For many people, prescription drug abuse leads to heroin addiction, but their intentions were never to become addicted to something. People have accidents, need surgery or develop conditions that result in chronic pain. A doctor then prescribes opioid painkillers for pain relief.
When prescription medications are used in ways not intended by prescribing doctors or when people develop tolerance to the medication, addiction can develop.
How Prescription Medication Use Becomes Abuse
Individuals can develop a painkiller addiction when they have to take increasing quantities of the medication to gain the same previous effects, which is known as tolerance. Another sign of addiction is when people experience unpleasant symptoms if they don’t take enough medication, which is known as withdrawal.
As tolerance increases and withdrawal prevents decreasing the dosage, people may take medications in ways that increase potency. Grinding and snorting or injecting pills gets the drug into the bloodstream faster, resulting in more intense highs. In a relatively short period of time, these types of prescription drug abuse can become addiction.
Heroin Addiction: The Black Market
When people with a prescription opioid addiction can’t get a legitimate supply, they will sometimes be driven to look for an illicit alternative. Prescription drug abuse leads to heroin addiction when that alternative is heroin, a drug that is often cheaper and more easily available than a prescription.
Individuals who turn to the black market for heroin do so because it’s cheap, readily available and will satisfy their cravings, as well as relieve or prevent withdrawal symptoms.
But heroin is deadly. Buyers do not know the purity level of the drug they’re purchasing, which can lead to unintentional overdose. A heroin overdose causes slow and shallow breathing, low blood pressure, weak pulse, bluish-colored lips and fingernails, convulsions and coma, and it can be fatal.
The Science of How Prescription Drug Abuse Leads to Heroin Addiction
With continued use of prescription painkillers, the receptors that control the brain’s pleasure/reward system undergo changes, decreasing in number in response to the increase in stimuli. What used to naturally produce pleasurable feelings, such as eating food, being with loved ones or having sex, no longer provides enjoyment. Once the structure and function of the brain have changed from prolonged opioid use, only opioid drugs can trigger pleasant sensations.
When people depend on prescription drugs and that supply is cut off for whatever reason, they may turn to heroin for its pleasurable, euphoric effects. Over time, the brain adapts to heroin as a substance it needs to function normally. The brain triggers cravings for more heroin once the euphoria begins to wear off. Withdrawal will begin if the cravings aren’t satisfied with more heroin.1
Opioid Overdose Dangers
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drug overdose deaths involving opioids have quadrupled since 1999. Most drug overdose deaths involve an opioid. Each day in the United States, 91 people die from an opioid-related overdose. The fact that prescription drug abuse leads to heroin addiction plays a major factor in these statistics.2
Getting Help: Opioid Addiction Treatment
If you or a loved one are experiencing prescription drug abuse or heroin addiction, you’re not alone. The good news is that when prescription drug abuse leads to heroin addiction, substance abuse treatment can help you enter recovery and return to a healthy and productive life.