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Factors that Contribute to Heroin Abuse and Its Long Term Consequences

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Male Limbic System Brain Anatomy - isolated on white

Several recent reports have shed light on the growing problem of heroin abuse in the United States, with public health officials remaining worried about the long-term effects of heroin use. For instance, the CDC reported that rates of overdose from heroin quadrupled over the past decade. Given the highly addictive nature of the drug, many people who experiment with heroin will go on to develop opiate dependence.
Particularly important is recognizing the role of co-occurring psychiatric symptoms in the development and progression of heroin abuse. Some factors precede the onset of heroin dependence, while others are a result of long-term heroin use. Teasing apart these factors can be helpful in treatment planning and helping affected individuals overcome the disease.

Factors that Contribute to Heroin Abuse

Some people are more likely than others to develop an addiction to heroin. Genetic factors do play a role. In fact, some scientists estimate that genes explain 50% of a person’s risk of drug addiction. Thus, having a close family member with a heroin problem may increase your own risk.
Environmental factors also play a role. Being exposed to drug use during your childhood makes it more likely that you will experiment with drugs as an adult. Other environmental risk factors include living through a traumatic event, experiencing physical or sexual abuse, having friends who use heroin, or having parents who did not take an active role in your life.  Of course, some people addicted to heroin have experienced none of these environmental risk factors, and it is difficult to tease apart the exact reasons that a particular person may have developed a drug problem.
Finally, having a pre-existing mental health problem also increases risk of opiate dependence. Conditions such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or OCD can be deeply distressing. Some people turn to drugs to alleviate this distress. Although opiates like heroin provide short-term relief from psychological pain, the resulting addiction can cause long-lasting effects.

Long-Term Effects of Heroin Abuse

Using heroin contributes to myriad problems with physical health, psychological well-being, and emotional regulation. Heroin impacts a brain circuit called the limbic system, which is responsible for processing information about emotion and reward. Use of heroin changes the structure and function of the limbic system. As a result, these changes make it work differently in people who have struggled with opiate dependence.
These limbic system changes can lead to dulled emotional responses and inability to experience pleasure from everyday events. In fact, recent research suggests that people in treatment for heroin abuse who also had a history of psychiatric problems were significantly more likely to experience physical symptoms, panic, anxious feelings, sensitivity, feelings of worthlessness, violence, and suicidal ideation. Limbic system alterations may trigger many of these symptoms. This is why people who have struggled with heroin abuse sometimes develop psychiatric problems such as mood or anxiety disorders.
In addition to its impact on emotional regulation abilities, long-term heroin use can also cause personality changes. Family members frequently report that their loved one seems more callous, irritable, or sensitive than they used to. These personality changes can be among the most distressing symptoms for families to deal with, as they affect marriages and familial relationships.

Impact of Treatment for Heroin Abuse

Medical Opiate Detox, Rapid detox and other treatments for opiate dependence cannot fully reverse the effects of heroin on the body and mind. However, they are the first step in removing the influence of heroin from a person’s life. Compassionate follow-up care can address many of the psychological and physical problems associated with long-term heroin abuse. Getting prompt, scientifically informed treatment for heroin abuse is the first step in overcoming opiate dependence and getting on a road to healthy living.


Genetics of Alcohol Use Disorder. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Retrieved on August 10, 2015.

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