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Can Prescription Drugs Lead To Heroin Addiction?

David Hunter, MA.Ed, LPC

Medically reviewed by

David Hunter, MA.Ed, LPC

March 29, 2019

It’s been shown that prescription opioid use and abuse can lead to heroin addiction for some people. Prescription pain medication and heroin both produce the same effects in the brain. Getting help for addiction to prescription opioids can help prevent someone from eventually turning to heroin abuse and addiction.

It’s no secret that the United States is experiencing an opioid epidemic. More specifically, people are abusing and becoming addicted to opioids, with heroin use increasing at an alarming rate. From 2006 to 2012, people trying heroin for the first time went from 90,000 to 156,000 thousand.

With the growing use of heroin comes an increase in addiction rates as well as overdose and death rates. Heroin is an incredibly addictive drug, and most people who abuse it find themselves addicted.

What public health officials are discovering is that most people who use and abuse heroin didn’t start out with heroin. Rather, they start out by using opioid drugs either as prescribed or in an abusive way and become addicted to the effects of opiates.

This means that most people’s’ first experiences with opioids are through drugs that are prescribed by a medical doctor.

The Link Between Prescription Medication And Heroin

According to Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA), between six and seven million Americans ages 12 and older have abused a prescription pain medication. They also estimate that around 5,500 people abuse pain medications every day.

What’s more, around four out of five people addicted to heroin started out by abusing prescription pain drugs. The longer a person uses and abuses prescription opiates, the more likely he or she is to turn to other drugs like heroin.

Common pain medications that are abused include Oxycontin, Vicodin, and Demerol. All of these drugs are opiates and produce similar effects.

Both heroin and prescription opiates work the same way in the brain. Opiates bind to the opioid receptors in the brain and decrease feelings of pain. In addition to blocking pain, opioids can also cause feelings of euphoria as well as an overall sense of calm.

Opioids also work by flooding the brain with dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is part of the reward system in the brain. Excess amounts of dopamine in the brain can lead to increased pleasure euphoria.

The brain cannot distinguish between a prescription opioid and heroin. Both types of drugs elicit the same effects and feelings. This can result in many people addicted to pain medication to seek out heroin as an alternative.

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How Prescription Drugs Can Lead To Heroin Addiction

People who are prescribed opiates as painkillers do not always become addicted to their medication. Additionally, many people who are not prescribed prescription drugs abuse pain medication.

Opiates are incredibly powerful drugs and can be highly addictive in nature. This addiction can begin innocently. For example, someone may be prescribed prescription opiates to combat the pain of a broken leg. They may then begin to realize they like the effects of the drug and start taking more of the drug more often.

After several weeks of taking more of the drug than prescribed, someone can become dependent on opioids. The person may run out of the drug and be unable to get a refill. This can lead to obtaining and using medication illegally. Eventually, a person may turn to heroin in an attempt to find a cheaper and more easily accessible form of opiates.

The longer a person abuses prescription opioids, the more likely he or she is to develop a tolerance to the drug. This means that more of the drug will need to be taken to feel the desired effect. Taking more of the drug can result in physical dependence, which can ultimately lead to addiction.

It’s important to know that only a small amount of people who are prescribed opiates will end up addicted to them. Even when prescription pain drugs are abused, only a few abusers will go on to heroin. According to NIDA, only four percent of prescription abusers progress to using heroin within a five-year span.

Recovering From Heroin Addiction

The opioid epidemic is receiving more attention than ever, and as a result, more treatment options are becoming available to those addicted to opioids such as heroin. Most people addicted to heroin will need a formal and comprehensive treatment program to overcome addiction.

Inpatient rehab programs have shown great success in helping people overcome opioid addiction. Inpatient programs offer personalized and intensive treatment that is focused on long-term recovery.

To learn more about how prescription drugs can lead to heroin addiction, contact our treatment specialists today.

National Institute on Drug Abuse - Prescription Opioids and Heroin

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - Today’s Heroin Epidemic

National Institute on Drug Abuse - Heroin - How Can Prescription Drugs Lead to Heroin Use?

The National Alliance of Advocates for Buprenorphine Treatment - How do opioids work in the brain?

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