The relapse rate for all substance abuse disorders ranges from 40 to 60%, but the rate for heroin specifically is as high as 90%, or even greater.

There is no doubt that heroin addiction is difficult to treat. It’s one of the most difficult addictions to recover from, but it is possible. It’s important that people struggling with this addiction know why people who are addicted to heroin.

The Heroin Epidemic

A big component of understanding why people who are addicted to heroin relapse requires a general understanding of how heroin works in the brain. It’s an incredibly powerful drug, and even after only using it one time, people may become addicted.

When you take heroin, it binds to your brain’s opioid receptors. Like prescription painkillers, it then pushes a flood of dopamine into your system that creates intense pleasure and even euphoria. Your brain is wired to want to continue participating in activities that bring pleasure, and the effects of heroin are much more impactful than any natural pleasure-seeking activity could be. Your brain keeps compelling you to seek out this stimulus again and again after you try heroin.

After using heroin over an extended period, your brain adjusts to its presence and that’s when you develop a tolerance. Once you have a tolerance for heroin or other opioids, without them, you may become ill or experience negative side effects.

It’s all a dangerous cycle, but one of the biggest reasons why people who are addicted to heroin relapse is the incredibly addictive nature of this drug.

What Is a Relapse?

If you do successfully stop using heroin, you’re then at risk for a relapse. When people who are addicted to heroin relapse, it means they resume using the drug after a period of stopping.

Many substance abuse experts believe that relapse with heroin and other substances is the result of a set of triggers and underlying problems that don’t go away just because someone stops using drugs.

The relapse rate for all substance abuse disorders ranges from 40 to 60 percent, but the rate for heroin specifically is as high as 90 percent or greater. Heroin and alcohol are the two substances with the highest relapse rates.

Warning Signs When Heroin Addicts Relapse

Some of the warning signs when people relapse or when they’re close to relapse can include going through a stressful or troubling event, denying that they need help or starting to exhibit other compulsive behaviors, such as overeating. They may also become extremely emotional, feel out of control or have negative thoughts about their recovery.

When people stop participating in their aftercare program or their 12-step group, it’s a big red flag that a relapse could be coming or has already started.

Why Heroin Addicts Relapse

One of the biggest reasons why people relapse is the physiological power of heroin. The drug alters the structure and pathways of the brain, which can make it difficult to discontinue use. People may also experience some deterioration of the brain’s white matter, which can make it more difficult to respond to stress and make decisions, as well as regulate behavior.

Also, what has been seen as a trend in the past decade or so is that heroin isn’t often the first drug people abuse. Instead, their drug abuse stems from prescription painkiller abuse. Ultimately, people move to heroin because it’s cheaper and more available. That means they’ve probably been abusing drugs for a very long time, and it’s not only changed their brain, but it’s also become an ingrained part of their lifestyle.

Not addressing underlying issues is another reason why people relapse. People who start using drugs often have a mental disorder that co-occurs along with their addiction. It’s essential that when you’re seeking a recovery program for heroin, you choose one that integrates dual diagnosis treatment. If you don’t treat the underlying issues or mental health disorders you suffer from, it’s going to be almost impossible to remain drug-free.

In some cases, people in recovery relapse because after completing a treatment program, they go directly back into the same environments and social settings where they were using and this triggers them to use again. It’s important the people avoid the triggers that led to their heroin dependency and addiction in the first place, while also maintaining the proper support network and participating in aftercare programs.

The reasons why people relapse are varied and complicated. However, relapse isn’t a sign of failure; it’s a common setback. It’s important for people who relapse to understand setbacks happen and realize that their recovery is a long-term journey.

If you or a loved one live with addiction or are using drugs recreationally and want to stop, The Recovery Village® can help. Reach out to one of our representatives today to learn how you can start on your path to recovery.

a woman is standing with her arms crossed.
Editor – Megan Hull
Megan Hull is a content specialist who edits, writes and ideates content to help people find recovery. Read more
Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with 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 providers.