Dangerous Trend: Switching from Painkillers to Heroin

Prescription painkillers have become harder and harder to obtain over the years. Doctors and pharmacists are more cautious when it comes to prescribing and dispensing opiate painkillers (also called opioids). Some painkillers like OxyContin have been altered physically to make them harder to abuse. These factors, as well as the general rise in prescription painkiller abuse in America, have contributed to a new trend, specifically, moving off painkillers and onto heroin.

A Dual Problem

This isn’t to say that the numbers of prescription drug abusers are lessening. In 2013, the number of people abusing prescription drugs was surpassed only by those using marijuana and alcohol. However, there is evidence that a percentage of individuals who had been abusing OxyContin switched to heroin when OxyContin was reformulated in 2010. Around the same time, America experienced an influx of cheap Mexican heroin and many pain meds became more expensive. All of these factors may be contributing to the numbers transitioning from pains meds to illicit opiates like heroin.

Statistics show that 1 in 15 Americans who abuse prescription pain meds will try heroin within the next ten years. A government survey showed another link between prescription opioids and heroin, stating that Americans aged 12 to 49 who abuse prescription drugs are 19 times more likely than others in their age group to try heroin.  A federal report from 2011 shows that 80% of heroin users once used prescription painkillers .

The Similarities Between Prescription Painkillers and Heroin

Many prescription painkillers have a similar chemical structure to heroin. They fall into a drug category called opiates. The word opioid is often used to describe the synthetic or semi-synthetic type of opiate produced by pharmaceutical companies. These drugs are chemically similar to the drug opium, which is extracted from a poppy. Opiates include drugs like heroin, oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet), hydrocodone (Vicodin, Zohydro), codeine, morphine, methadone, Demerol, Duragesic, and Dilaudid.

All of these drugs affect the brain and body similarly. They attach to specific proteins in the human body called opioid receptors. These are found in the central nervous system and other organs of the body. When the drug attaches to these receptors, it reduces the body’s perception of pain. But, opioids do more than just that. They slow down body function, make one feel calm, and can create a euphoric effect.

The Chemical Effect

Opioids also affect how one perceives “rewards” and pleasurable experiences. They do this by flooding the brain with a chemical called dopamine. This creates an over-stimulation and alteration in how the body monitors movement, emotion, cognition, motivation, reward and pleasure.

Once the drug wears off, the user will often feel physically and emotionally drained while being progressively plunged into deep states of depression and anxiety. They may feel that the only way they can continue to function is to take more of the drug. The brain is wired to seek repetition of actions that make the person “feel good”, thus motivating the user to seek out more of the drug.

If the individual keeps taking opioids, they will develop a tolerance. This means that they’ll need more and more of the drug to feel the same way. They may feel they need to take large quantities of opioids to feel normal. All opiates work in a similar way and they are all addictive to a greater or lesser degree.

One can see why a prescription painkiller habit can become extremely expensive in a rather short period of time. Because heroin and prescription painkillers provide a similar affect, users who can no longer afford or obtain prescription pain meds may turn to heroin.

A recent study shows that once an individual has become a heroin user, they do not turn back to prescription pain medication. They may switch between heroin and prescription pain meds to stave off withdrawal symptoms if the supply of heroin becomes scarce, but if they have a choice they are more likely to return to heroin.

Prescription Painkillers and Heroin Share Negative Effects

All opioids, including heroin, share many of the same side effects. These include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Itching
  • Nausea, vomiting, constipation
  • Dizziness
  • Erectile dysfunction and other sexual difficulties
  • Cognitive difficulties
  • Mental confusion
  • Irritability, anxiety
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Extreme sensitivity to pain
  • Worsening of original pain
  • Tolerance
  • Dependence and addiction
  • Heart and lung damage
  • Overdose resulting in respiratory depression (failure of respiratory organs), coma and death

Any opioid can cause dependence and addiction, leading to the user suffering withdrawal symptoms when he or she tries to lessen the dose or quit the drug without medical help. Here are several symptoms of withdrawal from opioids:

  • Muscle aches and pains
  • Abdominal cramping, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
  • Feeling feverish
  • Insomnia
  • Agitation, depression, anxiety
  • Delusion, hallucinations
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • High blood pressure

In the case of some opioids, most notably methadone, withdrawal symptoms can be fatal when not properly supervised and treated.

It is best to check into a medical detox facility and go through drug rehabilitation in order to successfully withdraw from and quit opioids for good.

Why is Heroin Considered an Option?

There is no getting around pricing and availability when it comes to any market. Heroin is often cheaper and easier to obtain than prescription pain medications. It is manufactured illegally all over the world, but major growing regions for opium poppies have gotten closer and closer to the United States. As it stands, much of the heroin production occurs in Asia and Latin America, but there are opium poppy fields located within the U.S.

Drugs are big business for cartels, drug lords and dealers. They consider pricing and the market just as any businessperson would, only their commodity is human misery and linked inextricably to violence. Pricing for heroin has been kept low – lower than that of prescription drugs. In some locations in America, heroin costs 10 times less than OxyContin.

Heroin is also easier to find than prescription painkillers. Unlike prescription pill production, heroin production is not regulated by a government organization. This means that those who provide heroin produce as much as they can and sell it through many different, unregulated sources. When an addict can’t find black market pain pills, they can easily find heroin on the street.

In the end, neither heroin nor opioid painkillers are the solution. Addiction in any form causes the individual’s life to spin out of control. One may find oneself doing something to get a hit that one would never have considered doing previously. If you or someone you love is addicted to prescription painkillers or heroin, seek treatment before it is too late.


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