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How Does Heroin Work?

To understand addiction, you must understand the distinction between dependence and addiction. Dependence is when the body becomes accustomed to the presence of a drug and needs it to maintain its normal state; a dependent user will experience physical withdrawal symptoms if she goes long enough without taking the drug.

Heroin is a highly addictive drug that traps users in both of these ways. Users become physically dependent on heroin and will experience severe withdrawal symptoms if they attempt to quit using it. Heroin use also leads to addictive behavior as users seek to repeat the euphoric feeling produced by the high. However, users will require increasingly larger doses to mimic their first high, and this can easily lead to overdose or a dangerous addiction.

Physical Dependence on Heroin

Heroin is known as a central nervous system (CNS) depressant as it numbs physical senses. This is why heroin works so well, because it literally changes the way the body perceived pain. This is also why heroin can so easily cause death by overdose, which can occur due to depression of the unconscious function of breathing.

Heroin and all other opiates produce a strong physical dependence in a very short time. Once physical dependence has occurred, users will experience withdrawal symptoms similar to a severe case of the flu if they go long enough without a dose. This is one reason quitting heroin is so difficult: often, despite the best intentions to quit, addicts relapse into heroin use simply to end the agony of withdrawal.

Withdrawal symptoms of heroin include but are not limited to the following problems:

  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Insomnia
  • Depression
  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Profuse sweating
  • Shakes and tremors
  • Muscle pain

Heroin withdrawal symptoms are not life-threatening, but medical complications can arise due to these symptoms, especially if a user’s health is compromised to begin with. Malnutrition and poor health can make it tougher for the body to handle the withdrawal symptoms. Dehydration often occurs during detox due to intense sweating and chronic diarrhea. Patients may also be at increased risk for suicide due to depression, a common symptom of withdrawal.

Psychological Addiction to Heroin

Heroin acts directly on the “reward center” of the brain, the area responsible for emotions and moods. The reward center will naturally produce neurotransmitters to create the feeling of pleasure. Heroin stimulates the brain to produce excessive levels of these chemicals, resulting in the euphoric high of heroin use. The problem is that eventually the brain produces less of these chemicals on its own and becomes completely dependent upon the drug to feel good. Users report that the feeling is so pleasant that they will do whatever they need to do to repeat the experience, even though they will never reproduce that level of high. Heroin addicts often will sacrifice everything in their lives—including money, career, friends, family and health—in the pursuit of the high.

Heroin Addiction Help

If you or someone you know is in the grip of heroin addiction and need help finding treatment, call our 24 hour, toll-free helpline today.