Heroin Addiction and Treatment: Everything You Should Know

heroin withdrawal and treatment

According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), approximately 23 percent of individuals who use heroin become dependent on the potent substance. The human brain contains receptors that lead to euphoric feelings when introduced to heroin. Once the user takes a hit of the drug, changes within the brain chemistry are often felt within minutes. Opioids are chemically related and interact with opioid receptors on nerve cells in the brain and nervous system to produce pleasurable effects while relieving pain. [1]

As a brain disorder, addiction is a compulsive engagement in rewarding stimuli despite negative consequences. In 2015, 20.5 million Americans suffered from a substance abuse disorder. According to the National Library of Medicine (NCBI), 591,000 of these users had a disorder involving heroin. [2] In order to combat addiction, users need to develop coping skills to resist the urge to use heroin, despite the physiological dependence on the drug. Intensive treatment facilities provide the necessary skills to help individuals struggling with heroin addiction.

Heroin Addiction

Heroin is a potent opiate that has an intense and immediate effect on the brain’s reward system. Heroin introduces euphoria by increasing the production of feel-good chemicals in the brain, such as dopamine and endorphins. The brain naturally releases these specific chemicals to reward behavior necessary for survival, such as eating, sleeping, and finding ways to manage pain. The brain almost immediately links heroin to the influx of these chemicals and eventually, the user becomes addicted. 

Once the cycle begins, many users cannot function without the drug. After all, they experience withdrawal symptoms and have a very difficult time trying to quit on their own. Signs of heroin addiction generally include:

  • Continuing to use despite negative heroin-related consequences
  • Persistent Cravings
  • Tolerance to heroin
  • Experiencing withdrawal from heroin
  • Engaging in risky/promiscuous behavior due to heroin
  • Mood swings
  • Financial/Legal problems associated with heroin
  • Conflict within interpersonal relationships due to heroin abuse
  • Isolation

Heroin users often describe the high as an intense feeling of euphoria. Individuals injecting heroin, often describe a “rush” of pleasure from the drug reaching the brain so quickly. Molecules of heroin are said to fit like caps into plugs within the brain. Once attached, the caps trigger a series of pleasurable chemical releases within the brain. 

General effects of heroin abuse include:

  • Contentment
  • State of euphoria
  • Reduced anxiety
  • State of bliss
  • Relieved tension
  • Drowsiness
  • Apathy 
  • Warm/”Fuzzy” feelings
  • Overdose
  • Shallow breathing
  • Dry mouth
  • Small pupils
  • Slow pulse

The sensation of the effects produced by heroin generally drives people to use the drug again – consistently chasing their first “high.” Heroin manipulates brain cells and can ultimately damage these cells over long periods of time. Unable to produce reward chemicals in the absence of heroin, the cells are consistently seeking an influx of the drug. 

Consequences of Heroin Abuse

Individuals who abuse heroin are generally afraid to experience withdrawal symptoms if they stop using. Withdrawal symptoms from heroin can develop as soon as a few hours after the last use. Heroin withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • Cold sweats
  • Extreme sweating
  • Cramping in the limbs
  • Achiness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Severe muscle aches and pains (flu-like symptoms)
  • Restless leg syndrome
  • Insomnia
  • Runny nose
  • Diarrhea
  • Fever
  • Mood swings
  • Intense irritability
  • Emotional sensitivity

When individuals continue to abuse heroin despite its dangers, they are susceptible to major health consequences. Body systems impacted by long-term heroin addiction include:

  • Nervous System: Heroin has a direct impact on the brain. Cells may stop producing rewarding chemicals within the brain, and over time, cells may shrink. According to NIDA, [3] people who abuse heroin for a long period of time can show signs of deterioration in the white matter of the brain, ultimately reducing the ability to make decisions and regulate behavior.
  • Respiratory System: Heroin sedates the respiratory system. If users take too much of the drug, they may stop breathing altogether, ultimately leading to a potentially fatal overdose.
  • Cardiovascular System: Intravenous heroin users risk damage to veins and arteries with every injection. Punctures may damage this delicate system and blood vessels may shrink or close up, leading to abscesses, MRSA, and even death. 
  • Digestive System: Heroin can have a tremendous impact on the gut. Sedating qualities of the drug can cause water to move slowly through the digestive passages, leading to severe constipation and bloating.

