The National Survey on Drug Use and Health states that approximately 178,000 people ages 12 and older try heroin for the very first time each year. Some people who experiment with heroin don’t enjoy the experience, and as a result, they never take the drug again. Others, however, seem to find heroin incredibly alluring and intoxicating and they are drawn to using the drug repeatedly, no matter the consequences.
Those who take heroin on a regular basis develop a physical tolerance to the drug, and they will need to take more and more heroin to achieve the same “high” or “rush,” because the body becomes tolerant to the doses they have been taking.Heroin can quickly lead to a mental and physical dependence. As with most opioid and opiate drugs, heroin often leads to physical and mental distress after this drug is discontinued. Heroin is well-known as a drug that is difficult to overcome.
If an individual suddenly stops taking heroin, he or she may experience uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms that make it difficult to overcome this powerful opiate addiction.
How Heroin Addiction Begins
Heroin addiction is a result of specific brain changes that are caused by using heroin or other opiates. The National Institute on Drug Abuse has performed a series of studies that attempt to determine how the drug works when it is first introduced into a person’s body.
In time, the brain adjusts and amends in response to the constant presence of high levels of dopamine, and brain cells begin to produce less dopamine, or the cells no longer respond to lower levels of dopamine. The amended cells become imbalanced, and they depend on the drug for stability.
Once this process is in motion, people may begin to crave the drug. People often describe heroin addiction as a desperate urge to take heroin or other opioids, no matter what the consequences of that use might be. In time, if the dependent person doesn’t take heroin on a regular basis, he or she can experience symptoms of withdrawal that may include sweating, shaking, irrational thought, panic, heart rate changes, nausea, and more.
Some even experience these withdrawal symptoms between doses, or they feel the symptoms if the doses they take aren’t large enough to satisfy the brain. This sometimes sadly results in dangerous and even lethal overdoses.
Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms
Heroin’s withdrawal symptoms are not pleasant, and user reports of the cold-turkey withdrawal experience can be truly hair-raising. For example, in a study in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, researchers interviewed inmates who were forced to go through withdrawal in prison, most without medical support. Most of the people who were interviewed claimed that the experience was highly unpleasant, claiming that they felt sick and as though their misery would not end. Some felt as though they might die, and they experienced these symptoms for three or four days at a stretch. It’s terrible, but it’s unfortunately common.
The symptoms of cold-turkey withdrawal can resemble the flu, and include things like:
- Goosebumps on the skin
- Extreme yawning
- Loss of appetite
- Panicked thoughts/behavior
- Stomach/muscle cramping
- Runny nose
Most the major symptoms of withdrawal appear days after a person has stopped taking heroin, and most symptoms can continue for around a week. Smaller, much more mild symptoms may last longer, but the bulk of heroin detox does not last for a very long time.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine reports that heroin detoxification isn’t typically life-threatening, although people in poor health who attempt to go through withdrawal can experience complications that could end their lives. Even so, detox is intensely important for a person who wants a successful recovery from heroin addiction.
Heroin Withdrawal Symptom Management
While people can go through the withdrawal process on their own at home, without the help of a medical team, a detoxification program may be a much safer choice. The goal of a heroin detoxification program like this is to minimize withdrawal symptoms, so the user will have the best chance of completing the process without enduring any serious medical complications.
It is very important to note that undergoing withdrawal without medical assistance may result in sudden, impulsive decisions. Without supportive assistance, many people put themselves at a high risk of relapsing in the middle of a detoxification, and many people may misjudge their dosing and die of a fatal overdose in a very short period of time. It is always safer to choose a medically supervised detox over trying to do it all alone.
During heroin detox, consulting medical professionals can provide medications that can mimic the action of heroin inside the body, or they can provide medications that can soothe some of the other side effects heroin withdrawal can cause. In addition to medication, facilities might also provide:
- Dietary support
- Cool baths
- Frequent bedding changes
- Dark, quiet rooms
- Medical monitoring
- Vitamin supplementation
Reputable treatment facilities don’t allow heroin on the premises, and they don’t allow intoxicated people to visit. The chance of relapse might be reduced as a result, as people just won’t have access to the intoxicating substances they crave. Instead, recovery patients can focus on their healing and their wellness, and they may be able to make great strides in that regard with the help of a treatment program. When detox is complete, people can then move on to therapy programs that can help them to preserve the sobriety they’ve achieved through their detox work.
Recurrent Heroin Withdrawal
Some people go through symptoms of heroin addiction withdrawal just once, and with the help of a treatment team, they leave those symptoms behind for good. There are some people, however, who have a bumpy path to healing, and they may experience withdrawal symptoms multiple times along the journey.
In a treatment program that offers the possibility of medications, treatment teams provide Suboxone or methadone at safe-yet-strong-enough doses to relieve pain and discomfort, and they slowly taper the dose until the person is taking no medications at all.
Some people with longstanding cases of addiction struggle with this taper process. When their medication doses get smaller, they feel all of the pain start to come back, and they may be desperate to find their own solution. Often, the solutions these people come up with involve using drugs. A featured study in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, researchers attempted to determine how quickly people returned to heroin use when they were provided with low levels of a replacement medication. At one point, only 26 percent of people given one type of medication had clean urine samples. The rest had returned to heroin, likely because they couldn’t handle symptoms of withdrawal.
For people like this, long-term replacement medication may be a better choice. People given this kind of therapy take a medication dosage that allows them to feel comfortable, with no symptoms of withdrawal, and they may take that dose for months or even years. Some are eventually able to stop taking the dose without feeling ill or unhappy, but others need to take the medications for longer periods, as a dip in dose brings back symptoms of withdrawal.
It’s important to note that people who take replacement medications like this don’t feel euphoric or high while they’re in treatment. Instead, people like this might simply feel comfortable or relaxed, able to focus on life. They’re taking the medications to treat a real and chronic condition, not to have fun.
Help at The Canyon
While people with heroin addictions can and do improve with the help of a treatment program, many just don’t ask for assistance. In fact, according to the National Institutes of Health, of the estimated 810,000 people who are addicted to heroin, only 20 percent seek out any kind of treatment for that addiction. It’s a sad statistic, and it’s one we’re trying to change at The Canyon.
Our facility provides a full suite of services for heroin addiction, including withdrawal and detox services with the help of consulting physicians, long-term medication management, intensive therapy and aftercare.
If you have a heroin addiction, The Canyon’s experienced clinicians and therapists will help you break the heroin use cycle in the quickest and least painful way possible, and we’ll give you the tools you need to stay off the drug for life. With our help, patients are given the best chance possible to break their addiction and go on to lead a healthy, normal life. Please call us to find out more.