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Heroin Addiction: How it begins, how it progresses

It often begins innocuously. A sports injury, an accident, dental surgery, or a case of chronic pain… and opioids are introduced. They’re very effective at mitigating physical pain and the relief is rapid and euphoric. Almost imperceptibly, other things we often don’t label as pain - worry, anxiety, stress, insecurity - those feelings fall away too, and are replaced with feelings of ease and happiness. What may start out as pain management leads to a dependency on the emotional relief the drug provides. This is the top of the slippery slope…

According to the CDC, in 2017, there were nearly 60 opioid prescriptions written for every 100 Americans. That’s more than half our population sitting at the top of an icy cliff and it doesn’t even account for those who use these drugs without a prescription. For many teens, the initial introduction of opioids is simply something to try because it sounds fun, or because they need a little pick-me-up. Opioids, including OxyContin, Percocet, and Vicodin, are often taken with the sole intention of reaching that euphoric high. More than half of young adults who misuse prescription painkillers get them from a friend or family member and they have no idea how dangerous they can be.

How prescription opioids lead to heroin

Heroin use certainly still carries a stigma so it typically leaves an abuser’s friends and family wondering how it began. You may be shocked or surprised to find out a loved one has been using. Its use has become more widespread in recent years and is impacting people and families and all parts of the nation and from all walks of life. More than 80 percent of heroin users report having started with prescription opioids.

The fact is opioids and heroin are in the same family. They interact with the body similarly and produce the same effects. Both depress the central nervous system and bind to opioid receptors, which impacts the perception of pain. But this also causes a release of dopamine, contributing to an increased sense of pleasure and well-being. The brain and body don’t know the difference between a prescription opioid and its illegal and even more dangerous counterpart, heroin. The feel-good effects these drugs produce become addictive very quickly.

Once users get hooked, they’ll begin to chase the high, seeking that easy relaxed feeling and rush of pleasure. The body rapidly adjusts to the increased dopamine levels created and more of the drug is needed to produce the sought-after feeling. The transition from prescription medication abuse to use of heroin often happens because the user can no longer get access to the prescription drugs and/or because heroin is a cheaper option (which brings in other risks as street drugs are often laced with other chemicals as well).

Long-term effects of heroin on the brain

Heroin changes the reward centers in the brain. The consistent exposure to elevated levels of dopamine conditions the brain to a new norm. The threshold for pain is decreased and conversely, the sensitivity to it is increased. The pathways become rewired so the absence of the drug makes the user feel out of balance, needing the hit of heroin just to feel a sense of normalcy.

Long-term use of heroin can have severe effects. Two key areas of the brain are of particular concern: the prefrontal cortex and the medial temporal lobe. These are the areas where memory, decision-making, self-control, and complex thought form, which means social behavior and critical thinking skills are impacted. The central nervous system is damaged by ongoing heroin use as well, leading to further issues with impulse control and good judgment. Heroin users frequently struggle to be forward-thinking and tend not to plan for the future. They may have difficulty processing emotions and lose the ability to experience pleasure naturally. The longer one uses the drug, the more difficult it becomes to function without it in their system.

Heroin causes more than just social and emotional problems. Because it depresses nervous system activity and slows vital functions, respiration and heart rate can become decreased or irregular, which is frequently the cause of death in cases of overdose.

Damage from heroin use can happen quickly and be difficult to reverse. The risks rise the with longer use. It’s important to seek help as soon as possible if you suspect a loved is using heroin or on the path to it with abuse of opioids.

Signs and Risk Factors

Prevention is the best strategy so if you or anyone in your household is prescribed painkillers for any reason, it’s important to keep the drugs closely monitored. Teens who are experiencing pressure or stress at school or at home can be susceptible to experimentation with drugs, including opioids. If you notice a few pills missing, don’t brush it off. Recognizing and confronting opioid and heroin abuse early is vital to recovery.

If you suspect a loved one may be in danger, open the lines of communication. Listen to them. Let them know you are there to support them, that you care and that you are willing to help them. More often than not, the lack of emotional connection is at the root of addiction. If your teen is isolating, no longer participating in favorite activities, avoiding friends or suddenly declining in academics, these are red flags. They may not mean a teen is using drugs but they can be warning signs that help and support is needed.

Other warning signs that may indicate a person is using opioids or heroin can include:

  • Uncharacteristic sudden and dramatic mood swings
  • Anxiety, depression or irritability
  • Excessive sleepiness or falling asleep at unusual or inappropriate times
  • Pinpoint or constricted pupils
  • Flushed skin or itchiness
  • Needle marks on the arms or legs

How to seek treatment

Heroin addiction is not something that can be tackled at home. A user will experience severe withdrawal symptoms as the body attempts to readjust to functioning without the chemicals it’s become accustomed to. Professional care is needed to help navigate the path to recovery. Long-term success is achievable with the right strategies and solid post-care plan. We can help.

If you or someone you know may be struggling with opioid or heroin abuse, please call us today at 888-506-9818 and we’ll talk you through the treatment options. Our mission is to help all young adults thrive in long-term sobriety and stability.

Sources:

https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/data/prescribing.html