What happens to the brain when you start taking Suboxone®?

Explore the impact of Suboxone on the brain and its role in OUD treatment. Learn how buprenorphine & naloxone components work and their effects over time.

Ophelia team
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Opioids are often prescribed to patients post injury or surgery for pain relief. When the body is introduced to opioids, it can elicit feelings of euphoria for long periods while simultaneously relieving pain. However, since the body can become dependent on opioids, it’s crucial to exercise caution. 

It becomes increasingly difficult for patients to stop taking opioids all together, since opioids essentially change the brain’s chemistry. Unfortunately, many patients may be diagnosed with opioid use disorder (OUD), as the body and brain crave opioids well after the prescription has ended. Below, learn more about how opioids affect the brain and how Suboxone® can provide relief for OUD.

How do opioids affect the brain?

When a person takes opioids, the drugs bind to and activate opioid receptors in the brain. This interaction blocks pain messages and can produce a feeling of euphoria by flooding the brain with dopamine. 

The pain-relieving qualities of opioids make the drugs ideal for managing chronic pain, post-surgical pain, and other severe pain caused by injuries. However, opioids can also become abused for recreational use specifically to experience a heightened sensation of exhilaration. In the absence of pain, the “feel good” reward processes that opioids trigger in the brain can motivate people to use opioids for that feeling of pleasure. A person becomes at risk of abusing opioids if they’re taken for any reason other than pain management, which can lead to dependencies and OUD.   

Long-term effects of opioids

With long-term use, opioids can lead to changes in the brain. Over time, someone using opioids can require larger or more frequent doses to achieve the same effect. Long-term opioid use can cause cognitive impairment by affecting the frontal lobe of the brain, resulting in behavioral changes or poor decision-making. Additionally, long-term opioid use can also impact neurocognitive function, leading impairments in memory, spatial planning, and attention.  

Even under a doctor’s supervision, opioid use can be dangerous. Both opioid dependence and opioid addiction are possible effects of opioid use. Opioid dependency is a medical state in which a person requires opioids to avoid withdrawal syndrome and achieve a baseline sense of wellness and functionality. 

Opioid addiction occurs when a patient experiences intense cravings for opioids and uses them compulsively. Opioid addiction and dependence happen as a result of the way opioids affect the brain. Despite the stigma around opioids and opioid use, opioid addiction is a health condition, not a moral failing. 

What is Suboxone?

Suboxone® is a life-saving prescription medication used in the treatment of opioid use disorder. Patients can take Suboxone in either a film or tablet form. It’s a brand-name version of the generic drug that combines buprenorphine and naloxone. With that in mind, what does Suboxone do to the brain? It's necessary to consider how the two key drug components affect the brain. 

What is buprenorphine?

Buprenorphine is a partial opioid agonist, meaning it binds to opioid receptors in the brain but doesn’t activate them to the same extent as full opioid agonists like heroin or oxycodone. Unlike these full agonist opioids, buprenorphine limits a person’s ability to achieve a euphoric effect on the drug by taking larger doses. 

Buprenorphine also does not suppress breathing to the same extent as full opioids and is generally much safer. For these reasons, Suboxone and similar medications can be an effective part of recovery.  

What is naloxone?

Naloxone, an opioid antagonist, is the other primary component of Suboxone. As an opioid antagonist, naloxone attaches to opioid receptors in the brain but does not activate them. Since the drug is already attached to the opioid receptors, other opioids are not able to bind to those receptors and activate them. Naloxone gets in the way of other opioids taking effect. 

Without buprenorphine, naloxone is available under the brand name Narcan. The effect of naloxone is powerful enough that it can displace opioids that are already attached to opioid receptors in the body, reversing an opioid overdose. 

What are the effects of Suboxone over time?

By combining buprenorphine and naloxone, Suboxone is able to help patients combat opioid cravings and reduce the risk of overdose. These effects make Suboxone an incredibly powerful treatment approach. As part of treatment for OUD, medical professionals may prescribe patients Suboxone in addition to other treatment methods such as therapy. Over time, the hope is that long-term Suboxone use under medical supervision will help the patient manage their OUD symptoms. Some patients may use Suboxone for six months, a year, or longer to address their symptoms. It all depends on the individual patient’s needs and situation. 

Patients may experience some side effects from using Suboxone long-term, such as:

  • Drowsiness
  • Sleep disruptions
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Blood pressure changes
  • Changes to libido
  • Dental problems

Patients who experience these or other unpleasant side effects of long-term Suboxone use should speak to their medical care team. It may be possible to adjust the patient’s dosage or find an alternative drug like Subutex® (buprenorphine only, without naloxone). 

Why is Suboxone considered the gold standard of care?

There are many different approaches to treating drug dependency and addiction. For decades, drug rehabilitation centers have been seen as the path to recovery, but innovation and research in the field have provided more effective options for patients dealing with OUD. 

Using medications for addiction treatment (MAT) is a way to effectively address OUD as the physical medical condition it is. Suboxone is the gold standard of care because it offers an ideal combination of an opioid antagonist and a partial opioid agonist. The drug is able to curb opioid cravings and deter opioid misuse all at once. When paired with additional treatment measures such as counseling, Suboxone is the best option for many patients with OUD. 

Access Suboxone OUD treatment with Ophelia

Anyone interested in Suboxone as a treatment option must choose a qualified care team to oversee that treatment. With the help of medical professionals, patients can use Suboxone to address their OUD symptoms and head down the path to a balanced life.

Ophelia offers accessible Suboxone treatment to patients across the country. In a quick meeting with your dedicated clinical care team, you can see if you’re eligible for Suboxone treatment through Ophelia. From there, the Ophelia team develops a customized treatment plan for qualified patients and sends a Suboxone prescription to your local pharmacy. Throughout treatment, your team is available seven days a week, morning to evening, to provide ongoing medical support and maintenance.


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