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What Are Partial Opioid Agonists?

3 min read
2 sections
3 minute read
3 min read
2 sections

You’ve heard of partial opioid agonists if you’ve heard of the drugs:

  • Buprenorphine
  • Tramadol
  • Butorphanol
  • Pentazocine

These medications can help support people in recovery. They do also carry some risk for misuse.

What’s the Difference Between Full Opioid Agonists and Partial Opioid Agonists?

Full Opioid Agonists

Full opioid agonists include well-known legal and illegal drugs:

  • Heroin
  • Fentanyl
  • Hydrocodone
  • Methadone
  • Morphine
  • Oxycodone
  • Opium

Full opioid agonists bind tightly to the brain’s opioid receptors. They produce a full opioid effect on your brain and body.

Some full agonists are illegal in the United States, and others have been approved for very specific cases and only when prescribed by a doctor.

Partial Opioid Agonists

Just like opioids, partial opioid agonists also activate the opioid receptors in the brain. But they are much weaker than a full agonist, which means they don’t produce the same euphoric effects as drugs like heroin, oxycodone, or morphine. 

Instead, they can help reduce drug cravings and uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. When used as part of medication-assisted treatment (MAT), these medications can be highly effective for reducing the rates of relapse. 

Buprenorphine: Buprenorphine helps reduce uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms when an individual stops taking heroin or other opioids. It comes in many forms:

  • Tablet
  • Film strips placed under the tongue to dissolve
  • Buccal films placed in the inner cheek to dissolve
  • Under-the-skin implants
  • An extended-release injection

Butorphanol: Butorphanol can treat moderate to severe pain and migraines. Anesthesiologists may give it to patients during surgery or the early stages of labor. It’s available in tablet form or as a nasal spray. 

TramadolTramadol treats moderate or severe pain. It comes in both tablet and capsule form. 

Pentazocine: Pentazocine treats moderate or severe pain. It can be combined with naloxone or acetaminophen, which can help prevent people from misusing it. 

The FDA has approved the use of partial agonists, like buprenorphine, to treat opioid use disorder. It’s more accessible than methadone: Patients can receive buprenorphine in their physicians’ offices.

Is It Possible to Become Addicted to Full and Partial Opioid Agonists?

Not all opioids are created equally, but all of them can be habit-forming. Full opioid agonists carry the highest risk for misuse because they are so powerful. Partial opioid agonists are weaker and lose their effectiveness at higher doses. When taken as prescribed, partial opioid agonists can significantly reduce problems associated with cravings and withdrawal.

For example, buprenorphine contains naloxone, which can reverse the effects of injected opioids.

Some people take these medications during the detox phases of treatment. Others continue taking them long-term. Your doctor and treatment team will work with you to discuss the best strategy for your care. 

While anyone can become addicted to partial opioid agonists, the risk increases if you:

  • Get them and use them illicitly (without a prescription)
  • Inject or snort them
  • Remove some or all of the dose from your mouth to use later (when not under supervision)
  • Use the medication without any other form of substance abuse treatment

MAT is most successful when you have it along with other treatment strategies. Taking the medication alone is rarely enough for sustainable change. Many people benefit from individual therapy, inpatient or outpatient treatment, and self-help groups.

What Happens If You Misuse Your Partial Opioid Agonist?

All opioid misuse can be inherently risky. It’s important to seek help if you think you’re abusing your partial opioid agonist. When dealing with misuse, treatment providers may:

  • Request that you come in for check-ups more frequently
  • Provide smaller doses of the drug if it is part of MAT
  • Help you establish an appropriate support system
  • Refer you to therapy or other clinical services

At Footprints to Recovery, we can help treat you or your loved one’s opioid use disorder. We understand the perils of addiction and how overwhelming it can feel to get started in recovery We are here to walk you through everything you need to know and answer all your questions. Reach out to us today to learn more.

Questions about treatment options?

Our admissions team is available 24/7 to listen to your story and help you get started with the next steps.

David Szarka
Medically Reviewed by David Szarka, MA, LCADC
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