An estimated 23 percent of people who use heroin will become dependent on the substance. The brain has receptors that fit perfectly with this drug, and when users take a hit, changes are felt in the brain within minutes. When an addiction is in place, users need to develop skills that can help them to resist the urge to use heroin, despite the brain’s dependence on the drug. Intensive therapy, often provided in the context of inpatient rehab programs, can build those skills.
Fields packed with red poppy plants are inexplicably gorgeous, and they’re also intensely profitable. That’s because each poppy flower contains a sticky substance that can be extracted, cooked, and processed into opiates. Of all the opiates, heroin is the most common.
Opioids like heroin are intensely addictive, because the brain has receptors that are tailor-made to respond to the chemicals these drugs contain.
As soon as the brain cells have access to heroin, the path to addiction is set.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) suggests that about 23 percent of people who use heroin become dependent on the substance. With the first hit, their brain cells are changed and an addiction can follow.
With treatment, however, heroin addictions can be addressed. People can learn to live a satisfying life without access to heroin. The key is to recognize the problem when it starts and to enroll people in qualified programs that can help.
What Happens When Someone Uses Heroin for the First Time?
Heroin users can snort, swallow, or inject the drug. The speed with which the drug can zoom to the brain is deeply dependent on the method the user employs when taking the drug. For example, the Tennessee Association of Alcohol, Drug and other Addiction Services suggests that intravenous injectors can feel changes within 7-8 seconds, while people who inject into muscle feel changes within 5-8 minutes.
For first-time users, that experience isn’t always pleasant. A report from PBS suggests that novice heroin users often grow nauseated when the drug takes effect, and some even vomit. That’s because heroin can work directly on the digestive system, slowing down processes or stopping them altogether. Experienced users may grow accustomed to these sensations, but for new users, they’re deeply unpleasant.
Sometimes, novice users choose to switch to a different drug, simply because they dislike feeling queasy and nauseated. But those who push through the digestive woes and try the drug again may experience deep-set brain changes that are nothing short of transformative.
Molecules of heroin fit like caps into plugs inside the brain. Once attached, these caps trigger a series of chemical releases inside the brain.
A user typically feels warm, relaxed, and deeply happy. Users often report that the sensations are similar to those felt during a satisfying sexual episode, but they last much longer and are much more intense.That sensation can drive people to use the drug again, as people may want the bliss back. The brain cells manipulated by heroin can also be damaged by the exposure. Those cells may be unable to produce chemical signals of pleasure in the absence of heroin, and they may call out for a heroin correction. That’s the seed of addiction, and it can be planted with just one hit of heroin.
Health Consequences of Long-Term Use
When people continue to use heroin despite its dangers, they can experience all sorts of health consequences. Body systems impacted include the:
- Nervous system: Heroin’s impact on the brain is deep and profound. Cells bombarded by heroin can stop producing chemical signals of pleasure, and in time, cells can shrink and shrivel. According to NIDA, people who use heroin over a long period of time can show deterioration in the white matter of the brain, which could lead to a reduced ability to make decisions and/or regulate behavior.
- Respiratory system: Opiates like heroin sedate the respiratory system. That means people in the midst of a heroin high can breathe much slower than they would normally. If users take in too much, they can stop breathing altogether. This risk of respiration stoppage is the top health risk associated with heroin use, according to an article in Anesthesiology, and it’s a big risk for chronic users. That’s because these users tend to take in huge amounts of drugs very often, and each big dose has the capacity to stop their breathing.
- Cardiovascular system: Large heroin doses can also stop the heart and cause death, but long-term heroin injectors can face even more cardiovascular dangers. Each needle stick does a form of damage to the veins and arteries that carry blood to and from the heart. When punctures damage this delicate system, blood vessels can swell up, shrink down, or close up. That can lead to abscesses, infections, and deaths. It’s a common consequence of heroin. According to research from the CDC, for example, about 32 percent of heroin injectors in New York had a drug-related abscess or cellulitis. Clearly, heroin injectors take chances with each prick of the needle.
- Digestive system: Heroin’s sedating qualities can have a deep impact on the health of the gut. When food and water move too slowly through these passages, constipation and bloating can take hold. As an article in Medical Anthropology points out, this is a common part of life for chronic heroin users, even though they might never talk about the issue. They may always feel off kilter and ill, but they may not have anyone to talk to about the issue. They may not get adequate help for the problem, either, which could put them at risk for blockages and intestinal emergencies.
Leaving a heroin addiction in place means exposing a person to mental and physical challenges. It’s not ideal, and thankfully, it’s not necessary. With the help of a qualified treatment team, these addictions can be addressed. When that happens, people can develop the skills they’ll need in order to control their addictions.Heroin recovery begins with medically assisted detox. Heroin’s impact can be felt long after the last hit has worn away, and when people with longstanding addictions attempt to get sober, they can feel flu-like symptoms that stretch on for weeks. People like this may also feel deep cravings for heroin, and they may not have the skills they can lean on in order to avoid a relapse.
Medically assisted detox practitioners use specifically formulated therapies that mimic some of the effects of heroin. These medications don’t make people with heroin histories feel high or altered. Instead, when they take these medications, these people tend to feel healthy, focused, and strong.
That clear mindset allows their bodies to adjust to life without heroin, and the therapies give them the strength and resolve they need in order to be active members of the recovery team.
