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What Are the Chances of Recovering From Heroin Addiction?

Heroin addiction is a chronic disease that is treatable, but usually requires detoxification and a long-term rehabilitation plan.1 While recovery is possible, rates of heroin relapse can be daunting. However, there are medical programs, aftercare strategies, and various other steps one can take to maximize their chance of recovering from heroin addiction

What Makes Staying off Heroin So Difficult?

To understand the concept of recovery from addiction and recovery from heroin addiction, two questions must be addressed:2 

  • Does recovery require absolute abstinence from all illicit drugs and alcohol?
  • Is recovery defined solely in terms of drug use or does it extend to other areas of a person’s life and functioning?

While recovery requires total abstinence, which means there is zero tolerance for occasional consumption, that does not define it. Recovery is an ongoing process, not an endpoint, which is why it cannot be defined merely as abstinence. It goes beyond abstinence: individuals in recovery experience it as a ‘new life’.2 

Nonetheless, heroin addiction is a chronic relapsing disease, meaning that relapse during recovery is a prescient threat, which makes it difficult for individuals to stay off heroin. 

Additionally, social stigma against heroin addicts, usually stemming from the belief that addiction is a moral failing rather than a medical condition, can lead to increased stress and difficulty for those in recovery from heroin addiction.2

All this can have a detrimental effect on individuals’ chances of recovering from heroin addiction in its own right, lowering the overall heroin recovery rate. As difficult as overcoming the symptoms of withdrawal during the detoxification stage may be, it is changing deeply rooted behaviors and staying off heroin that is the real challenge.

Heroin addict recovery rate: odds of beating heroin addiction

Heroin Recovery Rates and Facts

For people treated for substance use disorders, the relapse rate is between 40 to 60%, which is similar to the relapse rate for other chronic diseases.1 Many recovering individuals struggling to overcome heroin addiction face relapses which may threaten their long-term recovery, but even if relapse does happen, it does not mean complete failure. Instead, it should be viewed as a normal part of recovery from heroin addiction, which should serve as a sign for resumed, modified, or new treatment.1 

However, there is a considerable risk associated with heroin relapsing: that of a fatal or near-fatal overdose. Namely, when a person develops tolerance to heroin, their bodies become adapted to a certain dosage of the drug. If they then stop using and stay off the drug over a certain period of time, they can easily overdose, which is when the drug produces discomfort, life-threatening symptoms or death. This can happen because a person has lost their tolerance, i.e. they are no longer adapted to the same level of drug exposure, making their usual dose excessive.1

Recovery from heroin addiction often requires multiple episodes of treatment. Even if relapses do occur, treatment should be reinstated or adjusted accordingly. It is vital that treatment programs be engaging enough to prevent individuals from leaving treatment prematurely and keep them in treatment for an adequate period of time.3 

A person is likely to have better odds of beating heroin addiction and staying off heroin in the long term if they manage to stop drug abuse and return to productive functioning in their private and professional life, which are the two key goals of heroin addiction treatment.3

Factors Which Improve the Odds of Beating Heroin Addiction

Just like other chronic diseases, heroin addiction can be managed successfully if patients receive ongoing care and certain requirements are met.3 The following factors can greatly impact the outcome of treatment and improve a person’s chances of recovering from heroin addiction:3

  • The treatment is readily available so the person can start right away.
  • There is a tailored and comprehensive treatment plan which is medication-assisted.
  • The treatment program lasts for an adequate amount of time.
  • Treatment is assessed continually and modified as necessary to ensure it meets the changing needs of the recovering individual.
  • The individual has access to a high standard of follow-up care rehabilitation.

Additional considerations

It is also worth noting that treatment does not need to be voluntary to be effective, especially since most persons with a heroin addiction tend to be confrontational and possibly in denial of their addiction prior to the detoxification stage.3 

For individuals to make a transition into a productive life of sobriety, they also need emotional support and professional guidance. This is particularly important during the process of rehabilitation in an outpatient, short-, or long-term residential inpatient treatment following detox. 

