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Heroin Addiction Treatment
Heroin is an addictive, semi-synthetic opioid. It’s derived from morphine, which comes from the poppy plant.
The drug triggers a pleasurable rush and period of relaxation and calm. It also provides temporary pain relief and has a euphoric cognitive effect.
There are currently no accepted medical uses for heroin, and there is a high risk of abuse. For these reasons, it’s classified as a Schedule I drug.
Heroin activates opioid receptors in the brain. This is what causes the pain relief and rush of euphoria when someone uses the drug.
It also causes a surge of dopamine, leading to drug cravings. Users need to take higher doses as they develop tolerance to achieve the same effects.
Heroin Overdose Rates
Heroin overdose rates are high. In 2019, an average of 38 people died every day in the U.S. from overdoses involving prescription opioids, which caused more than 14,000 deaths.1
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the overall number of drug overdoses in the U.S. increased by almost 30 percent in 2020.
Provisional data from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) indicates that there were more than 93,000 drug overdose deaths during the year.2
Heroin continues to be one of the world’s most addictive, most used, and most dangerous drugs.
Heroin Tolerance vs. Dependence
One of the characteristics of heroin that makes it so dangerous is how easy it is to develop tolerance to and dependence on the drug.
Someone who is physically dependent on heroin will experience brain changes, which has adjusted to relying on heroin to function.
If they stop using the drug, they will experience unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. If their heroin use is linked to pain relief, their pain will feel intolerable without the drug.
People using heroin tend to develop opioid tolerance, too. This means they’ll not only want to keep taking heroin, but they’ll also need to take it in increasing and more frequent doses to achieve the same effect. This is why heroin has such a high risk of overdose.
There’s also a risk that heroin users will change from snorting or smoking the drug to injecting it. Injection provides a faster and more intense high.
While heroin intake is dangerous in all forms, IV use of drugs comes with a variety of other risks, including:
- Skin infections
- Cardiovascular issues
- Bloodborne disease transmission, especially HIV
Signs of Heroin Addiction
Signs of heroin addiction include:
- Drug cravings
- Using despite negative consequences
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when not using
- Needing more of the drug over time to achieve the same effects
- Neglecting work, school, and relationship obligations in favor of using heroin
People with a heroin addiction are at risk of many moderate to severe health consequences, including:
- Chronic insomnia
- Lung, kidney, and liver disease
- Endocrine-related issues, including sexual dysfunction and menstrual irregularities
- Increased risk of mental health issues, including depression
- Elevated risk of respiratory depression and overdose death
- Heart infections
- Skin abscesses
Someone with a heroin addiction experiences withdrawal symptoms when they stop using. Heroin withdrawal is intense and very unpleasant.
These symptoms include:
- Bone and muscle aches
Professional medical detox and withdrawal management make this initial period of recovery safer and more comfortable. Medical detox also reduces the high risk of relapse during this time.
Heroin Addiction Treatment Options
Treatment is possible for heroin addiction. People can lead happy, healthy, and sober lives after recovering.
The most successful treatment programs include a combination of medically supervised detox, behavioral therapies, medication, and relapse prevention.
Heroin treatment options include:
The detox phase is often followed by inpatient treatment. Inpatient or residential treatment involves living in a treatment facility full-time, usually for at least 30 days and possibly up to 90 days.
Participants receive around-the-clock supervision and access to medical and support services. This type of treatment eliminates environmental and social risks people face when they are not immersed in treatment.
Inpatient treatment includes a structured routine that usually incorporates:
- Daily therapy
- Support groups
- Mental health support and treatment
Outpatient treatment might follow inpatient treatment or is the first step. These programs vary in level of intensity. They offer more flexibility than inpatient programs but can still be intense.
Most outpatient facilities include:
- Addiction education
- Group therapy
- Individual therapy
- Access to psychiatric care
Outpatient programs range in duration. But many medical professionals believe that a minimum of 90 days is ideal for long-term sobriety from heroin.
Medication assisted treatment (MAT) includes supervision and medications that ease the symptoms of heroin withdrawal.
There are four FDA-approved medications used to treat heroin addiction, including:
Therapy is an important part of drug addiction recovery. Therapy is administered on an individual and group basis.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most successful therapeutic approaches for treating heroin addiction. CBT helps people figure out what triggers their heroin use and gives them tools for coping with these triggers.
Family behavioral therapy often plays an important role in someone’s recovery. This is especially true for adolescent heroin users.
Family therapy helps a person’s support system learn how to set boundaries and work through problems that contribute to their loved one’s heroin use.
Support groups are a common approach to treating heroin addiction. They are used in conjunction with other types of treatment, as well as for helping people avoid relapse long-term.
The most popular heroin addiction support groups include:
- Narcotics Anonymous (NA)
- Heroin Anonymous (HA)
Ongoing treatment for heroin addiction is an important part of maintaining sobriety.
Ongoing treatment varies from person to person but often includes:
- Individual therapy sessions
- Group therapy or support groups
People with heroin addiction have a high risk of relapse. Relapse prevention is an essential part of short- and long-term sobriety.
People just starting recovery have the highest risk of relapse, but the risk never truly goes away.
Relapse prevention advice includes:
- Continuing to use medications that ease withdrawal symptoms and drug cravings.
- Attending counseling sessions and meetings.
- Using new prescriptions carefully and sharing information about your addiction with healthcare providers. Non-narcotic pain relief medication is available for people concerned about addiction.
- Building a sober support system and avoiding former social circles that engage in drug use.
How to Find Treatment for Heroin Addiction
There are several ways to find treatment for heroin addiction.
The most important thing you can do is reach out for help. Don’t assume you have to deal with addiction on your own. Both loved ones and professionals want to help you get well.
Start by determining your specific needs. A loved one or your general physician can help you if necessary. You might also need counseling for mental health issues related to your addiction. This might include anxiety or depression.
You can also contact treatment centers directly. They will inform you about what treatment involves and direct you to resources to help you pay for addiction treatment.
Call to find out how much your insurance will cover
- “Prescription Opioid Overdose Death Maps | Drug Overdose | CDC Injury Center.” www.cdc.gov, 23 June 2021.
- “Drug Overdose Deaths in the U.S. Up 30% in 2020.” www.cdc.gov, 7 Sept. 2021.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Heroin DrugFacts.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 1 June 2021.
- “Heroin.” Dea.gov, 2000
- “Today’s Heroin Epidemic.” Dea.gov, 2000.
- “Heroin.” Medlineplus.gov, National Library of Medicine, 2018.
- “Drug Testing.” Medlineplus.gov, National Library of Medicine, 2018.
- PubChem. “Heroin.” Nih.gov, PubChem, 2019, pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/Heroin.