It’s a story that’s all too familiar.
From Prescription Opioids to Heroin Addiction
A person goes to the doctor because of severe back pain or because they were involved in a serious accident that left them with constant pain. The doctor prescribes an opioid prescription medication for relief. As they begin taking this medication, they quickly start to notice an improvement in the pain level. It’s working! As a side benefit, they’re calmer and more relaxed, and they may even have more energy. This prescription medication is a wonder drug. However, a few months in and they move from the prescribed medication to heroin. They’re now a heroin addict. It may seem like a big jump to go from prescription drug use to heroin addiction, but it’s all too common. Anyone who has been prescribed opioid pain medication should be aware of the danger of abuse and how it can lead to addiction to heroin. Awareness can prevent addiction or enable you to get treatment if you’re already walking down that path.
What are Prescription Opioids and Why are They Dangerous?
Opioids are medications that are derived from the poppy plant. Some of them come directly from the plant while others are created in a laboratory using an identical chemical structure. The second class of opioids is known as a synthetic version. In general, opioids are given as prescription medications for pain relief. They cause the body to relax, which can reduce the level of pain. Doctors prescribe them for moderate to severe pain after surgery or for an acute injury. However, they may also be prescribed for chronic pain if other treatments provide no relief. Doctors may also choose an opioid medication for coughing or to stop diarrhea. In fact, one study showed that doctors prescribed an opioid 20 percent of the time. Once they were made aware of this fat, the amount decreased by 2.2 percent. What this tells people is more opioid prescriptions are being made available to patients than what should be. Some common prescription opioids include the following:
- Hydrocodone – Vicodin
- Oxycodone – OxyContin or Percocet
- Morphine – Kadian or Avinza
- Oxymorphone or Opana
Some of these prescriptions are used more often than others. For instance, morphine is usually prescribed only in terminal illnesses or after major surgery. Oxycodone may be used with many injuries. One thing all of these drugs have in common is their addictiveness. Because they are opioids, each one contains the ability to cause addiction.
How Opioids Affect the Brain
Opioid medications impact the brain, and It’s important to understand how this happens. The chemicals attach to the opioid receptors in brain cells as well as cells in the spinal cord and other major organs. The cells they attach to are responsible for emotions and feelings of pleasure and pain. The opioids work as medication by blocking pain signals that go from the brain to the body. Instead, these cells release a large amount of the chemical dopamine, which is responsible for feelings of happiness. The person feels good, a euphoric high, as a result of the presence of the opioid. The brain recognizes the opioid is responsible for the emotions, which leads it to request more of the drug. Soon the brain is no longer creating dopamine on its own but relying on the drug to create the feelings of euphoria.
The Effects of Opioid Prescription Medications on the Body
Opioid medications help reduce pain, but they can impact the body in other ways as well. The patient may feel happy and relaxed. However, it can cause drowsiness and confusion. They may also feel nauseous. Their breathing may slow down. When someone misuses an opioid, it can lead to respiratory problems because the breathing slows down too much. One result is hypoxia, which can lead to a coma and even permanent brain damage. Death can result from prescription opioid abuse.
How Opioid Prescription Abuse Happens
Most people start out using an opioid prescription the way their doctor prescribed it. They take it faithfully and enjoy the pain relief it provides. However, some of those patients will stop experiencing the relief from pain as the body gets used to the drug. They may take an extra pill or take it earlier than what they should. With an extra pill each day, they once again begin to see improvement. This only lasts for a while and they must increase the dosage again. The person may run out of their month-long prescription in two or three weeks. They might go to another doctor and ask for a prescription without telling them about the first doctor. This cycle continues as the body develops a tolerance and dependence on the drug. Perhaps the person hasn’t gone to the doctor for their pain. Instead, a friend or family member offers them one of their opioid medications to help with the problem. They feel better after that one pill, so they seek out more. A person who abuses opioid prescription drugs will take it more frequently or at a higher dosage then what they are supposed to. They will seek out additional prescriptions. The person may even steal the medication from someone else.
