Heroin is a category I narcotic derived from morphine, which is produced from the seed pods of the poppy plant. Sold in either a brown or white powder form or as “black tar heroin,” it’s known on the streets as “smack,” “skag,” “junk,” or simply “H.” It takes just one hit of heroin for a person to become addicted. Most people are familiar with the reputation of this drug as highly addictive. But is it possible to recover from heroin addiction at all?
Heroin Addiction And How It Develops
When we engage in a healthy activity, such as consuming food or exercising, our brain generates chemicals that make us feel good. These chemicals are known as neurotransmitters, and the most prominent “feel good” chemical is dopamine. Dopamine interacts with opioid receptors in our brains.
Unfortunately, drugs and alcohol can also cause the body to release these same chemicals and also bind to opioid receptors. A 2009 study conducted at McGill University showed that rats given low-to-moderate levels of alcohol had altered levels of released beta-endorphin in the Ventral Tegmental Area, a region of the brain that mediates the rewarding effects of alcohol and drugs. This hijacking of the brain’s reward system contributes significantly to heroin’s addictive nature.
When someone uses heroin, either by injecting, snorting, or smoking the drug, it quickly enters the body and reaches the brain and spinal cord, raising dopamine levels. This increase in dopamine slows down activity and causes a short-lived but intense feeling of relaxation, euphoria, or “rush,” and even pain relief. If individuals continue taking these drugs, over time, they develop a physical dependence. As they continue to use heroin, their tolerance to the drug increases, meaning that they will require higher and higher doses to achieve the same effect.
Despite the fact that it is an illegal “street drug,” heroin is widely available and inexpensive. In fact, more and more Americans are experimenting with heroin. Although heroin use in the general population is relatively low, roughly 450,000 people aged 12 and older reported using heroin in 2016, and those numbers continue to climb. From 2002 to 2016, there was an almost 200% increase in the number of people meeting the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition (DSM-IV) criteria for dependence on heroin.
Effects of Heroin on the Body
Heroin use can damage almost every organ in the body and can cause numerous health issues such as:
- Lack of motivation
- Vein inflammation (from injecting heroin)
- Respiratory issues
- Sleep apnea
- Liver cancer
- Deterioration of white matter in the brain
- Long-term imbalances in neuronal and hormonal systems
- Loss of sex drive
- Irregular menstrual cycles
- Death of small cells in vital organs
- Damage to nasal pages (caused by snorting heroin
- Arthritis or other rheumatologic problems
- Spontaneous abortion
- Bacterial Infections
Heroin addiction can also be deadly. The CDC tracked national overdose deaths involving heroin from 1999 to 2016 and found that overdose deaths involving heroin increased almost 700% in a relatively short period. The good news is that from 2016 to 2019, heroin-involved deaths decreased by about 9%, a trend that will hopefully continue.
The Risk Factors Of Developing A Heroin Addiction
Are some people more prone to heroin addiction than others?
While anyone can develop an addiction to heroin, even after just one use, particular factors seem to put some people at higher risk.
Though scientists continue their research, they have found that there is evidence of abnormalities in genes that code for specific proteins in people who abuse drugs and alcohol. These genes may make it more difficult for some people to deal with stress and may lead to an increased risk of addiction. In the future, it may be possible to assess the increased risk of dependency on heroin, cocaine, and alcohol using brain imaging.
Besides genetics, other risk factors can include a history of family addiction or childhood trauma, depression, or other mental health issues. Those who use other drugs are also at risk. “The strongest risk factor for a heroin use disorder is a prescription use disorder,” reports the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration.
Those most at risk are “non-Hispanic whites, men, 18-to-25 year-olds, people with an annual household income less than $20,000, Medicaid recipients, and the uninsured.” Nonetheless, there has been a significant surge in heroin usage among demographic categories that did not previously use the drug, such as those with private health insurance, women, and those with higher household incomes.
Can You Recover From Heroin Addiction & Get Your Life Back On Track?
Is it possible to recover from an addiction to heroin?
The good news is that it is possible to recover from heroin addiction and live a fulfilling and happy life. However, because heroin is a highly addictive drug that causes physical dependence in its users, it is challenging to quit without medical assistance and support.
Heroin Withdrawal and Medical Detox
The first step in recovering from heroin addiction is the detoxification process, which aims to remove not only heroin from your system but also the toxins associated with the drug from your body.
You should undergo detoxification, or “detox,” under the supervision of a healthcare provider. Medically supervised detox includes medication to ease withdrawal, constant supervision, and a comfortable environment conducive to healing.
While withdrawing from heroin is uncomfortable, it is not typically life-threatening. The most challenging aspect of withdrawal is usually the severe cravings heroin users experience, but physical factors can also include pain, cramping, vomiting, body aches, and diarrhea. The most intense withdrawal symptoms peak within 24-48 hours after the person’s last heroin dosage. Withdrawal from the drug can last anywhere from a few days to several weeks, depending on how much heroin you have been taking and how long you have been doing so.
After you have medically withdrawn from heroin, you will want to find a rehabilitation center that offers treatment programs like those we offer at Lake Avenue Recovery. The treatment process should start with a comprehensive assessment to determine what level of treatment you will need. A quality addiction treatment program should always include a personalized plan with both psychological and cognitive evaluations. Clinicians should ask you about your addiction history and any co-occurring disorders you might have so that you can receive the appropriate level of care.
There are many different treatment programs available depending on your needs, from residential treatment programs to Partial Hospitalization Programs to Intensive Outpatient Programs. Some programs include experiential or mindfulness activities, light nature walks, fitness training, massage, or yoga. Make sure to ask about the types of therapeutic activities that a particular treatment program offers.
Medication Assisted Treatment
Your treatment team may also put you on medication-assisted therapy, or MAT, which involves using opioid antagonists like naltrexone to block cravings and help prevent a relapse. Other medications that treatment programs may use include methadone (Dolophine® or Methadose®) and buprenorphine (Subutex®). Scientific evidence shows that pharmaceutical therapy can help treatment program retention and decrease drug use, disease transmission, and even criminal behavior. You will be regularly drug tested and closely monitored while on these medications, to help keep you accountable. It’s also important to remember that medication is not a “cure” for addiction, and that you will still need to engage in additional therapy and peer support.
During the heroin rehabilitation process, you will learn tools and coping mechanisms to help you during treatment once you complete your program. Most treatment programs also include cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), delivered in both group and individual treatment sessions. When combined with other behavioral therapies and interventions that help a person learn better coping mechanisms for managing drug cravings, CBT has been proven to be an effective treatment for heroin addiction. The treatment program you choose should also include a plan for aftercare, which can increase the success of long-term recovery by 20%.
The disease of addiction is a real, progressive illness that ruins millions of lives each year. While heroin can be an incredibly destructive drug, the good news is that millions of people across the globe are in recovery from heroin addiction and have gone on to live productive, fulfilling lives. The sooner you start treatment, the higher your chances of a lasting recovery.
Recovering from heroin addiction is not easy but it is possible. Drugs do not need to define you or your loved one, and there is no shame in needing help. If you or someone you love is struggling with heroin addiction, please call 508-794-4400 to speak with a Lake Avenue Recovery specialist today. With professional help and support, you can recover. The first step is deciding to get sober.