Overview of Heroin

If there’s one drug that’s become a major point of contention, it’s certainly heroin. Of course, all mind-altering substances are problematic to one degree or another, but current rates of heroin use and addiction have reached epidemic-level proportions, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. With heroin use currently being higher than it’s ever been, it’s become important for us to be knowledgeable about the drug. In particular, we should be aware of where heroin comes from, its specific effects, how to identify heroin withdrawal symptoms, and what steps are required to overcome an addiction to heroin.

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What exactly is heroin?

Heroin may seem like a modern drug, and while it’s true that heroin use has only recently reached epidemic levels, we actually have quite a history with heroin and heroin-like substances known as opiates. Heroin is a derivative of the opium that obtained from the opium poppy; our history with opium actually dates back thousands of years. In ancient Egypt, Babylonia, Greece, and many other nations in the North African and Eastern European areas, opium was used for such things as anesthetics during primitive surgical procedures, spiritual practices, and, of course, recreational enjoyment. By the nineteenth century, opium was used quite commonly throughout much of the world, including in North America; however, it was around this time that the dangerous and addictive properties of opium were becoming more well-known, which inspired research into substances that could offer similar therapeutic value without the many side effects.
By the late 1800s, opium was marketed as a cure for alcoholism, but those who used opium were rapidly becoming dependent. This resulted in the emergence of many ‘opium dens’ throughout the United States. Around this time, researchers identified that many of opium’s effects could be attributed to one of two primary alkaloids that opium contains: codeine and morphine. In 1874, English chemist C.R. Alder Wright was experimenting with morphine and various forms of acid when he developed diamorphine, which is the more technical name for heroin. Upon creating the substance, Wright realized that diamorphine was much more potent than actual morphine and, through experiments with animals, documented a number of the drug’s effects, including an initial increase in heart rate followed by a marked decrease thereafter, prostration (a tendency toward hunched-over postures), intense sleepiness, and a number of other effects.

After Wright’s initial synthesis of heroin, the substance was largely disregarded until it was, again, synthesized 23 years later by Felix Hoffmann, a chemist who was working for Bayer in Germany. Hoffmann’s objective was actually to create codeine, which was less potent and addictive than morphine; instead, Hoffmann achieved a substance that was substantially more powerful and addictive. The head of Bayer’s research department chose the name “heroin” because of its German meaning, “strong” and “heroic”. As such, Bayer led the way when it came to the commercialization of heroin, marketing it for a variable of things, particularly as a non-addictive morphine substitute and as a cough suppressant.
The Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914 was put in place to better regulate the sale and use of heroin, making it available almost solely via prescription in the United States; however, just ten years later, Congress put a complete ban on the production, importation, and sale of heroin. Today, heroin is classified as a Schedule I substance, which means that it has strong addictive potential with no therapeutic benefits. Again, heroin was developed chiefly as an alternative to morphine in the hope that it would offer similar effects of morphine without the addictive potential and adverse effects. In the end, heroin ended up being one of the most powerful opiates we’ve yet found and is currently at the center of a global addiction epidemic.

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Effects of heroin

The effects of heroin are somewhat dependent on the route of administration. Although there are several ways in which to imbibe heroin, the three most common are via intravenous injection, insufflation (inhaling through the nose), and smoking. Of these three routes of administration, intravenous injection has the greatest bioavailability; in other words, injecting heroin directly into one’s bloodstream allows a person to experience the effects of heroin to their highest degree.
Upon imbibing heroin, users often feel a ‘rush’, which is the sensation of the drug’s effects quickly spreading throughout the body. It’s a very sensual feeling that’s been described as physical numbness or as a sense of warmth and tingling. As well, heroin is often described as causing users’ mouths to become quite dry and there’s the sensation that one’s limbs have become extremely heavy and more difficult to move. Meanwhile, the drug dampens one’s ability to feel pain, which makes sense since heroin belongs to the same class of drugs to which many of the most well-known and widely-used painkillers. There’s also an intense sense of lethargy and sedation.

Heroin withdrawal symptoms

When a person continues to use heroin frequently over a period of time, he or she becomes quite likely to develop dependence. Although heroin withdrawal isn’t typically considered to be life-threatening in the way that alcohol and benzodiazepine withdrawals often are, heroin withdrawal is unanimously described as being quite unpleasant. For instance, there’s an intense physical discomfort due to the body being forced to deal with physical sensations. Individuals suffering from heroin withdrawals also usually experience profuse sweating, yawning, insomnia, heart palpitations, anxiety, depression, mood swings, and a number of other potential effects.

Overcoming heroin addiction

Although it’s quite unpleasant to be addicted to heroin, there are plenty of resources available to help individuals overcome this disease. Typically, heroin addiction recovery begins with a detoxification program, which allows the individual to overcome the physical aspects of the addiction prior to moving into the treatment phase of recovery. After detoxing, the individual can participate in individual counseling, group therapy, relapse prevention education, life skills training, and other important components. The idea is to help the individual achieve long-lasting sobriety by ensuring that each of his or her unique recovery needs are met while in treatment.

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