be absorbed directly into the blood stream. Any medication that is swallowed will not be effective. Please be aware that the absorption takes a few minutes. While the medication is dissolving, the patient will not be able to answer the phone, or the doorbell, or speak very easily. This means that the family will get used to the patient being “out of commission” for a few minutes whenever the regular dose is scheduled.

Storing the medication

If buprenorphine is lost or misplaced, the patient may skip doses or go into withdrawal, so it is very important to find a good place to keep the medication safely and securely at home – away from children or pets, and always in the same location, so it can be easily found. It is best if the location of the buprenorphine is not next to the vitamins, or the aspirin, or other over-the-counter medications, to avoid confusion. If a family member or visitor takes buprenorphine by mistake, he or she should be checked by a physician immediately. In addition, we want the patient to keep the medicine at home, and not carry the prescription on his person or take to work.

What does Suboxone treatment mean to the family?

It is hard for any family when a member finds out he or she has an illness that is not curable. This is true for addiction as well. When chronic illnesses go untreated, they have severe complications that can lead to disability and death. Fortunately, buprenorphine-assisted treatment is usually very successful, especially if it is integrated with counseling and support for life changes that the patient has to make to remain “clean and sober.”

Chronic illness means the illness is there every day, and must be treated every day. This takes time and attention away from other things, and family members may resent the effort and time and money that it takes for buprenorphine treatment and counseling. It might help to compare addiction to other chronic illnesses, like diabetes or high blood pressure. After all, it takes time to make appointments to go to the doctor for blood pressure checks, and it may annoy the family if the food has to be low in cholesterol, or unsalted. But most families can adjust to these changes, when they consider that it may prevent a heart attack or a stroke for their loved one.

Another very important issue for family members to know about is: addiction can be partly inherited. Research shows that some persons have more risk for becoming addicted than others, and that some of this risk is genetic. So when one member develops opioid addiction, it means that other blood relatives should consider themselves “at risk” of developing addiction or alcoholism. It is especially important for young people who have family histories of substance use problems to know that alcohol or drugs at parties might be dangerous for them, even more than to most of their friends.

It is common for people to think of addiction as a weakness in character, instead of an illness. Perhaps the first few times the person used drugs it was poor judgment. However, by the time the patient is addicted, and using every day, and needing medical treatment, it is definitely more than simply a problem with willpower. In fact, research brain scans that are done on patients with a dependency issue show definite changes. Fortunately, these changes begin to look normal again with treatment.