Heroin is an illicit opiate derived from morphine, an alkaloid commonly found in the poppy plant. When injected, skin lesions referred to as “track marks” are often visible on a user’s arms, legs, and sometimes other body areas.
Heroin is an extremely addictive drug, and its abuse can have consequences that reach far beyond the user’s mental and physical health. There may be virtually endless repercussions, as heroin tends to wreak more havoc than many other abused drugs.
Because it is often administered using a needle, people who share needles can contract several infections, including potentially life-threatening illnesses, such as hepatitis and HIV. People dependent on heroin also typically face social, legal, and financial issues that can destroy their lives in a very brief amount of time.
Heroin use has been drastically increasing in the last few years for a few different reasons. However, individuals involved in the ongoing opioid epidemic believe this is due to the mass-prescribing of opioids that began more than two decades ago. Pharmaceutical companies, such as OxyContin’s makers, marketed their product falsely as safe and non-addictive, despite evidence to the contrary.
As a result of OxyContin’s widespread accessibility, people begin to develop addictions, especially after receiving prescription opioids long-term. Many of these individuals became unable to afford or acquire their drug of choice and eventually resorted to heroin use because it’s relatively inexpensive and easily obtained.
Unfortunately, the drug cartels saw this trend coming. They realized the increase in opioid addiction in the United States would also increase demand, so they responded by producing, trafficking, and distributing more heroin throughout the country.
Regardless of how heroin is consumed, regular users often encounter various medical problems that can become severe. However, those who use heroin intravenously face a unique set of challenges as injection sites increase and must be reused, and skin sores and vein damage continue to accumulate over time.
What Are Track Marks?
Track marks occur when a user injects heroin into a vein, otherwise known as “shooting up.” The intravenous use of any substance can produce track marks, but this administration method is particularly common among heroin users. Medical problems involving injection sites can become severe and potentially result in amputation or death.
Track marks tend to develop when a user injects drugs at the same sites repeatedly. When a mark is new, it will appear as a raw and perhaps bloody, inflamed area. Older track marks will often be calloused and discolored and may present with abscesses and oozing pus.
Identifying Track Marks
Track marks on arms are the most commonly seen because the arm’s veins are prominent, making it easy to administer drugs. They are most often located in the elbow’s inside crook, as novice users learn how to inject heroin, similar to receiving a shot by a physician. Other marks on arm injection sites may be found near a large vein on the back of a person’s hand or wrist.
Track marks on the legs are commonly found near the inner thigh, and some users will inject into large veins on their feet. Injections often become more difficult and painful as some veins and sites become useless, and the person is then forced to administer the drug in other areas around the body.
If heroin use continues past this point, some users will inject between their toes, and eventually into their forehead, neck, chest, and wherever they can, that is viable. Once a user has advanced to this point, their condition is very severe, and they are at a high risk of permanent damage to their body and death.
Many heroin users will go to extreme lengths to conceal their drug use and resulting track marks. Makeup or bandaids might work in relatively mild cases, but as the problem becomes worse, they may be forced to wear long sleeves or pants, even in warm weather, as a means to cover the destruction they have done to their bodies.
It is important to note that track marks are not always an indication of current drug use. Many reused injection sites can become persistent scars that do not fade without help from cosmetic surgery. And unfortunately, this is considered an elective surgery that is cost-prohibitive for many and is not usually covered by insurance.
Why Track Marks Occur
Track marks often appear as bruises because blood may leak out of a vein that has been injected. Vein darkening is due to scarring and the accumulation of toxins. Arterial damage can also occur at the injection site, which can rupture and result in bleeding, gangrene, or blood supply restriction to tissues (ischemia).
Injecting any drug into the same site over time is ultimately going to cause surface veins to scar. This will cause the vein to collapse if the abuse continues long enough.
Another disadvantage of injecting heroin is that users often fail to sanitize injection sites. This lack of personal protection places them at an increased risk of developing cellulitis and thrombophlebitis.
One of the most severe effects of chronic intravenous drug use is the development of collapsed veins. As the linings of veins are damaged, blood clots can begin to form. The repeated use of blunt needles, multiple injections in the same site, or improper injection technique can cause the vein to become blocked entirely.
The Development of Addiction
Injecting heroin leads to a rapid and intense release of the drug straight to the brain, and therefore comes with a higher potential for causing addiction than other methods such as smoking or snorting. For this reason, many experts believe heroin to be one of the most addictive and dangerous drugs in the world.
Repeated heroin use often results in the development of tolerance, which is a condition that forces a person to use ever-increasing amounts of an intoxicating substance to experience the desired effects. If use continues to increase, users are at high risk for overdose and death.
Another component of developing an addiction is dependence. Dependence can have both chemical and psychological elements and occur as the body and mind grow accustomed to a drug’s presence and cannot function correctly without it. When a user tries to quit, they will then encounter highly unpleasant withdrawal symptoms that may be the catalyst for a return to regular drug abuse.
Finally, the last component of addiction occurs when a person engages in compulsive drug-seeking behavior despite the negative consequences their drug use is causing. At this point, the individual will likely do almost anything to attain and use the substance, including borrowing money or theft. Also, prostitution and other crimes are not uncommon.
Getting Treatment for Heroin Addiction
From detox to intensive treatment to aftercare, Just Believe Detox and Just Believe Recovery centers offer a full continuum of care in both partial hospitalization and inpatient formats. Our health providers and highly-skilled addiction specialists will collaborate to help guide you or your loved one step-by-step toward long-lasting sobriety and wellness, one day at a time.
Services we provide in our programs include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy
- Peer support groups
- Individual and family counseling
- Yoga and medication
- Experiential activities
- Health and wellness education
- Substance abuse education
- Aftercare planning
If you or someone you love is struggling to overcome a dependence on heroin, you may feel hopeless and helpless, with no way out. Fortunately, professional help is available!