Heroin is an opioid drug derived from morphine. As an opioid, it works by attaching itself to the opioid receptors in the brain. Heroin’s addictive properties and its overdose risks mean that heroin is illegal to buy, possess, or consume. Despite its illegal status, people seek out heroin anyway because of the euphoric, “high” feeling that it can produce.
Why Do People Become Addicted to Heroin?
When opioids bind to the brain’s opioid receptors, they alter the way that the brain perceives and reacts to pain. This is part of the reason why legal opioids were prescribed so often for pain in the late 90s.
Opioids including Heroin are Extremely Addictive
Heroin and other opioids also send a message to the brain’s reward system, causing it to release a chemical called dopamine. Because dopamine is the brain’s most prominent “feel good” chemical, the brain starts to crave more of it almost immediately. This is especially true given the fact that heroin doesn’t release the same amount of dopamine as healthy activities like eating or exercising. Instead, heroin floods the brain with so much dopamine that the receptors become numb to it, meaning that the brain will require more and more dopamine – and more heroin – just to feel normal.
If you or a loved one are dealing with any stage of heroin addiction, you can get the help you need to quit.
The opioid crisis has contributed to the prevalence of heroin addiction. Though not all who abuse prescription opioids move on to heroin, most heroin users have abused prescription opioids before moving on to the street drug.
80% of US heroin users report having abused prescription opioids in the past.
Withdrawal: A Barrier to Recovery
Before a heroin user can fully recover, he or she will enter the detox phase. During this part of recovery, the addicted person should have his or her access to heroin removed as the remnants of the drug exit his or her body. This part of recovery is extraordinarily difficult because it comes with symptoms of withdrawal. The brain is no longer receiving the dopamine hits that it needs to feel normal, so it starts sending strong messages to the addicted individual in the form of uncomfortable symptoms. These symptoms are called withdrawal, and they come in a wide range of physical and psychological issues. Many heroin users will relapse during this phase in an attempt to get relief from the symptoms.
Physical withdrawal from heroin includes but is certainly not limited to the following symptoms:
- Stomach problems such as nausea and vomiting
- Eye problems like tears and constricted pupils
- Chills and/or sweating
- Muscle or bone pain
- Sleep problems
The amount of time that these symptoms last will vary from person to person. Much of the withdrawal process depends on the amount of heroin used and the addicted person’s genetic makeup.
In addition to the physical withdrawal symptoms, a person who is addicted to heroin may also experience psychological withdrawal symptoms. Heroin use in and of itself often leads to other mental health problems, but even if one doesn’t experience those while using heroin, he or she may well experience them during withdrawal. The physical pain and discomfort, along with the temptation to relapse, can cause feelings of hopelessness and despair. These can lead to depression and anxiety.
Thankfully, many withdrawal symptoms can be alleviated through use of medication. These medications may only be used under the supervision of a doctor through a heroin treatment program. The doctor may prescribe one of three types of medicines.
- Agonists are opioids that bind to the brain’s opioid receptors, effectively taking the place of heroin. Methadoneis the most commonly prescribed agonist for heroin withdrawal relief.
- Partial Agonists work in the same way that agonists do, but not as strongly.
- Antagonists relieve withdrawal symptoms while also blocking opioid receptors.
These medications are much safer than heroin, especially because they’re taken under the supervision of trained medical staff. However, methadone and other medications are not meant to permanently replace heroin. If that were the case, the person with the substance abuse disorder would simply trade one addiction for another. Instead, a doctor will prescribe smaller and smaller amounts of medication until the addicted person no longer needs it.