An estimated 4.2 million Americans have used heroin at some point in their life, according to statistics from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Sadly, heroin contributes to more than 200,000 emergency room visits each year, with many cases related to central nervous system depression and overdose. So why use a drug with such a high risk of dependence and deadly side effects? For many users, it’s the emotional and physical dependence on pain relief.
How Heroin Impacts Pain
Heroin falls under a class of drugs known as opiates due to their impact on the opiate receptors of the body, especially those in the brain. Opiate receptors help control pain, as well as play a role in feelings of pleasure and the body’s reward system. Heroin mimics natural chemicals that normally bind to opiate receptors in times of stress or pain. However, heroin binds all at once during each use, creating an immediate and unnatural reduction in pain, along with a sense of euphoria that users translate to feeling “high”. This reduction in pain is felt both on physical pain, as well as emotional pain in users with coexisting disorders like depression and anxiety.
The Physical Addiction Process
The addiction potential of heroin varies depending on each person who uses the drug. However, those who already struggle with physical or emotional pain hold a much higher risk for addiction. Addiction begins with the positive effects users feel from using, namely a reduction in pain and a sense of euphoria. When the brain experiences a positive effect because of a certain behavior, like drug use, it acts as positive reinforcement to continue the behavior. This reinforcement causes the brain to seek out the continued high from heroin, which results in addictive cravings. However, with each use the body develops an increasing tolerance to heroin, causing less results with the same amount of use. As tolerance continues to increase, users need to use a greater dose of heroin more often to experience the same high, often chasing the feeling from the first use. This creates actual chemical and physical changes in the nerve cells of the brain that lays the foundation for addictive behaviors. At the same time, this drastically increases the negative health effects of the drug, as well as the risks of overdose.
Heroin and Emotional Dependence
Beyond just an effect on physical pain, heroin also impacts the limbic system. The limbic system is a set of structures in the brain that includes the thalamus, hypothalamus, frontal lobe, olfactory bulb, amygdala and the hippocampus. The limbic system largely controls your emotions. Due to heroin’s effects on this area of the brain, the drug becomes a medicine of choice for those self-treating themselves for emotional disorders like depression and anxiety. Heroin causes a sense of calm, relaxation, pleasure and contentment that can temporarily combat the symptoms of these disorders. However, heroin has a nasty rebound effect that can elevate the symptoms of pain, anxiety and depression between each heroin use as part of the withdrawal process. With users experiencing even greater side effects, the need and drive for continued heroin use increases to the point where users need to use just to feel normal.
While the addictive potential is incredibly high for heroin use, only an estimated 14 percent of admissions to treatment centers involve those who are addicted to heroin. However, this does not include the thousands more who are admitted each year with growing addictions to the use of other opiate-like substances, including prescription painkillers and methadone. The way heroin physically and chemically changes brain function makes it’s nearly impossible to quit heroin on your own. This is why treatment centers provide the necessary support, structure, skills and coping mechanism needed to help control the addictive process. Different treatment options work for different individuals, so most treatment centers now utilize a multi-prong approach, focusing directly on each person’s individual needs for the best chance at recovery. This is especially important for those who use heroin in relation to underlying medical issues, whether they be based on physical pain or emotional pain due to psychological disorders.
Treatment centers provide real hope for those addicted to this too often deadly drug. Even if treatment has been unsuccessful in the past, many facilities continue to utilize and discover new treatment methods based off of continuing research in the field. If you or a loved one is suffering from heroin addiction, seek out treatment today.