Additionally, treatment needs to attend to all the needs of an individual and address their associated medical, psychological, social, vocational, and legal problems, not just his or her drug abuse.3

Factors Which Hinder a Recovering Individual’s Progress

Relapse is the leading factor that hinders progress in recovering individuals. The most common triggers for relapse are:1

  • Stress cues linked to a person’s drug use and experiences.
  • Contact with or exposure to drugs, which is associated with people, places, things, and moods. 
  • Sharp confrontations that arouse strong emotions and appear judgmental may also be a trigger. This often happens in an outpatient setting, especially when the recovering individual is not prepared to face relapse-triggering painful feelings.4

All of this may negatively impact struggling individuals’ desire to seek new or continued treatment and lessen their chances of recovering from heroin addiction. However, it’s important to note that risk and protective factors can have different effects depending on a person’s age, gender, ethnicity, culture, and environment.5

Nonetheless, the key problem with heroin addiction is the fact that it makes otherwise helpful brain processes work against a person. Namely, the drug hijacks the brain’s pleasure circuit and causes long-term changes to the brain’s normal hardwiring, originally designed to reward healthy behaviors, resist temptations, and escape dangers.6 This further reinforces the drug-seeking, drug-taking behavior.7

Sex and Gender Differences in Recovery Rate

When it comes to heroin addiction, substance use disorder progresses differently for women. In women, the progression may be quicker and the problems more severe. For instance, they are more at risk of dying from overdose during the first few years of injecting heroin, which might be because they may also be more susceptible to craving and relapse and more likely to combine prescription drugs with heroin.9 On the other hand, those women who do not overdose within that time are more likely to survive in the long term.9

Women also tend to use and respond to drugs differently. Women are thought to experience more severe withdrawal symptoms, be more susceptible to craving, and more likely to relapse, which are the crucial phases in the addiction cycle.9

In terms of relapse and recovery rates for heroin addiction, the variation between the sexes is not only due to the differing biological processes involved, but also to a complex interaction between the following:10

  • Genetics
  • Epigenetics
  • Sociocultural factors
  • Environmental conditions

This may be why women may encounter unique obstacles to effective treatment.9 

How Co-Occurring Disorders Affect the Odds of Beating Heroin Addiction

For both sexes, co-occurring mental health conditions should be treated simultaneously with substance use disorder (SUD) to improve the likelihood of success, recovery rates and recovery time significantly.9 Preferably, this should be done using a stage-wise approach tailored to the person’s stage of readiness for treatment. Relapse prevention and skill building are considered to be critical components of comprehensive continuing care for SUD and co-occurring mental health disorders.11

The key goals of continuing care are as follows:11

• Sustaining abstinence and continuing recovery

• Mastering community living, developing vocational skills, and obtaining gainful employment

• Assuming increasing responsibility and resolving family difficulties

• Deepening psychological understanding

• Consolidating changes in values and identity

Does Relapse Reduce Chances of Recovering From Heroin?

Relapse is defined as a return to drug use after prolonged abstinence within an attempt to stop.1 Relapse can be a source of frustration for the treatment-seeking individual struggling with heroin addiction and for those closest to them, which can diminish their odds of beating heroin addiction. 

However, experts agree that relapse means that a person requires resumed, modified, or new treatment which is more likely to improve their chances of recovering from heroin addiction.1 If relapse to drug abuse does happen, it is likely a sign that the treatment should be reinstated or adjusted, or that an alternative approach to treatment is needed.3 Treatment programs may also help individuals learn and prepare for tempting situations and triggers.4Relapse prevention relies on instructing individuals how to avoid triggers and taking action to interfere with potential triggers in a treatment setting to help individuals stay in recovery and stay off heroin.1 The patterns of continuous abstinence and long-term addiction management and recovery are still unknown. However, the risk of relapse and return to heroin use is thought to be minimized even for long-term users after three or five years of continuous abstinence, although it does not disappear altogether.2 Prolonged abstinence is among the key factors for heroin recovery.

