Heroin and Opioid Addiction

Like all drugs, opioids attach themselves to neurotransmitters in the brain. Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers that transfer information between neurons, which is how our brain knows to perform all of its functions. Dopamine neurotransmitters are found in two sections of the brain – in one section, they help govern physical movement and speech, and in the other, they help activate the pleasure and reward sensations. When dopamine is triggered in the brain, it produces a feeling of enjoyment, making the brain want to replicate that feeling as often as possible.

Our bodies produce natural opioids, which attach themselves to neurotransmitters like endorphins, which block pain and stress receptors and calm the body with a rush of euphoria. Opioid drugs do the same thing – they are powerful pain relievers, but if used incorrectly, they are highly addictive.

History of Opiates and Opioids

Opiate is a term used to designate drugs naturally derived from the narcotic makeup of the opium poppy plant. Opium was discovered as far back as 3400 B.C., when the Sumerians first discovered the pain-relieving effects of the poppy. As medicine advanced through the years, doctors discovered morphine (in 1806), heroin (in 1853) and oxycodone (in 1916). Heroin was declared illegal in 1924, however, medications containing morphine, codeine and oxycodone are still prescribed legally with heavy regulation. Opioid is the term used today to describe both the natural and synthetic versions of opiates.

Opioids are highly addictive because of their potent effect on the brain. The release of endorphins and dopamine from these drugs creates a powerful rush that can’t be achieved naturally. The only way to repeat the experience is to use the drug again. But, like any drug that mimics chemicals that occur naturally in our bodies, repeated use of opioids will cause the brain to slow or stop its production of natural endorphins and dopamine. When this happens, the only way the opioid user can feel good again is by using the drug. They crave the high, and need the drug in order to feel any pleasure at all, and so they begin to abuse it to feel good on demand.

Prescription Opioid Addiction

Sadly, addiction to opioids is often unintentional. Many people began using prescription opioids for a legitimate reason – to treat pain from surgery or injury. Unfortunately, by the time they have healed and no longer need the drugs for their physical pain, the opioids have already affected their brain enough to cause dependence and lead to addiction. Common opioid painkillers available by prescription include (but are not limited to):

  • Codeine
  • Morphine
  • Oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet)
  • Hydrocodone (Vicodin)
  • Methadone
  • Fentanyl

Addiction starts when a person develops a tolerance to the drug, meaning they have to keep increasing the amount they use to achieve their high. This leads to physical dependence (which means that if they stop taking the drug, they will experience withdrawal symptoms), and psychological dependence (craving the drug). These effects never “level out” – an opioid addict will continue to need increasing amounts of the drug to function, which can ultimately destroy their life, and possibly kill them. Opioid addiction has been pinpointed as the number one cause of drug overdoses in the U.S., with an estimated 91 deaths per day due to prescription painkillers.


Because prescription opioids are regulated and monitored closely, many opioid addicts who began their addiction with prescription drugs must resort to heroin to feed their habit. In fact, research from the CDC found that 75 percent of heroin users reported that their addiction began with prescription painkillers. Heroin is easier to get, costs less and provides the same euphoric high of the prescription pills. Heroin is derived from morphine, and is most often sold in powder form. Powdered heroin may be cut with harmless substances like starch or powdered sugar to increase the quantity, but some heroin is cut with deadly drugs like fentanyl. Higher quality heroin can be snorted, smoked or injected, while lower quality heroin has to be diluted and then injected. Because most people don’t know what the purity level of their heroin is, what it may be cut with or how much to use, it is easy to overdose. The CDC reports that there were nearly 13,000 deaths in 2015 due to heroin use.

Symptoms of Opioid or Heroin Addiction

If you notice any of these physical or behavioral changes in a loved one, they may have an addiction to opioids or heroin:

  • Visible elation or euphoria
  • Mood swings
  • Noticeable drowsiness, nodding off or losing consciousness
  • Isolation or problems in relationships
  • Confusion
  • Getting multiple prescriptions from multiple doctors
  • Sudden onset of financial problems
  • Slowed breathing
  • Pupil constriction

The main long-term effect of heroin addiction is the addiction itself. It causes the destruction of health, relationships, finances and personal integrity. Their addiction takes precedence over everything else, and many users resort to crime to fund their uncontrollable habit.

Treating Opioid and Heroin Addiction Safely

Treatment for opioid and heroin addiction often requires detox because of the profound effects of the drug on the brain. Long-term opioid use alters the way nerve cells function in your brain, even in those who don’t abuse the drug. Nerve cells become accustomed to the presence of opioids and their effects, so when they are suddenly taken away, the brain can react violently. This results in withdrawal symptoms such as vomiting, headache, insomnia, sweating and fatigue.

While Sound Recovery Solutions does not provide detox services, we can offer secure referrals to local centers with whom we work very closely. We support Medication Assisted Treatment, in which prescription medications are used to manage symptoms of withdrawal and curb cravings. We strongly believe that treatment is possible, and can be successful without the ongoing presence of opioids. However, for our clients in dire need of recovery, we have access to clinical support for their treatment.

We proudly offer partial hospitalization treatment, intensive outpatient treatment, outpatient treatment and alumni services. We welcome both men and women experiencing all varieties of addictions and chemical dependencies in addition to secondary co-occurring mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression and trauma.

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