When Abuse Becomes Addiction
If the person continues to abuse one of the opioid medications available, they may become addicted. This happens when the system is dependent on it and doesn’t make dopamine on its own. The body requires a drug to feel happiness or pleasure. The brain sends signals for more of the drug. In fact, it is difficult to function without it. At this point, the person will do just about anything to get more of the drug. This is why they seek out another doctor or steal a prescription. They don’t feel normal without the medication. For most of these people, they don’t start out taking a prescription with the idea of becoming addicted. It just happens. They may take it more often than they should. For some, they may even follow the prescription exactly as the doctor ordered. Their history of drug abuse puts them at risk for addiction with any drug that has addictive properties. Anyone who is taking an opioid prescription drug or has a family member on it should be aware of what happens when a person is addicted. They often still have a job and take care of their family. They don’t live on the street or look hopeless and lost. They can be the person standing in line at a grocery store, working in the next cubicle or riding the subway. A person who is addicted will take extreme steps to get more of the drug. They will skip out on special activities and miss work. They will avoid any situation where they can’t use. They may start out the day with the drug and continue using throughout the day. They may drive a car or work with heavy machinery even when they are using even though it’s dangerous. Because their judgment is impaired, they make poor choices.
What Happens When the Prescription Drug Runs Out
One of the challenges for a person who is addicted to a prescription opioid is the difficulty finding more of it when they run out. At first, they can go to another doctor and get a prescription. They may find a friend who will share with them or take it without their knowledge. In time, the person may start looking for the drug on the street. Drug dealers often have prescription drugs for sale from those who are desperately seeking money in exchange for their addictive prescriptions. They in turn sell it to others who need the drug. Each drug has several street names by which its known to help prevent others from knowing what a person is trying to buy. Some of the most popular are:
- Hydrocodone or Vicodin – Hydro, Vikes, Norco
- Fentanyl – China Girl, Friend, Tango and Cash
- Methadone – Fizzies or Chocolate Chip Cookies
- Codeine – Schoolboy, Captain Cody, Loads, Syrup
- Morphine – Miss Emma, M, Monkey
- Demerol or Meperidine – Pain Killer, Demmies
- Dilaudid or Hydromorphone – Juice, Dillies, Footballs
- Oxymorphone or Numporphan – Biscuits, Blues, Blue Heavens
- Oxycodone or OxyContin – Oxy, Hillbilly Heroin, OC
When a person knows these names, it can help them be more aware of what is happening. They can be better prepared and stay safe from drug dealers who prey on those who need prescription opioids to function.
Why Prescription Drug Abuse Leads to Illicit Drug Use
At first glance, it may seem odd that a person would go from abusing prescription medications to using illicit drugs. However, there are a few reasons why they make that jump. For one thing, the effects of the prescription drug may dwindle the more it’s used. To get that euphoria the person first experienced, they may need to find a new drug. Illicit drugs are often more powerful, especially if they are combined with the prescription medication. It’s not uncommon for drug users to combine OxyContin with heroin to intensify the effects. Many drug users use alcohol with prescription medications, not realizing the dangers they face. Alcohol can intensify the effects of an opioid with an increased risk for respiratory failure or cardiac arrest. Some people use meth or other stimulants with opioids. The opioids create a relaxing effect after the high energy of the stimulant. It can also reduce the withdrawal symptoms that happen as a person comes down from the stimulant. Another reason that people who start out abusing prescription drugs move on to illicit substances is because it’s less expensive and easier to access. Prescription opioids often carry a high price tag while heroin and other drugs are more affordable. Heroin is easy to find from any drug dealer, and it may be combined with other substances to make it go further. As the addiction becomes increasingly serious and the person is using more of the drug, they may find they can only afford to buy heroin. A paper that was written by two University of Notre Dame economists, William N. Evans and Ethan Lieber, blames OxyContin for the rise in heroin use. According to the paper, in 2010, the formula for the prescription drug changed which made it too costly for a person to use enough to get high. Since heroin is also an opioid, it’s the obvious choice for replacing OxyContin. According to a 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), approximately 15 million people who were at least 12 years old abuse prescription medications. Almost 80 percent of people who are abusing heroin misused a prescription opioid before trying it. This fact is according to the US Department of Health and Human Services. Heroin provides similar feelings as prescription opioids because it’s also an opioid. When the prescription medication stops creating that euphoric effect, it’s a natural progression to move to using heroin. For those who haven’t been given a prescription, they may start out abusing one of them as an introduction into illicit drug use. The idea of injecting or snorting heroin may be frightening for a first-time user but taking a pill to feel good doesn’t sound so dangerous. Once they become hooked, the person is desperate to experience that same high again and again. When they can no longer get the prescription drug, they will take the plunge into illegal drug use and try heroin. The statistics don’t lie. People who start out abusing prescription drugs often move to heroin use. Family members and friends need to recognize and understand this transition and be alerted to the risk early on. It’s often much easier to get the user to seek help before they turn to heroin.
The Dangers of Heroin Abuse
Heroin is a dangerous and often deadly drug. When people move from prescription drug abuse to heroin, they are entering a dark world which can be difficult to recover from. To understand the dangers of abuse, it’s important to first understand why people choose this drug after using prescription medication.
