Heroin Addiction — Abuse And Treatment Options

Medically Reviewed by Johnelle Smith, M.D on May 7, 2020

Heroin is a powerful, highly addictive illicit drug that leads quickly to abuse, addiction, and physical dependence. Treatment for heroin involves a comprehensive approach through multiple methods.

Medically Reviewed by
Johnelle Smith, M.D on May 7, 2020
Heroin Addiction, Abuse, And Treatment Options

Heroin addiction affects hundreds of thousands of people every year in the United States, and many more worldwide. In 2016 alone, 948,000 Americans reported past-year heroin use.

Nationwide treatment efforts have begun in response to the opioid crisis. Today, more rehab facilities than ever offer comprehensive heroin addiction treatment programs.

With combinations of medication, counseling, therapy, and support, individuals can learn to manage their heroin addiction and enter recovery.

What Is Heroin?

Heroin is an illicit (illegal) opioid drug which is highly addictive. Abuse of the drug can lead quickly to addiction and physical dependence, causing drastic and negative effects on all aspects of a person’s life.

Heroin Abuse

Heroin addiction is borne out of heroin abuse, which happens when a person uses heroin in any form.

Opioids are narcotic drugs that work to change the way a person experiences pain. Heroin changes a person’s perception of pain while producing a sense of euphoria, commonly known as a high.

Find out more about identifying the signs of heroin abuse

Types Of Heroin

On the street, heroin is sold in many forms and can be snorted, smoked, injected. Heroin appears as a white or brown powder or a black, sticky substance known as black tar heroin.

Find out more about the different types of heroin

How Heroin Works

Heroin works to depress the central nervous system, producing feelings of calm, relaxation, and euphoria. As a result, a person abusing heroin experiences slowed breathing, heart rates, and reaction times.

Heroin And Polysubstance Abuse

Polysubstance abuse occurs when an individual combines two or more different drugs. Combining heroin with other substances can lead to worsened or even life-threatening side effects.

Often times, people abuse heroin, a depressant, with a stimulant drug in order to counteract some of its depressing effects. One of the most common combinations is mixing heroin and cocaine, known as a speedball. This particular combination is extremely dangerous as these drugs have opposite effects on the body and can lead to respiratory failure, overdose, and death.

Learn more about the dangers of heroin and polysubstance abuse below:

How Heroin Abuse Starts

People abuse heroin for many reasons. The drug is fairly affordable and readily available. Individuals who use heroin even once can become addicted to it, as it is very powerful.

But the largest reason many people begin to abuse heroin is due to a prescription opioid addiction. Many individuals take opioid prescriptions to treat chronic pain or recover from an injury or surgery.

Opioid prescriptions are also powerfully addictive drugs. When the prescription runs out and a person has become addicted, they are likely to seek alternative drugs to replace the effects of their opioid prescription and avoid withdrawal.

Heroin is an opioid which is most commonly injected. Because most prescriptions are taken orally and are extended-release, they are designed to be taken on a schedule to help avoid abuse.

Heroin bypasses the wait time and releases effects immediately. In only a few uses, a person can become addicted to and dependent on heroin, making it extremely difficult to quit use without help.

Dangers Of Abusing Heroin

The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that heroin abuse changes the brain permanently, causing:

  • changes to physical structure of the brain
  • changes to physiology of the brain
  • long-term imbalances in neuronal and hormonal systems
  • deterioration of brain’s white matter
  • changes to decision-making abilities
  • tolerance to narcotic effects
  • physical dependence

Heroin causes pain-relieving effects, altering a person’s perception of pain. With time, this can cause an increased sensitivity to pain, or increased experience of pain.

Effects Of Heroin On Co-Occurring Disorders

For those who have a mental health disorder, heroin abuse can worsen symptoms, such as feelings of depression or anxiety, or contribute to the development of such a disorder.

Heroin Addiction

Addiction to heroin occurs when a person becomes preoccupied with taking and using the drug. Addiction causes mental cravings which drive a person to continue using the drug, even if they realize heroin abuse has become a problem.

Physical Dependence On Heroin

Soon after a heroin addiction forms, physical dependence can follow. Once a person is dependent on heroin, they begin experiencing withdrawal symptoms, such as headache, nausea, and cravings.

Heroin Withdrawal

Many keep abusing heroin to avoid the negative effects of withdrawal. Unfortunately, heroin is an illicit drug made and sold on the streets. There is no regulation of how the drug is made, and it is often cut with other potent substances.

