Buprenorphine is a strong opioid painkiller which targets the nervous system and the brain in order to reduce the feeling of pain. Additionally, buprenorphine has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be used in treating opioid dependence and/or addiction because it can also lessen cravings for stronger drugs like codeine, morphine, and heroin. However, not all buprenorphine products are approved for treatment of opioid addiction.
In this article, we review how buprenorphine affects different parts of the body and brain. At the end, we invite your questions about the effects of buprenorphine on your system. In fact, we try to respond to all legitimate questions with a personal and prompt response.
Buprenorphine effects on the body
In addiction treatments, buprenorphine works in the brain and body to mitigate cravings. It is used in low doses so that addicts can better cope with the withdrawal stage of the treatment. Like other opioids, it has the potential to slow down the actions of the body such as breathing and heartbeat.
Other side effects it has on the body is that it produces physical dependence which is evident in the withdrawal symptoms that occur upon cessation. You can become dependent on buprenorphine, as with many medications taken over time. For this reason, if you wish to stop taking buprenorphine, you should work with a substance abuse treatment provider to taper off. This prevents withdrawal symptoms from appearing intensely or severely. What is buprenorphine withdrawal like? Flu-like symptoms are common, such as:
Other side effects or feelings of discomfort that come with taking buprenorphine are mild. Usually, these go away after the medication is taken for a while. If you have side effects, you should NOT stop taking the medication. Instead, talk with your doctor or substance abuse treatment provider. An adjustment in dosage or a change in medication may help.
Buprenorphine effects on the brain
As an opioid, buprenorphine affects the brain works as a partial mu-receptor agonist. In other words, it occupies the same receptors as stronger opioids/opiates without producing a feeling of “high”. This is how buprenorphine stops heroin from getting you “high” and can simultaneously lessen the intensity of withdrawal symptoms, especially craving (the strong feeling that you need to have it).
Buprenorphine is effective because it tricks the brain into reacting like it’s receiving an opioid. However, it also negatively affects the brain, especially if taken not as prescribed. Namely, opioids are notorious for being extremely addictive, and addiction is a disease to the brain that occurs with repetitive use of a certain ingredient. It follows that, if not taken as prescribed, there is a risk of developing addiction to buprenorphine. Signs of buprenorphine addiction follow the classic pattern: loss of control, continued use despite negative consequences, and cravings.
Buprenorphine effects on the nervous system
When combined with alcohol or sedative-hypnotics, buprenorphine may considerably decrease the functioning of the central nervous system, which may result in drowsiness and decreased motor skills. This is why you should NOT take other medications without consulting your doctor first. While taking this medication, you should NOT use illegal drugs, drink alcohol, or take sedatives, tranquilizers, or other drugs that slow breathing. Taking any of these substances in large amounts along with buprenorphine can lead to overdose or death.
Buprenorphine effects on dopamine
Increases in the impulse flow of dopamine cells in the ventral tegmental area has been reported with buprenorphine. In that sense, acute administration of buprenorphine has morphine-like effects.
Buprenorphine effects on personality and behavior
While patients using buprenorphine can feel pretty normal and do not get “high”, they can still experience certain mood changes and uncommon behavior. The following related changes have been reported in buprenorphine users:
- dysphoria (a deep dissatisfaction with life)
Buprenorphine effects on the heart and heart rate
Other than a predicted slowdown of the heart beat, buprenorphine users are not exposed to any major heart related dangers.
Buprenorphine effects on blood pressure
Decreased blood pressure, dizziness and fainting are reported as a possible side effects of using buprenorphine. Also, hypertension has been reported as a serious side effect which requires urgent medical assistance.
Buprenorphine effects on blood sugar
There are no significant changes in the blood sugar levels associated with buprenorphine use.
Buprenorphine effects on the liver
Individuals who have hepatitis or other liver-related problems are advised to have their liver checked every once in a while if using buprenorphine. It’s advisable to do so because buprenorphine is metabolized by the liver and may cause liver dysfunction. Another possible side effect is increase in the liver enzymes. Keep in mind that liver problems while using buprenorphone are rare but can occur. If you have a pre-existing liver condition, your doctor should conduct regular tests on your liver.
Seek help if the following side effects appear, because they may indicate serious liver problems:
- bad stomachache
- dark or tea-colored urine
- light colored bowel movements
- yellow skin
- yellowing in the whites of the eyes
Buprenorphine effects on the lungs
Respiratory depression and wheezing are possibly an effect of buprenorphine, but less likely to occur than after using other opioids. Case reports describe emergence of noncardiogenic pulmonary edema following buprenorphine use, which is possible as a result of an allergic reaction.
Buprenorphine effects on skin
Allergic reactions to buprenorphine may induce rash, hives or swelling of the face. Yellowing of the skin as a result of liver dysfunction and requires immediate medial attention. Uncommon redness inside the mouth are also possible side effects of buprenorphine use.
Buprenorphine effects on the nose, ears, and throat
Runny nose is likely to occur upon cessation of buprenorphine use as a result of developing dependence to the opioid, while swelling of the throat is a sign of an allergic reaction to buprenorphine.
Buprenorphine effects on sperm
To date, there are no studies to indicate how exactly buprenorphine affects the sperm. But considering it is an opioid, it may be considerable adverse effects on semen quality as is the case with other opioid drugs. In case of infertility in a man who is consuming buprenorphine, the drug should be considered a possible factor.
Buprenorphine effects on pregnancy
Buprenorphine products are designated as Pregnancy Category C medications by the FDA. However, there is a lack of knowledge on the buprenorphine effects on pregnancy and only few case reports suggesting that it does not pose any significant dangers to pregnant women. It is up to the doctor who prescribed the drug to decide whether the risk of buprenorphine treatment is greater than the that associated with other opioid use. In the United States, methadone is more commonly prescribed to opioid-addicted pregnant women undergoing opiate substitution therapy in order that the fetus avoid withdrawal symptoms of buprenorphine dependence at birth.
Buprenorphine effects on the menstrual cycle and birth control
There are studies that suggest menstrual cycle irregularities after taking oral opioids, but considering that buprenorphine is quite weaker than other opioids, it may not be the case with this medication.
According to one study, the menstrual stage influences the emergence of emesis following epidural buprenorphine use. Specifically, women who are close to the 25th day until the end of the cycle are more likely to experience emesis (vomiting).
Buprenorphine effects on a fetus
Like other drugs, buprenorphine can reach the fetus via the placenta. During gestation, the fetus can become dependent on the medication. As a result, the baby may experience withdrawal symptoms upon birth, which may not be as intense as is the case with other drug.
Buprenorphine effects on breast milk
If you are breast feeding, methadone is safer than buprenorphine for mother and child. In special circumstances, doctors may recommend the naloxone-free form of buprenorphine instead of methadone. Ask your doctor for more information.
Buprenorphine effects on eyes and pupils
Teary eyes and large pupils are common symptoms of withdrawal when the drug intake is suddenly stopped, while pinpoint pupils in buprenorphine users may indicate an overdose.