Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, opioid misuse has continued unabated in the United States, with an estimated 2.5 million or more Americans suffering from opioid use disorder.
Most people treated for the disorder are given medications, such as buprenorphine, that activate opioid receptors.
But there is disagreement about whether it’s safe to prescribe buprenorphine for people who also take benzodiazepines, which are potentially addictive medications prescribed for stress, sleep and anxiety.
In a new study, researchers support the use of buprenorphine in patients also taking benzodiazepines.
They found that the drug can protect opioid users from overdosing, even when such patients also take benzodiazepines, such as Valium, Xanax and Ativan.
The research was conducted by a team at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
In the study, the team examined the medical data of more than 23,000 patients being treated for opioid use disorder.
They focused on buprenorphine because patients often can fill prescriptions for the medication at a pharmacy and take the drug at home.
Every patient tracked in the database had experienced at least one overdose event, but none suffered a fatal overdose.
Each individual was followed for two years to track what prescriptions they filled and how often each person ended up in the emergency department with a drug-related poisoning.
The researchers discovered that opioid users who took buprenorphine had a 40% reduction in their risk for an overdose compared with not receiving the treatment.
Meanwhile, opioid users with benzodiazepine prescriptions who did not take buprenorphine were almost twice as likely to suffer an overdose that put them in the hospital.
The findings showed that even for people taking benzodiazepines, buprenorphine had a protective effect.
Buprenorphine didn’t protect those patients from overdose as much as it protected users not taking benzodiazepines, but it still made overdoses less likely.
What that means about drug interactions between buprenorphine, opioids and benzodiazepines still aren’t completely clear.
But what is clear is that prescribing buprenorphine for opioid users in treatment can protect them from an overdose, even if they also are taking a benzodiazepine drug.
One author of the study is Kevin Xu, MD, a resident physician in the Department of Psychiatry.
The study is published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.
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