Medications used in medically assisted detox programs are typically provided on a tapering schedule. That means teams determine how much heroin the person has used in the past, and teams provide an equivalent amount of replacement medication. Then, slowly but surely, those medications are tapered until people aren’t taking replacement medications at all.
A taper is designed to move relatively slowly, so there are no signs of discomfort or drug cravings.
That means it can take quite a while to move through a taper and into sobriety. Sometimes, people with heroin addictions get anxious to make things move faster. When they do, they can make mistakes that could jeopardize their sobriety.
As a study of 57 people published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence points out, most people with heroin addictions want to get to sober as quickly as possible. Some of these people amended their medication doses to get there. They didn’t swallow all of their pills or they just didn’t take doses at all. Unfortunately, researchers said, that meant some of these people were at risk for relapse, because they had heroin cravings and heroin dreams. They wanted the drug, and they didn’t have tools to help them overcome the craving.
Using medications properly with the guidance of a treatment team is a vital part of the recovery process. People in these programs have a lot of control. They can tell their teams when the drugs seem to make them feel sedated and slow. They can highlight any symptoms of withdrawal that manage to break through the drug barrier
. They can point out signs of sedation that seem to indicate that the drugs are too strong. Active communication and clear goals can help the team provide the best level of care.
While this process is natural and beneficial, NIDA
points out that medically assisted detox is not, in and of itself, a form of heroin addiction treatment. While people emerge from these programs with bodies that are free of heroin, they don’t have the skills they’ll need in order to stay away from heroin for good. They’re at high risk for relapse as a result. While medically assisted detox is a good first step, it must be followed by other therapies that build on the lessons that begin in detox.
Why You Should Enter a Residential Treatment Center
The risk of heroin relapse is high, particularly during the early part of the recovery process.
People can amend their medications and put their health at risk, or they can run into dealers and street hawkers with heroin to sell. Temptation can be around every single corner when people keep living at home, but much of that disappears in a residential program. Here, no drugs are allowed. It’s a clean environment, filled with people who want to get better and staffers who want to help people to do just that.
Therapy has a huge role to play for people enrolled in a residential treatment center.
Almost every moment of the day is devoted to talking about, learning about, and coping with a heroin addiction. There’s no time to plan to take heroin. The day is completely filled with tasks that have to do with healing.Some therapy sessions are held privately between a person and a therapist. These are coaching sessions and insight sessions that can give people the personalized help they need in order to recover. Group sessions are also common. As an article by Harvard Health Publications points out, group formats tap into the human need to belong. That’s an element that may have been missing from the lives of people with heroin addictions. They’ve become accustomed to hiding their feelings and shying away from discussing their behaviors. In group therapy, they’re enticed to share and connect. They can emerge feeling a lot less isolated, and that could help them to build the communication skills that can allow them to work with family members and friends in the future.
Therapy isn’t the only thing offered in an inpatient program. People in these programs are also offered other opportunities to heal, and some might seem a little unusual. For example, some programs provide people with exercise equipment and fitness instructors. Exercise can help people heal the cardiovascular damage heroin can cause, but sessions can also be profoundly pleasant.
In an article in the International Journal on Drug Policy, researchers found that people with heroin addiction histories found exercise enjoyable. It was something they did during the addiction (albeit sporadically), and they enjoyed the mental boost the activity brought. During recovery, these same people appreciated the opportunity to get reconnected with fitness, and they liked the high the sessions could bring. To them, it was vital.
Of course, people in outpatient programs could always exercise in their communities. Some certainly do so. But an inpatient program makes participation just easier. There are no coaches to hire, equipment to buy, or sessions to set up. The treatment team makes it all accessible, and participation is encouraged. For some people in recovery, that ease makes all the difference. When it’s easy, they’ll do it. When they do it, they can get better.
Long-Term Aftercare and Relapse Prevention
Inpatient programs are typically measured in months, but the risk of relapse can stretch on for years. That means people with a history of heroin addiction often need to tap into long-term relapse prevention programs.For some, that means participation in a 12-step group like Narcotics Anonymous. Here, people with heroin addictions have the opportunity to meet with other people who have the same kind of background. They form a community that’s deeply focused on getting better and leaving an addiction behind. In each meeting, they come together to share their ideas, their successes, and their support. They become a little like a family, and since participation is free, people can keep going for months or even years without feeling any kind of financial pinch.While 12-step groups can be vital for some, there are other people in heroin recovery that need a little more support in order to stay on the right path. These people may benefit from moving into a sober living community when formal heroin treatment is complete. A community like this is also sober, and there are many rules that ensure that every person living here stays sober, but there are no therapeutic teams involved. In a way, it’s a step between living in an inpatient facility and living at home. For some, this slower adjustment means a safer recovery that doesn’t involve relapse.
Recovery Can Start Now
The Center for Substance Abuse Research suggests that the average heroin abuser spends $200 per day to maintain the habit. That’s money that could be better spent on recovery. When people choose to fight back against this drug, truly amazing things can happen. And when that fight continues, it could inspire the next generation of heroin users to beat back their own addiction. One person’s heroin recovery could end up inspiring thousands of users to end their own battles.
It all starts with one decision: to put an end to the use of heroin and choose treatment instead. If you’re using, now is the time to make that decision.