Frequently Asked Questions

How to Improve a Person’s Chances of Recovering From Heroin Addiction?

Comprehensive treatment options are designed to support individuals counteract heroin addiction’s disruptive effects on the brain and behavior and regain control of their lives.1 The focus of newer treatment programs is on relapse prevention.1

Behavioral therapy, considered to be an essential component of effective treatment which can greatly improve a person’s odds of recovering from heroin addiction, can take the following forms:1

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy
  • Contingency management
  • Motivational enhancement therapy
  • Family therapy
  • Twelve-step facilitation

Medication therapy as part of medically assisted detoxification aimed at managing the withdrawal stage and long-term treatment plan help individuals’ efforts to stay off heroin and in recovery relies on the following:3

  • Methadone
  • Buprenorphine
  • Naloxone
  • Extended-release naltrexone

Medication-assisted therapy is used to help the brain adapt gradually to the absence of the drug.1 It acts slowly to help prevent drug cravings and have a calming effect so persons can focus on counseling and other psychotherapies.

What Are the Stages of Recovery From Heroin Addiction?

There are differences between early, middle, and late stages of treatment, each of which is designed to address the recovering individual’s changing needs and circumstances.4 These define the stages of recovery a person is in. Heroin recovery rate can only increase if recovering individuals go through all these stages, and continue treatment despite relapsing.

What Is the Recovery Process for Heroin Addiction?

Chronic heroin use changes the physical structure and physiology of the brain, creating long-term neuronal and hormonal imbalances which are not easily reversed.7 Addiction comes with serious consequences, which is why staying off heroin is so challenging and stopping drug use is just one part of a long and complex recovery process.1 

For a person to make lasting recovery, they need a comprehensive treatment plan designed to address the needs of the whole person.1 This is more likely to result in better efforts on behalf of patients to accomplish their treatment plan goals which may be essential to increasing the overall heroin recovery rate nationwide.8

How Long Does It Take Dopamine to Recover?

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter present in brain regions that regulate emotion, motivation, and the feeling of pleasure.12 Heroin floods the brain’s reward circuit which reinforces the activity that led to the surge of pleasure.11 Other regions of the brain create conditioned associations: a lasting record that associates these good feelings with the circumstances and environment in which they occur.12 This is the mechanism behind relapsing which may diminish struggling individuals’ odds of beating heroin addiction.

For dopamine levels to get back to normal, the person must first go through a medically supervised, medication-assisted detoxification stage as part of the recovery and rehabilitation process. The duration of treatment depends on individual factors. It may require years of abstinence combined with other forms of therapy for a person’s chances of recovering from heroin addiction to improve drastically.2

Can Brain Chemistry Return to Normal?

Heroin disrupts neurotransmission, which is the process of communication between neurons (nerve cells) in the brain. The drug mimics the effect of neurotransmitters and amplifies opioid receptor activity.14 Heroin tolerance, dependence, and addiction are manifestations of brain changes caused by chronic heroin abuse. 

A person’s struggle for recovery is in great part a struggle to overcome the effects of these changes. The abnormalities in the brain that produce dependence and result from chronic use of heroin appear to resolve after detoxification, within days or weeks after opioid use stops.12 And while medications used in medication-assisted treatment act on the same brain structures and processes as heroin, they have protective or normalizing effects.12

However, the brain shows remarkable ability to recover, at least in part, after a long abstinence from drugs, including heroin.1 

How Long Can Recovery Take?

For a heroin addiction treatment plan to be effective and for a person to stop drug abuse and resume a productive life, the plan should be comprehensive and matched to their individual needs. An in-depth assessment which takes into account the person’s history with heroin use may be necessary. Treatment needs to last an adequate amount of time, as this, too, is critical to a person’s ultimate success in returning to productive functioning, as well as staying off heroin.3 

While individuals struggling with heroin addiction face different challenges depending on their circumstances, what matters is that heroin addiction is treatable, and help is available. Has your loved one transitioned to heroin addiction? Start exploring treatment options today.

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