Cocaine is one of the easiest drugs to become addicted to, and one of the most difficult to get free from. Many people have become addicted by using cocaine only one time – it generally takes some fairly regular and dedicated use to become addicted to most drugs, including heroin.
Cocaine is derived from the leaves of the coco plant, which is native to South America, and is generally seen as a white powder or crystalline substance. Although it has a small, legitimate use as a prescription pain reliever, most cocaine is used illegally as a recreational drug. Because of its highly addictive nature, it rapidly takes over the addict’s life, which will come to revolve around getting the next cocaine high. Cocaine can be injected, smoked, or snorted.
How Cocaine Affects the Mind and Body
One of the neurotransmitters our brains produce is dopamine, which causes us to feel good. In ordinary life, we get a jolt of dopamine from our neurons when something makes us happy, like when our children smile at us or when our dog gives us an enthusiastic greeting. Just coming home after a long day and getting a welcome home kiss from your spouse will release dopamine.
In the ordinary course of things, the released dopamine is quickly ‘sucked’ back into the neurons, and your mental activity returns to normal. When cocaine is used, the dopamine is not taken back into the neurons, but continues to cause euphoric feelings. Over time, the ability of the neurons to function normally will be affected, and cocaine will be required in order for the addict to feel pleasure at all.
Very alarmingly, users of cocaine lose grey matter from their frontal lobe. The frontal lobe might be called the workhorse of our brains as it deals with thinking, problem solving, and decision making. The longer cocaine is used, the greater the loss of brain matter.
Cocaine also affects the body in numerous ways:
- Causes an accelerated heartbeat and constricts the blood vessels, which has sometimes resulted in fatal heart attacks.
- Raises blood pressure, increasing the chance of stroke.
- Gangrene of the bowel can occur.
- Headaches and nausea are common.
- Malnourishment occurs from a lessened desire for food.
Heart attacks have occurred in people who have only tried cocaine one time, so the serious effects of this drug do not even have to be cumulative. In addition, many users combine cocaine use with other intoxicants such as alcohol or heroin to magnify the high, which also magnifies the potential for fatal side effects.
Breaking Away from Cocaine
Cocaine does not cause the severe withdrawal symptoms that heroin addiction will cause, but it still does cause some discomfort such as itching, disruption of sleep, and depression. Probably the most serious effect is the craving for the drug. Some addicts in treatment become so depressed that they commit, or try to commit, suicide.
Treatment can be more difficult as there are fewer ways to medically treat the addiction than are possible with those weaning off of heroin. A few medications have been tried to help alleviate the psychological withdrawal symptoms, but one seems to hold promise in that it works to get the dopamine levels stabilized. Methylphenidate (Ritalin) is usually used to treat ‘hyperactivity’, but appears to have the ability to slow down the release of dopamine to help the addict adjust. Although one dose has been adequate in test studies, this drug can also be addictive, so caution must be used by those prescribing it.
Treatment facilities are available for either an inpatient or outpatient approach. In most cases, those who have a short-term use of cocaine will often do quite well in outpatient centers. For people who have a long-standing habit, however, the structured setting of an inpatient facility will usually be the best course of action. A combination of detoxification, controlled environment, and intensive counseling are required for those who have used cocaine for years.
As with many other addictions, the involvement of family members can be very important and have a direct bearing on a successful outcome. Regardless of whether an inpatient or outpatient rehab is chosen, the ‘recovered’ cocaine addict may have to seek treatment several times before they are able to break free entirely of the drug.
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