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Heroin Addiction Recovery: How to Improve Your Chances of Long-Term Sobriety

The United States continues to struggle with the high costs of its current drug crisis, with overdoses having passed gun violence and car crashes to become the leading cause of death for Americans aged 55 and under. 

These overdose deaths are largely being driven by opioids, which, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), accounted for nearly 70 percent of all overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2017. And of those deaths involving opioids, more than 30 percent were heroin-related.

Heroin is one of the most addictive drugs in existence; many people often become addicted after just one use. As prescription opioids become more restricted, people already addicted to painkillers are instead turning to heroin as it becomes cheaper and easier to obtain. Unfortunately, one of the reasons behind this drop in price is the addition of the lethally potent synthetic opioid fentanyl.

Heroin may be more dangerous now than ever before, which only highlights the importance of seeking help for heroin abuse and addiction treatment as soon as possible to start working toward recovery and sobriety.

Heroin can be extremely difficult to quit and has one of the highest relapse rates. Fortunately, with the help of heroin addiction recovery treatment, there are many ways to improve your chances of long-term sobriety. 

How Can Choosing Medical Detox Help in Heroin Recovery?

Medical detoxification is the process of removing any and all traces of drugs, alcohol, and any associated toxins from someone’s system with the goal of achieving sobriety, getting them mentally and physically stabilized, treating acute intoxication, and trying to stop any further damage caused by having these substances remain in their body. In the specific case of heroin, a medically supervised detox is especially critical, as it is likely these days that someone will have ingested heroin containing fentanyl

Heroin may be a powerful drug, but as an opioid, its withdrawal symptoms are much milder than other addictive substances, such as alcohol or benzodiazepines, which can be life-threatening. Opioid withdrawal, on the other hand, while still very unpleasant and difficult to deal with, is rarely a life-threatening process, the common symptoms of which include:

  • Cravings
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Excessive sweating
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Tremors
  • Fever and chills
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Exhaustion
  • Mood swings
  • Muscle pain

However, to give yourself the best chances of lasting sobriety, heroin detox should still never be attempted alone or without some level of professional medical supervision. Depending on how much heroin someone was using, how they were taking it, and for how long, heroin withdrawal can last anywhere from 10 days to weeks, which can feel like forever when dealing with what has been described as “the worst flu of your life,” coupled with incredibly intense cravings.

If undertaken alone, the risk of mid-detox relapse is high, and certain symptoms, if left unmonitored, could prove dangerous. Between the sweating, vomiting, and diarrhea, it is easy for someone to become dehydrated to the point where they require medical attention.

In the safe and controlled environment of a professional medical detox center, doctors can help manage potential complications as well as ease the worst of the flu-like symptoms by administering common detox medications

Some detox treatment centers will also utilize medication-assisted treatment (MAT) in the form of opioid maintenance therapy, helping wean users off of heroin while simultaneously easing cravings by replacing heroin with much weaker, safer opioid alternatives, including buprenorphine, Suboxone, and methadone. The idea is to then slowly taper down the dosage of these drugs with the goal of eventual sobriety. 

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Why Is an Addiction Recovery Treatment Program Important?

As important as detox is, the process is essentially pointless unless it is followed by ongoing care in an addiction recovery treatment program. Detox clears your body of heroin but does nothing to guarantee long-term or even short-term sobriety, as, according to a 2010 medical research study, more than 90 percent of people dependent on heroin who detoxed without follow-up treatment relapsed shortly afterward, with 60 percent of them using again within a week of going through detox.   

To improve your chances of avoiding relapse in the long-term, addiction recovery treatment is essential, as is ensuring that you are in treatment long enough for it to be effective, which, according to research by NIDA, is a minimum of 90 days. 

Only in a recovery program will you be able to address all the aspects related to your heroin addiction, including the underlying issues at the root of it. Once you have gained a better understanding of your addiction and what has contributed to unhealthy, addictive behaviors, you can start to replace them with more effective and positive coping skills to maintain sobriety.

Working toward recovery in a rehabilitation program involves collaboration between yourself, doctors, clinicians, and staff, from creating a treatment plan that has been customized with therapies that will best meet your individual needs to playing an active role in participating in these therapies and treatments. 

Common program elements that you can expect to experience at least some of include:

Dual diagnosis treatment is often of particular importance. Dual diagnosis is when someone has a co-occuring disorder, usually a mental illness, that has become inextricably linked with their heroin addiction. 

This means that treating only one or the other is not going to be successful in the long-term. Someone treated for heroin addiction but not depression will most likely be driven to use again to try and self-medicate against the symptoms of their depression. Both need to be treated at the same in dual diagnosis treatment. 

Relapse Prevention and Aftercare

A sign pointing towards long-term sobriety from heroin

Relapse prevention planning involves working to create strategies to improve your chances of avoiding relapse once out of treatment. This can mean learning to identify your mental, emotional, and environmental triggers as well as how best to either avoid or cope with them in a way that does not involve lapsing back into heroin use.

One major way people can actively work on maintaining long-term sobriety is by joining an aftercare support group, such as Narcotics Anonymous or other such groups that can provide a strong network of support for you to turn to once you have finished with your treatment program.

Some treatment centers also offer aftercare in the form of alumni networks that help people who went through treatment together remain in touch so that they can continue to provide each other with motivation and support to stay sober. 

Addiction is a disease that requires lifelong management, and it is never going to be easy. But gaining the proper tools and understanding during treatment as well as making sure you have a strong circle of support to ask for help if you need it will all work together to improve your chances at long-term sobriety.

Sources

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018, August 09). Overdose Death Rates. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/trends-statistics/overdose-death-rates

Sinha, S., Lieberman, Z., & Davis, L. (2018, December 19). Heroin Addiction Explained: How Opioids Hijack the Brain. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/us/addiction-heroin-opioids.html

Smyth, B. P., Barry, J., Keenan, E., & Ducray, K. (2010, June). Lapse and Relapse Following Inpatient Treatment of Opiate Dependence. Retrieved June 26, 2018, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20669601

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