Most Heroin Users Start With An Addiction To Painkillers

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Most Heroin Users Start With An Addiction To Painkillers

Drug addiction can begin any number of ways. But significantly, the National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that 80% – that’s 4 out of 5 – heroin and synthetic opioid addicts begin their habit after first having an addiction to painkillers.

In data collected from 2002-2012, the number of new heroin users was shown to be 19 times higher among those who had admitted to first abusing painkillers. A 2012 study also revealed that 86% of young, urban intravenous drug users began after developing an addiction to painkillers – drugs obtained mainly from family, friends, and personal prescriptions.

This is a near exact reversal from trends of the past, as in the 1960’s, 80% of opioid abusers first initiated their addiction with heroin. But of course, in the 1960’s there was not the rash of mass opioid prescribing we have seen in the last 20 years. The story is a common one – people get addicted to prescription painkillers, and when they can no longer obtain their prescription, they switch to heroin which is more accessible and also less expensive.

And opioids have a high potential for tolerance, abuse, and addiction. Tolerance can begin to take hold in a matter of weeks. As tolerance increases, more of the drug is needed to achieve the same effects. It is at this point that some begin abusing them, go “doctor shopping,” or turn to street heroin to get their fix.

And sadly, as drug use continues, the drugs often no longer work to ease pain or create euphoric feelings. In fact, hyperalgesia is a condition in which the patient becomes hyper-sensitive to pain from the chronic use of opioids. At this point, many are now using the drugs to simply avoid withdrawal symptoms, and virtually for no other reason.

Other Risk Factors

In addition, the risk of substance abuse or dependency is quadrupled for people with a family history of drug abuse. There are many other risk factors as well, including age of first use, lack of school commitment in younger persons, availability of the substance, and the existence of local laws and norms which favor drug use.

Also, mental illness such as depression and anxiety can encourage some to self-medicate. This is another common factor which leads to drug dependency. Then the drugs can make the mental condition worse, and thus, the person turns to more drugs.

~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology

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