Heroin addiction : is it possible to make a full recovery?

Is it possible to make a full recovery from heroin addiction

Yes, it is possible to make a full recovery from heroin addiction, but you need to know it’s tough and the likelihood of relapse is high. Heroin is one of the hardest drugs to quit and one of the most challenging addictions to treat.

If your life is affected by this drug, either as a user or a family member; it helps to understand how heroin works, why people get addicted to it and what treatment is recommended for lasting recovery.

What is heroin?

Heroin is a potent opioid drug that’s made from morphine. This element is a natural substance extracted from the seed pod of opium poppy plants grown in Mexico, Colombia and Southeast and Southwest Asia. Poppy plants are used to make opium, and any drugs derived from them are called opiates. Heroin and morphine are both known as opiates.

Heroin is bought as a white or brown powder or a black sticky substance known as black tar heroin. People inject, snort, sniff or smoke heroin. Some people mix it with crack cocaine which is called speedballing.

What is the difference between heroin and prescription opioids?

Heroin is derived from a natural source, while prescription opioids are man-made synthetic drugs that mimic the opiate-like effects of heroin. Examples of synthetic opioids include fentanyl and carfentanil. Prescription drugs such as OxyContin and Vicodin produce results similar to heroin.

Often, heroin is not the first drug people abuse. Many individuals start abusing prescription painkiller opiates and switch to heroin because it’s cheaper and more accessible on the streets.

How heroin works in your brain

Heroin has an intense effect on your brain’s reward system and is highly addictive. It tricks your brain by messing with the production of feel-good chemicals such as dopamine and endorphins. Heroin enters the brain and quickly binds to opioid receptors on cells located in areas that control feelings of pain and pleasure as well as your heart rate, sleeping and breathing.

When you inject, smoke or snort heroin, the morphine compound triggers a surge of dopamine in your neural system that creates an intense feeling of euphoria. Dopamine is a chemical messenger that travels to and from your brain along a route known as the reward pathway and plays a role in reinforcing habits that bring pleasure and reward.

Dopamine is necessary for survival because it’s responsible for us eating and drinking, making babies, feeling joy, socialising etc. Dopamine compels us to seek out stimulus again and again, either for survival or for pleasure.

How heroin addiction develops

How heroin addiction develops

When you use heroin, your brain adjusts to surges of dopamine by either weakening or eliminating the receptors that respond to the drug. With continued use, you need more heroin to get the same high you did in the beginning. When you develop a tolerance to the drug, you need to use more of it more often to satisfy cravings.

Once you have a tolerance for heroin, will experience severe withdrawal symptoms when you stop using the drug. The only way to “feel better” is to seek out the drug which leads to relapse.

Did you know?

The relapse rate for most addictive substances ranges from 40 to 60%. The relapse rate for heroin is 90% or even higher.

Why heroin relapse is so high

Heroin is the hardest drug to quit because of its powerful physical, mental and psychological effect and how it changes how your brain works and functions.

Physical effects of heroin abuse

Heroin alters the structure and pathways of the brain, which leads to compulsive use and deterioration of your physical health. Heroin affects parts of your brain that control how you respond to stress, make decisions and regulate behaviour. Additives in heroin damage blood vessels which leads to lung, liver, kidney and heart failure.

Mental effects of heroin abuse

Heroin damages white and gray matter in the brain and disrupts essential functions such as learning, processing information, memory, concentration, thinking and decision making. Heroin destroys nerve fibers that act as a highway to carry messages between brain cells and affects how the message is received.

Psychological effects of heroin abuse

The psychological effects of heroin abuse result from the brain readjusting to surges of dopamine in your neural system. This brain re-wiring can lead to depression, anxiety and other forms of psychosis.

Did you know?

One in four people who try heroin for the first time will become addicted to the drug. Tolerance builds rapidly with heroin, and casual or occasional heroin use can quickly lead to addiction.

Short-term effects of heroin addiction

Heroin causes a surge of pleasure or euphoria, commonly called a rush. Other common short-term effects of heroin include:

  • nodding off (conscious/semi-conscious)
  • flushed skin
  • heavy feelings in arms and legs
  • dry mouth
  • nausea and vomiting
  • brain fog
  • severe itching
  • insomnia

Long-term effects of heroin addiction

The long-term side effects of heroin abuse can be extremely harmful to your health and life-threatening. Heroin users are also at high risk of contracting HIV or another infectious disease if they share needles with other drug users.

Using heroin for an extended period may cause:

  • liver and kidney disease
  • pneumonia
  • collapsed veins
  • buildup of infectious pus on your heart lining and valves
  • weeping abscesses that don’t heal
  • severe constipation and stomach cramping
  • lighter or heavier menstrual periods and increased cramping
  • chronic depression, anxiety or anti-social personality disorder
  • low sperm count or impotence
  • infertility
  • pregnancy-related complications
How is heroin addiction treated

How is heroin addiction treated?

It’s recommended that heroin addiction is treated through a medical facility or an addiction treatment centre under the care of specialists trained in dealing with heroin addiction.

Medical detox is the first step of an integrated addiction programme to help you cope with withdrawal symptoms. The second step is participating in psychotherapy at an inpatient or outpatient facility, which provides you with the support and tools you need for your recovery.

Is medicine used to help with heroin withdrawal process

Yes, medicine is used to help heroin addicts cope with debilitating withdrawal symptoms and prevent them from relapsing. These include:

  • Lofexidine; FDA-approved non-opioid medicine that’s used to reduce opioid withdrawal symptoms
  • Buprenorphine or methadone; work by binding the same opioid receptors in the brain as heroin but only in a weak form, helping to reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms
  • Naltrexone; blocks opioid receptors and prevents opioid drugs from having an effect

Can you quit heroin cold-turkey?

No, it’s not recommended that you go ‘cold turkey’ and quit using heroin on your own. Heroin withdrawal is painful and uncomfortable, and there is a risk of physical complications. Detox under medical supervision is recommended to help with the withdrawal process and manage cravings.

Users experience a wide range of withdrawal symptoms when they stop using heroin, ranging from dehydration to vomiting, diarrhea, depression and anxiety. Heroin withdrawal symptoms can affect your mental health, which can lead to self-harm and suicide attempts. Emotional support at this time is as important as medical support.

How to avoid a heroin relapse

After medical detox, you should go to an inpatient or outpatient rehabilitation centre for a drug maintenance programme. The maintenance dose is reduced over time until you are entirely drug-free.

At the same time, you should attend therapy to help you develop the tools needed for long-term recovery.

You will be assessed for dual diagnosis and treated accordingly if it is present. A comprehensive treatment plan tailored to your unique needs will provide the support and tools you need to avoid relapsing and enjoy a better quality of life.

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