Buprenorphine-Clinically useful but often misunderstood

Stephen Butler
Scandinavian Journal of Pain 2013 July 1, 4 (3): 148-152
Background There are a number of false myths about buprenorphine based on unconfirmed animal data, even from isolated animal organs, and early clinical research. These myths came into textbooks on pharmacology and pain about 30 years ago and have been difficult to eradicate. Animal models of pain and pain relief are notoriously unreliable as predictors of human clinical effects. The fact is that in clinical practice there is NO bell-shaped dose-response curve, there is NO plateau on the dose-response curve, and there is NO antagonist effect from buprenorphine on other mu-opioid agonists. Methods This narrative, topical review of relevant research publications evaluates new knowledge on the pharmacodynamics and pharmacokinetics of buprenorphine of importance in clinical practice. Results Buprenorphine is a potent opioid analgesic acting on all four opioid receptors: it is an agonist on the mu-, the delta, and the ORL-1 receptors. It is an antagonist at the kappa-receptor. Buprenorphine has a number of active metabolites with different effects on the four opioid receptors; all except the norbup-3-glu are analgesic. Buprenorphine itself is not a respiratory depressant or sedative, but some of its active metabolites are. Buprenorphine and its active metabolites are not excreted by the kidney. Therefore buprenorphine may be used in patients with advanced renal failure. Buprenorphine has a slow onset and a long offset. These properties are advantageous, except sometimes when treating severe acute pain. Its agonist effect on the ORL-1 receptor reduces reward-effects and slows the development of tolerance to the analgesic effects. Buprenorphine inhibits voltage-gated sodium-channels and enhances and prolongs peripheral nerve blocks. Its ORL-1 -effect at the spinal cord may do the same. Buprenorphine is well suited for treatment of chronic pain, especially chronic neuropathic pain and cancer pain. The beneficial effects as a co-medication during treatment of the opioid-abuse disease are due to its slow onset (less "kick-effect"). Its prolonged offset-time reduces the likelihood of acute withdrawal problems and reduces the "craving" of opioids. Adverse effects Buprenorphine, being a mu-agonist, may induce or maintain opioid addiction. Illegally obtained high-dose transmucosal buprenorphine, intended for treatment of addiction, is dissolved and injected by opioid abusers. This is an increasing problem in some countries. Conclusions Buprenorphine's unusual pharmacodynamics and pharmacokinetics make it an ideal opioid for treatment of most chronic pain conditions where opioid therapy is indicated. Implications Buprenorphine is a well studied and often misunderstood analgesic opioid drug. The evidence base predicts that it will be an increasingly important alternative for treatment of chronic pain conditions caused by cancer and non-cancer diseases. It will continue to be an attractive alternative to methadone for opioid abuse rehabilitation.

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