Safe Harbor Treatment Center

How Prescription Opiates Can Lead to Heroin Addiction

There are many common myths regarding addiction, including the idea that addiction is simply a choice and can easily be overcome if desired. This is simply not the case. For many of those battling addiction, it once started as a simple prescription medication for pain, injury, or recovery after surgery that spiraled into dependence.

In truth, almost all addiction is a way of managing pain, whether it be physical or mental. When someone is suffering from chronic pain or injury or recovering from a surgical procedure, a doctor will often prescribe painkillers to help manage it. What many people don’t know, however, is that many of these prescription painkillers are highly addictive, even when taken correctly.

Prescription Opiates and Addiction

The misuse and addiction to opioids, including prescription and synthetic opioids, is a national public health crisis. When a prescription opiate is prescribed, the individual runs the risk of becoming dependent. Addiction is a brain disorder that causes the person to compulsively use the drug because their brain is dependent on it to feel “normal”.

The risk of abuse is higher when an individual takes too much of the medication, takes someone else’s prescription, takes it in a different way than prescribed, or taking it when it is not necessary. Despite taking prescription painkillers as a way of managing physical pain, individuals may realize, over time, that it is also helping any emotional pain they may be holding. Individuals may not even realize the emotional issues they have, only that the medication is making them feel better- all over.

Turning to Heroin

While the transition from prescription painkillers to heroin may seem like a stretch, it’s actually a much smaller step than you might imagine. Once the signs of addiction are displayed, doctors should stop prescribing the painkillers and recommend other pain management options. When the easy accessibility of prescription medication is taken away, the dependent individual will seek alternate ways of obtaining it.

At this point, individuals may turn to street suppliers for their medication. While they may be readily available on the street, they are costly. Contrarily, heroin is readily available and much less expensive while providing the same “relief” as prescription opiates. Prescription painkillers and heroin both operate on the reward center of the brain, allowing the individual to find the same effects they were searching for.

Although they have the same effects, prescription opioids and heroin have different risk factors. Because heroin is usually injected intravenously, it runs a higher risk of injection-related illnesses like HIV and hepatitis C. Heroin also often contains dangerous additives, such as sugars and starches. These have the potential to clog blood vessels and cause permanent damage to the lungs, liver, kidneys, or brain. There is also a risk of overdose when heroin slows or stops a person’s breathing. This decreases the amount of oxygen reaching the brain which could result in a coma or brain damage.

Psychological Factors

Discussing psychological and emotional factors may seem insignificant when it comes to something as intense as opiate or heroin addiction. However, once the nature of mental health issues is understood, it becomes easier to see how we may all be at risk under certain circumstances. Some of these circumstances include:
  • Feelings of inadequacy in certain aspects of life including career and relationships
  • Feeling like a failure at parenthood
  • Feeling like a failure as a caregiver or provider
  • Feeling of guilt for failing to save or help a loved one
  • Feeling unloved or unwanted
  • Feelings of causing loved one’s pain
  • Feeling alienated by friends, family, or peers
  • Feeling like you’re not living up to certain expectations

These are just a few potential circumstances that can inflict psychological or emotional pain on an individual. Mental health is extremely important to maintain, especially since it is a huge risk factor for someone on prescription painkillers. Because addiction is generally a way of managing physical and mental pain, there are a number of counseling and therapy methods that can be used to treat pain and addiction.

Reducing the Risk

Times have certainly changed since the late 1990s when prescription opioid addiction rates began to rise. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, of people entering treatment for heroin addiction who began abusing opioids in the 1960s, more than 80 percent started with heroin. However, that changed when it was reported of those who began abusing opioids in the 2000s, 75 percent reported that their first opioid was a prescription drug.

In order to combat the opioid epidemic and reduce the rates or heroin addiction and overdose, it is important that the public stay educated. Addiction to prescription medication can happen to anyone, therefore increasing the risk of transitioning to more dangerous drugs like heroin. Taking prescription medications correctly and maintaining physical and mental health is critical in combating addiction.