What Makes Heroin Attractive to Prescription Abusers
People turn to heroin for many reasons after using prescription painkillers. For instance, a doctor may have decided they no longer need the prescription opiate and refused to write another prescription. If the person is experiencing withdrawal symptoms, they may look to heroin to help them avoid these unpleasant issues. Morphine is one drug prescribed for serious pain. It’s basically the same as heroin, only in prescription form. They can become addicted to it and then look for a substitute. Peer pressure is another reason for heroin abuse. A person may start out trying a prescription medication like OxyContin to fit in with the crowd. It seems safe and easy with no needles or pipes. Once they use the drug, other users may pressure them into trying a “real drug” like heroin. Since they liked the high that came with the Oxy, they are more willing to experiment with an illicit drug.
The Profile of a Heroin Abuser
When you think of someone who is abusing heroin, you may picture a person who is homeless and living on the street. You imagine someone who is dirty, jobless and lost in life. However, the increase in prescription drug abuse has changed the profile of a heroin addict. It may be your neighbor, co-worker or family member. They may hold a job, have a family and even coach the Little League baseball team. Heroin knows no limits. It takes victims from every financial level and all areas of the country. Women and men can become addicts. Celebrities, even those who seem stable, can succumb. You may not be surprised to hear about celebrity addicts, but you might picture them as rock musicians or those who are often embroiled in controversy. However, they may be stars with a squeaky-clean image or those who have consistent work. Some celebrities who have been linked to prescription pain killers include:
- Eric Clapton – he opened his own drug rehab facility after getting sober from pain medication
- Rush Limbaugh – he had surgery on his spine and began taking pain pills
- Matthew Perry – had a wisdom tooth extraction and became addicted to Vicodin
- Carrie Fisher – most famous for her role as Princess Leia from Star Wars, she spent years trying to overcome addiction
- Steven Tyler – the lead singer of the rock band Aerosmith has been in rehab twice for prescription pain medication because of injury
As these stories show, drug addiction doesn’t always look the way you expect. Even celebrities aren’t out living the wild life and getting high. They innocently began taking powerful pain medication and found they were addicted. The image of what a drug addict looks like changes when you understand the reasons behind it.
Why Heroin is Addictive
Heroin is one of the most addictive substances a person can use. In fact, some experts suggest it is the MOST addictive drug. To understand this issue, you must first know how heroin works with the brain. The brain cells have receptors opiates like heroin attach to. The body produces endorphins which are similar to opiates. They control the system’s emotions as well as other critical processes such as blood pressure and breathing. When heroin enters the brain, it is a fake version of the endorphins. It copies the actions of endorphins to create feelings of pleasure or relief from pain. It’s even more powerful than the natural endorphins, which enables it to take over the system. The body stops making its own and relies on the heroin. The person controls how much of the heroin is introduced into the system, which means they can continue to get more whenever they want. The intense and immediate sense of pleasure is a major reason why heroin is such an addictive drug. This feeling is at a level the body can’t produce on its own. The person will try to return to that state of euphoria by using more of the drug. Another cause of addiction with heroin is the severe withdrawal symptoms that occur anytime the drug leaves the system. The feelings of intense pleasure only last for a while. The person will continue to use the drug to get more of the euphoria. As the system begins to expect the drug for these feelings, it will stop making the endorphins. To feel any pleasure, a person must get more of the drug. When it’s gone, the brain causes the symptoms of withdrawal to occur. They can be quite uncomfortable and frightening. Withdrawal symptoms of heroin include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Muscle pain
- Severe anxiety
- Cravings for the drug
- Hallucinations and paranoia
These symptoms can be so severe that the person seeks relief by getting more of the drug. They will want to avoid withdrawal by continuously using. In fact, for long-term heroin addicts, it often becomes less about getting high than avoiding the lows of withdrawal.
Who Becomes a Heroin Addict
You may have seen photos of heroin addicts. They look lifeless with limp hair and an expressionless face. They are often extremely thin, even emaciated looking. You think you could easily recognize someone who was abusing this drug. However, these people didn’t start out this way. Just like with prescription drug abuse, the type of person using heroin is often different than the stereotype. Just look at the celebrities who have succumbed to this powerful drug.
