While many people across the country have become more educated or at least familiar with the opioid crisis that continues to loom heavy over households in every state, misconceptions exist that can blur the lines between what is real and what is fiction – an oxymoron for overall substance abuse. Much focus has been placed on the shame and corresponding responsibility of the medical community, drug manufacturers and government agencies in creating the opioid epidemic, with respect to legal prescriptions misused. But the issue was exacerbated by new laws put into effect that may protect patients while simultaneously throwing them into the lion’s den of addiction – heroin. For the users and their families, it can feel like an albatross. But heroin isn’t the end of the road if you know how to treat it effectively. It begins with knowledge.
Why Did Heroin Addiction Make a Come Back
Heroin has become an increasing concern for the drug control and prevention authorities in the United States. Why? The consumption ratio has been enhanced extensively across gender, socioeconomic status, age group, and location in the past decade and more so as of late.
Countless people from all walks of life addicted to prescription pain pills were forced to undergo withdrawals from the medication, almost without warning. With the tightening of prescription subscription and fulfillment guidelines, doctors quickly stopped refilling their patients’ orders. As a result, these patients were left with the following options:
- Go through drug addiction withdrawal
- Mask pain with over-the-counter medication
- Shift drug choice to the other opioid, heroin
For options 1 and 2, to the person addicted to opioids, these aren’t options at all because there is pain associated with both. The reason that opioid addiction is so powerful is that it happens quickly, within days. It isn’t just that the pain of not having the drug is so excruciating but that as the drug intake increases, so too does the associated pain in cravings and withdrawals.
For anyone who has not fallen victim to opioid addiction, it’s hard to imagine the harsh reality of it. For those who have, it’s a vicious cycle of numbing the pain and feeling the pain, as it escalates to the point of overdose and often, death.
What Is It About Heroin that Makes It So Hard to Kick
An opioid drug constituting morphine, heroin is a naturally existing substance that is extracted from the opium poppy plants’ seed pod. Available in white and brown powder appearance, and black sticky form, heroin is an illegal and life-harming drug that has the tendency of producing a strong high, making it an extremely addictive drug.
Nearly 15,500 casualties were received in 2016 due to heroin overdose. Made from chemically modified morphine, when heroin is ingested, it immediately reaches the brain. The enzymes in the brain convert heroin back into morphine prior to reaching the neural cells, opioid receptors.
These receptors are present in the brain stem, spinal cord and the digestive tract. When heroin comes in contact with these receptors, a series of events related to the release of dopamine is triggered. Dopamine imparts a pleasurable feeling in the body. This feeling, or the dopamine, is one of the root causes for drug addiction.
The Fine Line Between Pleasure and Pain
It’s the pleasurable sensations felt in the body that coerce an individual to indulge in heroin use time and again, resulting in addiction. The compulsion towards the desire for heroin is also fed by other factors such as emotional needs to minimize stress, discomfort or as a coping mechanism to quiet an existing mental disorder, known as dual diagnosis.
Heroin provides an internal warmth and comfort to the user and elicits a perceived sense of confidence and wellbeing. When the chemical dependency is present, and dopamine levels drop, the withdrawal process starts. The more the user tries to get away from heroin consumption, withdrawal symptoms grow stronger, compelling the user to engage in the behavior again.
Withdrawal Intensity Varies
The impact heroin has on the body depends upon the quality, quantity and the way the drug is ingested into the system. The addictive substance enters the bloodstream more quickly if it is smoked or injected. The high received, consequently, will be of intense nature, although shorter in duration.
When the user snorts heroin powder, the high is gradual high with relatively less intensity but the effect is long lasting compared to smoking or injecting it.
Increased Risk for Overdose from Heroin
Because heroin is a street drug, illegal drug dealers distribute the substance to gain influence, power and money. A common way for drug dealers to increase their profit margin is to cut the heroin with synthetic substances that look and feel like heroin but are far more lethal. With the current oversupply of cocaine coming across our borders from Peru and Colombia, heroin can be manufactured and sold laced with cocaine. Other additives such as fentanyl and carfentanil can pack a deadly punch with a single dose. Even with anti-overdose medications (Narcan, Naloxone), the effects of Carfentanil on the body and the brain cannot be reversed.
Symptoms of Heroin Abuse
There are various points during the process of heroin use that exhibit different symptoms. Just after taking in the drug, nausea, vomiting, dry mouth, and itching can occur. However, once the substance is well into the bloodstream, a sense of calmness is all consuming, slowly moving towards numbness while losing self-control and alertness. This drowsiness lasts for several hours, fogging mental clarity and slowing one’s heartbeat.
For long-term users, needle marks on arms or other injecting sites are prevalent, as well as skin problems and infections, and compromised cardiovascular system, kidney and liver diseases.
For family and friends who suspect that a loved one is using heroin, the affects can be devastating. Relationships are strained as the heroin addict will vacillate their behavior. They may disappear for days, only to return anxious and desperate in need of a heroin fix. Their need for the drug will lead them to act out and show characteristics unlike the person they were before the heroin use. Addicts will beg and steal to feed their habit. It isn’t that they want to hurt the people they know but the addiction has left them powerless. If this is you or someone you know, the time to seek treatment is now.
Suboxone Strips and Patches Treat Heroin Addicts Humanely
Contrary to popular belief, heroin addiction doesn’t equate to a dead-end road. Heroin isn’t the end of the road. There is a pathway to recovery through what’s known as a harm reduction model of drug treatment. Harm reduction is when a patient is introduced to another drug to replace heroin use and gradually scale down the chemical dependency. The reason behind harm reduction is simple. The addict will go through the heroin withdrawal process in a manner that is less harmful to their internal systems, minimizing the risks of health conditions related to withdrawals. The result is a drug treatment option, through suboxone strips or patches worn on the skin, administered and managed by professional medical practitioners throughout the recovery program.
Over time, the patient’s progress and overall health are monitored. Recommendations can be made to modify the amount of suboxone needed, to further the continuum towards living clean and drug-free.
Heroin consumption may be a choice in the beginning, but the subsequent addiction isn’t. We need to change the way we see heroin addiction, its victims and how we treat heroin addiction. Only then, can we move past the hurdles and help more people, effectively. Heroin isn’t the end of the road.
For More Information or Help for Heroin Addiction. Call 1-888-NODRUGS
Authored by Melanie Stern, Content Director for Scottsdale Recovery Center, Arizona Addiction Recovery Centers and Cohn Media, LLC. Writer and broadcaster covering the following industries: addiction rehab, health care, entertainment, technology and advocate of clear communication, positivity and humanity at its best.