Heroin Addiction: What Is It?
Heroin addiction is a continuing, relapsing disease. It involves compulsive drug seeking and abuse, and also neurochemical and molecular changes which distort the brain. Heroin also creates tremendous tolerance and physical dependence. These in turn strongly drive compulsive heroin use and abuse. Heroin addicts gradually spend increasing time and effort obtaining and using the drug. Once addicted, the heroin addict’s chief objective in life becomes seeking and using heroin. Heroin literally changes the mechanical and chemical functioning of their brains and their behavior.
Heroin addiction induces physical dependence which grows as addicts increase the heroin dose. Physical dependence means that the body adapts to the drug and if heroin is reduced suddenly, withdrawal symptoms appear. Symptoms of withdrawal include restlessness, muscle and bone pain, insomnia, diarrhea, vomiting, cold flashes with goose bumps (“cold turkey”), and leg movements. Although generally withdrawal symptoms end after a week, some people have shown persistent withdrawal signs for many months.
Heroin addiction results from continuous heroin use. Some addicted individuals will be ready to endure the withdrawal symptoms in order to reduce their tolerance for heroin so that they again can re-live the rush. Physical dependence and withdrawal symptoms were once seen as the key features of heroin addiction.
Heroin addiction involves a broader concept than just physical dependence and withdrawal symptoms. This broader concept is based on observations that craving and relapse happen weeks and months after withdrawal symptoms have ended. Experience also shows that patients with ongoing pain who need opiates to function (sometimes for long time-spans) have few if any problems leaving opiates after their pain is over. This may be because the patient in pain is just seeking pain relief rather than seeking the rush which is the addict’s main focus.