- Steve Tyler – the same person who was addicted to prescription drugs and lead singer of Aerosmith also battled heroin and cocaine
- Janis Joplin – popular singer in the 1960s, she died of a heroin overdose
- John Belushi – famous comedian and actor on Saturday Night Live died of a heroin and cocaine overdose at age 33
- Miles Davis – legendary jazz musician first became addicted while playing in clubs in the late 1940s
Heroin has been around for a long time and continues to be popular today. A heroin addict doesn’t start out looking like one. They may be successful, entertaining and beautiful. You can’t assume that someone would never be addicted just because they look like they have their life together.
Preventing Opioid Addiction
The link between prescription drug abuse and heroin addiction is just now beginning to be understood. The next step is figuring out how to reduce the rate of addiction and abuse, beginning with prescribed pain medication. One study conducted by the University of Michigan shows that the amount of opioid pain medications being prescribed directly impacts the opiate epidemic. According to this study, patients were being given more pain medication than what they were taking. It showed that a patient may receive a prescription for 100 pills, but they only took six. The others were left in the medicine cabinet where they could be accessed by others. By reducing the dosage given to patients following surgery, there will be fewer pills available on the street. It also helps prevent the person from becoming addicted by taking the medication for too long. The number of prescribed opioid medications and the number of overdose deaths has risen four times what they were before 1999. In fact, three-fourths of those who are abusing opioids admit to starting with a prescription medication they were given.
Is Recovery Possible for Prescription Drug Abuse and Heroin Addiction?
When you look at all this information and the statistics about drug abuse and heroin addiction, you may wonder if recovery is even possible. There are many programs available to help you with this battle, but you must know where to go and what kind of help you need. For prescription drug abuse, you may find a high-quality outpatient program is enough to help you start to recover. You’ll learn what led to your addiction and how to find better methods of dealing with the problems that led to your usage. Even if you took the medicine for pain, you’ll find new pain management options. The sooner you can get help, the better for you or your loved one. Prescription drug abuse is a serious matter that can impact your life. However, dealing with drug abuse is often more successful than waiting until it turns into addiction. It’s common for many drug abusers to think “I can handle it because I can stop at any time.” The problem is they often don’t stop until it has reached the point of being dependent on the drug. When someone is addicted to heroin, they often need more than outpatient treatment. They may require inpatient care or even residential treatment to help them stop using. A heroin addict is likely to need 24-hour supervision so they don’t relapse when they have a craving. With inpatient programs, an addict can attend counseling and therapy every day or even multiple times a day. Some programs even provide medication to help with cravings and withdrawal symptoms, but they may need to be monitored. Even after a person has stopped using heroin, their system doesn’t return to normal for several months. It takes time for the brain to begin producing dopamine, the endorphin that allows a person to experience pleasure. During this time, the person will crave the drug as a way of getting that euphoric feeling. This is one reason a heroin addict may seek out residential treatment. They need therapy until they are able to function on their own and learn how to deal with the triggers that lead to drug use. A person who has gone through drug rehab isn’t “cured” from addiction. They must still be alert to the opportunities that could lead them to using again. Addicts who used heroin are particularly vulnerable to relapsing because of how addictive it is and how it changes your brain. That’s why addiction aftercare is so important to maintain recovery. Aftercare can consist of sober living homes where the person lives in a place with other recovering addicts. They often attend therapy weekly or even daily as they work to get a job and rebuild their lives. The addict may go to career counseling and classes to help them develop the skills they need. They may need to learn about budgeting and other responsibilities to help them be successful. One type of aftercare that can be helpful is a 12-step program like Narcotics Anonymous or NA. NA groups are all around the country and in most major cities. You can find meetings just about any day of the week, depending on where you live. These meetings have other recovering addicts who help each other and provide support and encouragement. You don’t have to join a group or register. You can just show up whenever you feel you need the extra help. People who were addicted to heroin find that NA is an important part of their recovery. Whenever they feel a craving or are going through a stressful time in their lives, they can reach out for help by attending a meeting. They may need to go to just one meeting or they may attend for several weeks or months until they have gotten through whatever problem they were facing. Heroin is a highly addictive drug. Many people who begin using find they can’t stop. They may even go to rehab only to relapse and start using again. You might hear of cases where a person falls back into their old patterns after going through a drug treatment program. However, recovery is possible if you find the right program and follow up with aftercare. You must be vigilant no matter how long it’s been since you used. Even addicts who have maintained their sobriety for years will attend an NA meeting or go back to a therapist when they feel they need help. If you or a loved one have been taking an addictive pain medication or abusing a painkiller, you need to be aware of the risk for drug abuse. This path can lead to heroin addiction so you must take it seriously. Get help if you feel that you need more of the prescription medication. Reach out to drug treatment centers and stop the problem before it turns to an addiction to heroin.