While people quit using for a number of reasons, when it comes to cocaine, many of those prompts have to do with health. That’s because cocaine is an incredibly damaging substance that can ruin vital systems within the body, especially if the abuse continues for a long period of time.

If you’re abusing cocaine, it might be hard to even consider quitting, but continuing to use the drug could be really hard on your body. Here’s what cocaine can do, and why you should think about entering a treatment program that can help:

How Prevalent is Cocaine Abuse?

The number of people who abuse cocaine in the United States is declining. That’s due, in part, to legislative action. According to the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, countries long known as major producers of cocaine have put innovative strategies in place that have reduced the amount of cocaine available for purchase. That could mean that fewer people are taking cocaine because they simply can’t get it anymore.

But it’s possible that those declining numbers are due to the courageous efforts of people who are addicted, and the families that love them. After all, each person who makes the decision to quit brings usage numbers in the U.S. down. Every little step helps the whole country heal.

Mental Health Effects

When cocaine enters the brain and bloodstream, it triggers a series of chemical reactions that create a sense of euphoria. The circuits that normally regulate feelings of pleasure are overloaded, and the signals they normally send are amplified.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, long-term cocaine abuse can cause some of those circuits to “burn out” and become a lot less effective. They’ve been strained and pushed for too long, and they simply cannot function at an ideal level. When that happens, it’s common for those who use cocaine to feel: depressed, apathetic, sedated, and numb.

These sorts of changes can lead to relapse, if individuals return to drugs to feel a hint of emotion. These changes can also make it difficult for them to think about entering a rehab program. They’ve lost the capacity for hopefulness, so they may not understand how and why their lives will get better.

Physical Effects

  • An Aging Brain

    Cocaine’s brain impacts don’t end with depression and apathy. The drug can also impact the very structure of the brain, mimicking the natural processes the brain goes through with advancing age.

    According to researchers at the University of Cambridge, most people lose a type of tissue in the brain known as grey matter as they age. The loss of this kind of tissue could be responsible for many of the mental changes commonly associated with age, including confusion and short-term memory loss.

    In a study at Cambridge, researchers found that those who abused cocaine lost grey matter at a rate that was twice the amount seen in healthy people who didn’t use the drug. That could mean that those who use it long-term could struggle with cognitive tasks much earlier in life than they should. As a result, working, raising children, or handling the hassles of everyday life could become challenging.

  • Blood Vessel Damage

    While changes in the brain might be easy to detect, some types of cocaine-related damage can remain hidden from view, tucked away deep within the body’s vital organs and necessary circuitry. Many of those changes have to do with the cardiovascular system.

    The body’s network of blood vessels, all supplied with fluid by the action of the heart, keep cells nourished with the elements and fluid they need to survive. Each beat of the heart also helps to whisk away byproducts, so the cells can get rid of the things they don’t need to stay functional. Cocaine can upend this process, researchers at Harvard say, because even small doses of the drug tend to make blood vessels constrict. The heart might still be beating at a normal rate, and it might still be trying to push and pull blood, but it’s doing work against a great deal of resistance.

    That could mean blood begins to pull within the body, which could lead to clots. Or, it could mean that cells can’t get the things they need, and they can’t get rid of the waste they don’t need. As a result, cells can die off. Sometimes these problems come with pain. Someone using the drug might feel a twinge in the chest or a feeling of pins in their fingertips, but sometimes the damage occurs without any pain at all.

  • Body Temperature Changes

    In the 1990s, researchers conducted research involving rats and cocaine, looking for evidence of the damage that the drug can do. Their findings indicated that cocaine can result in major damage in the body, putting the user’s life at risk. For example, in one study published in the journal Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior, researchers gave rats a dose of cocaine and placed them on a treadmill. Other rats went on a treadmill without cocaine in their system. At the end of an exercise session, researchers found that the body temperature of the rats on cocaine ran much higher than of the other rats.

    While people might not use a treadmill while they’re high, they might engage in other activities that are strenuous, such as:

    • Running to catch a bus
    • Lifting groceries
    • Having sex
    • Picking up a child

    These and other related activities could result in a big spike in body temperature, which can result in blood clots that could lead to the brain and cause a stroke. Fainting due to overheating can also occur.

  • Gastrointestinal Upset

    Another hidden problem involving cocaine abuse concerns the gastrointestinal tract. This system helps the body to pull nutrients from food, and expel anything that the body doesn’t require for ideal maintenance. It’s a very sophisticated system, and it’s deeply dependent on blood flow.

    Since cocaine disturbs the cardiovascular system, it also has a ripple effect in the gut. Those digestive systems don’t have the blood flow they need in order to stay healthy, and they begin to break down. According to an article in the International Journal of Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics, it’s not unusual for people addicted to cocaine to develop gastrointestinal problems, including blockages. In addition, some people experience gangrene, caused by reduced blood flow and a slowed-down immune system. These are very serious, life-threatening problems that often require emergency surgery.

Changes in Body Fat

While a gastrointestinal problem could make people lose weight, particularly if the issue impacts the body’s ability to pull nutrients and sugars out of food, cocaine also seems to have the ability to change the way the body actually digests food and stores it for later, according to researchers at the University of Cambridge.

It’s been long assumed that people who use cocaine simply don’t take in enough food to keep their bodies nourished, and as a result, they tend to become alarmingly thin. Researchers at Cambridge found that people who use and abuse cocaine actually should weigh much more, as they tend to eat high-fat, high-calorie foods while they’re under the influence. And yet, their bodies don’t seem to process the food in the right way, and they get thinner and thinner.

American culture tends to place a high value on losing weight and staying thin. It’s a goal most people in this country work very hard to achieve. But a very low body weight could come with unintended consequences. It can make pregnancy harder, for example, and those who are alarmingly thin sometimes struggle with broken bones after minor falls. A severe dip in weight can also impact the heart, the liver, and the kidneys. For some, it can be quite serious.

Getting Help For Long-Term Cocaine Use

It’s clear that the long-term use of cocaine is very hard on vital systems. Each hit that you take could be simply catastrophic to your long-term health. But it’s also clear that you can recover from a cocaine addiction. In a comprehensive treatment program, you can learn how to handle the triggers that seem to push you to use, and you can learn how to focus on sources of pleasure that have nothing to do with drugs. You can connect with others who use, and you can draw upon the strength of those who have recovered. You can also work with a medical team on your physical health, so you can feel good in your body once more.

In 2008, about 3.2 percent of all people who entered substance abuse treatment programs did so because they were addicted to cocaine, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

You’re not alone. You can join a group of courageous people and get your life back on track once more. At The Recovery Village, we’d like to help you. We offer a multidisciplinary approach to substance abuse recovery, meaning that we think it takes a village of professionals to help each client improve. Our work begins with a comprehensive evaluation, followed by the development of a specialized treatment program. You’ll be offered therapy that’s just right for you and your history, and your program will change as you change.

We know that choosing the right program is important, and we want you to be comfortable with your decision. Just call us, and we’ll answer any questions you have. We’re here 24 hours a day, and the call is free. We hope to hear from you soon.

Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.