Heroin Overdose

For this reason, heroin carries the potential to cause overdose, which can be fatal, with each use. Heroin also causes depression of the central nervous system, which can cause dangerously slowed breathing.

In high doses, heroin can lead to stopped breathing, which can lead to hypoxia or even brain damage if left untreated.

Heroin Abuse Facts

Heroin abuse has increased in the U.S., and with it, overdose rates related to heroin have also increased:

  • Between 2010 and 2017, the heroin-related overdose death rate increased by 400 percent.
  • In 2015, a reported 591,000 individuals had a heroin use disorder.
  • An estimated 23 percent of individuals who use heroin will develop heroin addiction.
  • Four out of five new heroin users first began abusing prescription opioids.
  • Heroin overdoses among women tripled between 2010 to 2013.

Treating A Heroin Addiction

Treating a heroin addiction requires a comprehensive plan that addresses all aspects of the addiction and physical dependence, as well as any co-occurring substance use or mental health disorders.

While many treatments may be included in a heroin addiction treatment program, there are a few methods which have proven most effective in helping opioid-addicted individuals manage abuse and enter recovery.

Medication-Assisted Treatment

Medication-assisted treatment integrates both medication and counseling/therapy to give individuals a well-rounded treatment approach.

Medication helps heroin-addicted individuals taper off use of opioids and manage cravings and other withdrawal symptoms.

With less focus on harrowing withdrawal symptoms, individuals are free to focus all energy on recovery.

Medications currently in use for medication-assisted treatment (MAT) programs for heroin include:

  • buprenorphine (Suboxone): provides opioid-like effects without addictive effects. Helps individuals manage cravings and quit heroin use.
  • methadone (Methadose): Blocks opioid-like effects and cravings. Helps individuals quit use of heroin.
  • naltrexone (Vivitrol): For individuals who have already made it through detox. Helps individuals manage cravings and other withdrawal symptoms long-term.

Behavioral Therapy

The primary goal of behavioral therapy for heroin abuse and addiction is to help individuals modify behavior so they can learn to manage abuse, cravings, and triggers for heroin abuse.

Behavioral therapies also help engage people in treatment for better recovery outcomes, including remaining abstinent.

Therapists engage individuals in discussions, skill-building activities, and use individual interviewing to reach recovery goals.

The following behavioral therapies are commonly used in opioid treatment programs for heroin abuse:

  • 12-step-based groups
  • cognitive behavioral therapy
  • dialectical behavior therapy
  • family behavior therapy
  • contingency management
  • motivational interviewing
  • The Matrix Model

Inpatient Rehab Programs

Inpatient rehab programs provide the most effective, all-inclusive form of treatment possible for opioid-addicted individuals.

Those addicted to heroin can benefit from the residential aspect of inpatient treatment, as it requires them to remain in a treatment center for the duration of the rehab program.

There are multiple types of rehab programs, each with their own benefits. Which program will be right for a person depends on their duration of heroin abuse, severity of abuse, and how much and how often they abused the drug.

Inpatient rehab programs for heroin abuse include:

  • short-term residential: highly intensive treatment, typically based on a 12-step approach and involving counseling, therapy, and sometimes medication.
  • long-term residential: highly intensive treatment which allows individuals to spend more time focusing on all aspects related to addiction which require treatment.
  • medically supervised detox: takes place before a rehab program and allows an individual to receive ongoing medical care while ridding their body of substances.
  • court-ordered: available for individuals who have been court-mandated to enter treatment.

Paying For Heroin Addiction Treatment

All opioid treatment programs must be certified by the state per federal regulations. Because of this, there are many programs funded by state grants, including certain methadone and Suboxone clinics.

Many of these medication-assisted treatment clinics also accept state Medicaid plans, allowing individuals who struggle financially to seek help for heroin addiction.

Certain rehab centers also provide scholarships for individuals or additional financing options, including sliding-fee payment plans, private pay options, and treatment lending.

Find A Heroin Treatment Program Today

Heroin abuse and addiction has become a national epidemic, with rates of abuse on the rise for more than a decade. Overdose rates have also risen, with heroin responsible for 15,482 deaths in 2017.

Heroin addiction increases the chances that a person will overdose, develop or worsen symptoms of a mental health disorder, or abuse other substances.

Treatment options for heroin abuse and addiction help individuals overcome heroin use, change behaviors so they can refrain from use, and change confidence and skill levels to foster long-term recovery.

To learn more about heroin abuse, addiction, and treatment options, contact an addiction specialist today.

This page does not provide medical advice. See more

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