Non-fatal heroin overdose can cause several different types of brain damage as well as other kinds of damage throughout the body.
As of 2015, there are now more deaths from drug overdoses than from motor vehicle accidents. Experts estimate that there are five non-fatal overdoses for every fatal overdose.
Many people mistakenly assume that if a person survives a drug overdose, the person will bounce back and be fine, but that assumption is incorrect. When a person survives a heroin overdose, there can be devastating damages to the brain and other organs. Heroin overdoses tripled from 2015 to 2019, and these overdoses are now a public health issue.
How Heroin Harms the Body
Heroin works by attaching itself to opioid receptors on nerve cells throughout the body, including the brain, gastrointestinal tract, spinal cord, and other organs. Once attached, the heroin produces feelings of euphoria. The substance also changes how the brain senses pain and slows down vital functions, like breathing and heart rate.
When a person takes enough heroin to overdose, those changes can lead to coma or death from a loss of consciousness brought about by significantly suppressed heart rate and breathing. The body can “forget” to breathe. This consequence is the reason why the damage most heroin overdose survivors experience is from a lack of oxygen.
Toxic Brain Injury from Opioid Overdose
People who do not die from heroin overdose often sustain a toxic brain injury, which has two forms:
- Anoxic brain injury happens when the brain does not get any oxygen.
- Hypoxic brain injury is from the brain receiving some, but not enough, oxygen.
The amount of brain damage the person will develop depends on how long the brain went without enough oxygen.
The frontal lobe of the brain tends to suffer the most from oxygen loss damage. This area of the brain controls executive function, like problem-solving, emotional control, attention, organizing, and planning. Toxic brain injury can impact the brain in several other ways, as well:
- The use of heroin can alter the brain’s concentration of chemicals like hormones and neurotransmitters, which can have wide-ranging effects.
- Heroin can cause direct damage and injury to brain cells, leading to brain cell death.
- The drug can disrupt nutrients that brain tissue needs to survive and function correctly.
- Brain tissue can sustain permanent damage from the lack of oxygen received during an overdose.
Acquired Brain Injury
Some medical professionals use the term “acquired brain injury” to refer to the type of brain damage one can suffer from substance misuse, as opposed to the traumatic brain injury one can sustain from something like a car accident. Regardless of the triggering condition, the symptoms of a traumatic brain injury are similar to those of an acquired brain injury.
With anoxic brain injury—complete oxygen deprivation—the death of brain cells can occur in as few as five or six minutes. Many instances of anoxic brain injury are fatal.
Hypoxic brain injury, in which the brain is getting at least some oxygen, generally happens with non-fatal heroin overdoses. Hypoxic acquired brain injury can cause cognitive impairment, including:
- Impulsiveness in decision-making
- Delayed reaction time
- Impaired functional memory
- Poor executive functioning
These cognitive issues can affect the heroin overdose survivor’s ability to function on a daily basis. This difficulty in functioning can negatively affect one’s social relationships and the ability to get and keep a job. These adverse consequences can also contribute to a downward spiral that increases the risk of continued addiction.
Experiencing brain injury from a non-fatal heroin overdose makes the user more vulnerable to greater neurological harm in the future. Acquired brain injury can also lead to problems like:
- Chronic pain
- Social isolation
Additional Health Consequences of Non-Fatal Heroin Overdose
In addition to the direct damage to the brain from the heroin itself and the lack of sufficient oxygen received during a heroin overdose, the lack of oxygen in the blood can have these significant impacts on the body:
- Ischemic stroke. When there is a sudden loss of blood flow to an area of the brain from the lack of oxygen, the patient can experience a stroke. Another way that a non-fatal heroin overdose can cause a stroke is when a heroin user injects inadequately crushed heroin that causes a blood clot in the brain.
- Pulmonary edema. Fluid can build up in the lungs because of the lack of oxygen, particularly in an unmonitored overdosing individual. This condition can be life-threatening.
- Rhabdomyolysis is the rapid deterioration of muscle tissue that can happen when an overdose survivor is in a coma. This condition can also lead to kidney failure.
- Acute compartment syndrome. A person who is unconscious for hours or days from a non-fatal heroin overdose can be sitting or lying in a position that causes permanent muscle or nerve damage from inadequate blood flow to an area. This syndrome can lead to the need for amputations.