The first step to ending a heroin addiction is detox, or the process of allowing all traces of the drug to leave the body so that brain function can begin to return to normal. Heroin detox can be excruciating. Withdrawal symptoms mimic the flu, and while detoxing from heroin isn’t particularly dangerous, it can be difficult. That’s why many people who try to detox from heroin without help relapse very quickly.
Medical detox and medication-assisted treatment are two medically supervised options for heroin detox that reduce the intensity of withdrawal symptoms, shorten the duration of detox and promote long-term recovery from a heroin addiction.
How Heroin Dependence Leads to Addiction
Heroin dependence isn’t the same thing as addiction. Dependence is characterized by withdrawal symptoms that set in when heroin use stops. Addiction, on the other hand, is characterized by compulsive drug-seeking and -using behaviors despite negative consequences.
Dependence develops quickly with heavy heroin abuse. Heroin acts on a number of brain chemicals, or neurotransmitters. One of these is dopamine, the chemical associated with feelings of pleasure. Dopamine is a key player in the reward, memory and learning processes in the brain. In normal amounts, dopamine is designed to keep us motivated to engage in activities that keep us alive, such as eating and exercise. But heroin produces a dopamine rush that’s 10 times greater than what occurs naturally.
The brain knows this massive dopamine rush is unnatural and undesirable, so it adjusts its dopamine activity in an attempt to compensate for the psychoactive effects of heroin. This compensation leads to tolerance, which means that increasingly larger doses of heroin are needed to get the desired effects.
Heroin Detox Withdrawal Symptoms
As more heroin is used, the brain continues to alter its chemical function to compensate. At some point, chemical function may shift so that the brain now operates more comfortably when heroin is present.
When heroin use stops, normal neurotransmitter function rebounds quickly, and this sudden shift in chemicals causes physical withdrawal symptoms, including:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Abdominal cramps and diarrhea
- Fever and chills
- Body aches
- Agitation and anxiety
- Sleep problems
- Intense cravings
During medical detox, physicians administer medications as needed to reduce the intensity of withdrawal symptoms and promote the normalization of brain function. High-quality medical detox programs offer a variety of complementary therapies like yoga and massage to increase feelings of wellbeing during detox.
Medication-Assisted Treatment for Heroin Detox
- Improve retention in treatment
- Improve social functioning
- Improve employability
- Reduce illegal opioid abuse and related criminal activity
- Reduce overdose risk
- Reduce relapse risk
Heroin Detox in the First Step in Recovery
Addiction is more complicated than dependence. Without rehab, which is comprised of a variety of traditional and complementary treatment therapies, many people who go through detox relapse. An Irish Medical Journal study found that 91 percent of detox participants who didn’t engage in treatment afterwards relapsed-nearly 60 percent of them within a week of detox.2 Those who entered treatment after detox had a significantly delayed relapse or didn’t relapse at all.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, willpower and good intentions aren’t enough to end addiction for the long-term.3 Successful recovery requires addressing the causes of the addiction, repairing the damage it has done, and changing dysfunctional thought and behavior patterns that developed along with it.
A major function of the detox process is engaging clients in a treatment program. During detox, care providers use a variety of assessments to create an individualized treatment plan that addresses all of a person’s needs and problems. Providers use therapies like motivational interviewing to help clients identify their own intrinsic reasons for wanting to recover.
If you’re ready to recover for the long-term, a quality medical detox program should be your first stop. Many people who complete detox and continue with a comprehensive treatment program enjoy successful long-term recovery. Recovery is possible, and it can happen for you.