Heroin Addiction Treatment

Seeking recovery from heroin addiction can expose an individual to mental and physical challenges. Help from a professional addiction treatment center can help the addict mitigate heroin withdrawal symptoms while equipping the individual with the necessary coping skills through therapy and other resources. 

Heroin Detox

The treatment process for heroin addiction typically begins with heroin detox. The main objective of heroin detox is to safely relieve the withdrawal symptoms as the body returns to a normal state without the drug. Medical supervision during the heroin detox process is crucial to ensuring the safety and overall comfort of the client.

Appropriate detoxification protocols are determined on an individual basis depending on the severity and frequency of heroin abuse. Some facilities implement medication-assisted treatment (MAT), or a tapering program. Programs may also utilize medications such as Suboxone (buprenorphine/naloxone), buprenorphine, or methadone. This process eases withdrawal symptoms in a medically supervised setting.

Medication-Assisted Treatment, commonly referred to as MAT, utilizes medications in combination with counseling and behavioral therapies for the treatment of substance use disorders. Medication in conjunction with behavioral therapies is an evidence-based method that has been proven effective in helping sustain long-term recovery. Primarily geared toward those struggling with opioids and/or alcohol abuse, MAT offers additional support that can be beneficial in the right circumstances.

Not all clients are a fit for MAT. Our clinical and medical teams at Defining Wellness Centers work as a unit to assess each client, listening to their concerns and goals for their treatment experience. We make recommendations based on physical health, history of use, and emotional state to help clients determine whether MAT is a path to consider. Our priority is always to meet the needs of each client individually, helping them to obtain the best tools to maintain lasting recovery.

Inpatient Heroin Rehab

Many former heroin users enter an inpatient rehabilitation facility. The protective environment of this type of facility eliminates many of the social and environmental factors that make achieving sobriety difficult. 

During inpatient treatment, clients engage in a structured routine that includes therapy, activities, and group support. Many inpatient heroin rehab facilities incorporate treating addiction as a three-fold illness: mind, body, and spirit. This creates an environment that not only addresses heroin addiction but underlying mental health disorders and other physical hurdles as well. 

After clients finish treatment, each individual is encouraged to continue his/her care with intensive outpatient treatment (IOP), sober living, and a solid aftercare plan as well. The combination of identifying and healing all aspects of addiction is crucial in maintaining long-term sobriety.

Heroin Addiction Treatment at Defining Wellness Centers

Defining Wellness Centers looks at all the options for each client. Together, the treatment team and client will collaborate to determine a plan of action based on the client’s needs. We encourage everyone in our program to take advantage of all of the great tools at their disposal, including our Biotechnology & Wellness Lab, our holistic modalities like Yoga and Pilates, and the amazing therapeutic clinical sessions we offer, both in one-on-one and group formats.

We don’t make any recommendations lightly and weigh the pros and cons of each to best serve our clients. We’re dealing with an epidemic of epic proportions and MAT is one of the tools in our treatment arsenal to combat opioid and alcohol addiction. We would be remiss if we didn’t consider every option at our disposal and educate our clients on their choices. 

MAT is effective when combined with ongoing clinical therapeutic support, and we can’t stress how important it is to continue working on the issues that led to addiction in the first place. Medication can be a support in maintaining lasting sobriety, but medication alone won’t keep someone sober. Our team aids clients in making healthy decisions through all levels of care so that they can build a healthy future for themselves. If you’re interested in learning more about MAT options at Defining Wellness Centers, call us today at  (855) 790-9303.

References:

  1. American Society of Addiction Medicine Opiate Addiction Facts and Figures
  2. National Library of Risk Factors for Opioid Abuse Users
  3. The National Institute on Drug Abuse Heroin