Each second of the day, cells in the brain are trading chemical signals. The process these cells use runs a bit like this: One cell emits a chemical and it lingers in the space between cells for a millisecond or two. The second cell responds to the chemical by emitting its own signal, allowing the first cell to rest and relax, while chemicals clean up the residue that lingers between the two cells. Cocaine is a powerful drug of abuse that can render intense changes to this natural process.
Within moments of taking in this drug, pleasure signals are sent out at double or triple the normal rate, and no cleanup occurs between two cells. The brain is flooded with a feeling of pleasure, and the experience can be simply intoxicating. While the feeling might only last for a few minutes, the addiction that cocaine abuse can bring about can be very damaging. Understanding why people abuse cocaine, and how that abuse could harm their bodies and minds, could be vital in the effort to help people to recover.
Understanding the Urge
In the early 1900s, cocaine was widely available in products that users would find through their local druggists. Cough drops, sugary drinks and alcohol-based tonics all contained liberal doses of cocaine, and these products promised users quick relief from almost any ailment imaginable. Since that time, cocaine has been declared illegal for almost all uses, and while laws like this are meant to curb usage, dealers have found new ways to keep prices low, and that might tend to keep usage rates high. According to research conducted by the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, cocaine cost $278 in 2010-dollar terms back in 1990. In 2010, that same amount of cocaine cost $169. For drug users who want a profound response for a small amount of money, cocaine may seem like an ideal solution.
Cocaine’s appeal may also lie with the drug’s versatility. Users can snort powdered forms of the drug, smoke crystalized cocaine, or mix cocaine with water and inject the drug. Each form of usage brings about slightly different effects, and using differing formats can allow users to vary the experiences they feel. Users might become adept at tailoring their usage, so they can use just one drug in a variety of different ways, depending on the length of time they’d like to remain under the influence and the level of impairment they’d like to experience while they’re taking the drug. Not all addictive drugs are this adaptable.
Changes in Appetite
While some users are drawn to cocaine because of the drug’s cost or its ability to change perception, some users are drawn to cocaine due to the drug’s ability to suppress the appetite. While cocaine is in play and the brain is distracted with signals of pleasure, signals of hunger are easier to ignore, and the body might not even emit any hunger signs at all. According to research published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 32 percent of people who ask for help with a cocaine addiction could have an eating disorder, such as anorexia or bulimia. For these users, cocaine seems like a valuable ally, allowing them to reduce their food intake without dealing with the feelings of deprivation that self-enforced starvation can cause.
People who have binge eating disorders might also be drawn to the appetite suppression that cocaine can bring about, but they might also have other reasons for abusing the drug. In a study of the issue, published in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience, researchers provided some rats with a high-fat diet and then provided these rats with the opportunity to abuse cocaine. The researchers found that the high-fat diet seemed to predispose the rats to abusing cocaine. Perhaps underlying brain changes were to blame, but perhaps showing a tendency toward one type of addiction (e.g., binging on fat) could leave creatures open to developing another type of addiction (e.g., drug abuse).
It’s also possible that cocaine abuse and addiction help people deal with the emotional stress and distress an eating disorder can cause.
People with eating disorders like this often feel:
-Unable to sleep
-Scattered and unfocused
The burst of euphoria and self-confidence cocaine abuse can bring about could leave these people feeling emotionally secure, if only for a few moments, and that could be intensely appealing for people who seem to be in mental distress much, if not all, of the time.
Damaging Mental Health
While it might seem as though cocaine is a helpful antidote to mental distress, the reality is that cocaine can cause longstanding damage that could lead to further problems down the line. As people continue to use the drug, the cells within the brain adapt to the presence of cocaine. They stop producing pleasure signals on their own, and they may even stop responding to the pleasure signals provided by the drug. A brain that has adapted in this way may be completely unable to produce feelings of pleasure without cocaine, meaning that the person could be at risk for intense feelings of depression between cocaine doses. Attempting to stop using cocaine could cause a similar sensation of despair, due to the lack of drug the brain feels is now necessary.
Cocaine can also cause short-term mental health problems, including paranoia and hallucinations. According to a study of the issue in the Spanish journal Actas Españolas de Psiquiatria, the prevalence of this syndrome in people who abuse cocaine and participate in studies is between 12 and 100 percent, which seems to indicate that not everyone is at risk for psychosis. Those who are might have underlying mental health concerns, or they might have intense addictions that cause them to use a large amount of drugs for a long period of time. This kind of use can cause such toxicity that mental health damage seems almost assured.
Hurting the Heart
Cocaine addiction, even if it only occurs for a short period of time, can also do intense damage to the heart. The drug causes the heart to beat at an incredibly fast rate, while the tissues of the heart are provided with signals that cause them to tighten and shrink. A compressed heart that’s asked to do more work can simply collapse under the pressure, and according to the American Journal of Critical Care, some 64,000 emergency room visits that take place each year can be blamed on chest pain due to cocaine abuse. Many more people experience no chest pain at all, and they continue to abuse cocaine even though the drug is ruining the heart muscle each time it’s introduced into the body. Hearts that are placed under this kind of pressure, day in and day out, tend to thicken and tighten up, and they may soon be unable to support even standard levels of exertion. People who abuse cocaine and then later attempt to exercise, lift furniture or handle some other task that involves an increased heart rate could experience a heart attack, and they may not survive.
People with anorexia might be at even higher risk of heart damage, as their eating disorder can lead to electrolyte imbalances that can also cause the heart to beat irregularly. Combining a deadly drug with underlying heart damage like this can lead to very serious medical problems, and again, some people can die from damaging their hearts in this fashion.
Modes of Drug Use
Cocaine’s ability to tighten up tissue isn’t restricted to the cells of the heart. Placing the drug in contact with the delicate lining of the nose can also cause constriction in the blood vessels that nourish these tissues, and in time, people who abuse cocaine via inhalation can do so much damage that they develop holes in the cartilage of the nose. Sinuses can collapse, breathing can become difficult and infections can take hold. Exposed bone can also cause intense pain, and the body might cause nearby tissues to swell, in the hopes of providing protection for these parts of the body.
Smoking cocaine might seem safer than sniffing it, but smoking cocaine can expose people to substances including:
Inhaling these substances directly into the lungs can cause intense fits of coughing, but the particles can also wend their way into the body through the clouds of smoke, and when inside, they can band together into small packets or tumors.
People who inject cocaine aren’t free of complications, as they might inject bacterial particles into their veins with each hit they use. Bacteria can cause infections at the injection site, leading to large sores or abscesses that don’t respond to antibiotic treatment. People who inject drugs like this might share needles with people who are infected with hepatitis C, or the intoxication might lead people to engage in risky sex, and this could also lead to hepatitis C infection. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, within two years, 40 percent of people who inject drugs are infected with hepatitis C. Many more are infected with HIV/AIDS or other blood-borne diseases.
Help Is Available
No matter why people began taking cocaine, and no matter how advanced their addictions might be, there is a solution. In a treatment program for addiction, people can recover. Therapists can help them to explore the underlying reasons for the addiction, and they can develop powerful skills they can use to identify their triggers and keep them sober in the years to come.
Cocaine addiction programs that provide additional help for co-occurring disorders might be especially helpful for people who are using cocaine to “self-medicate”. With treatment, these people can tackle their co-occurring disorders without hiding behind a screen of cocaine abuse and addiction. This is the kind of help we can provide at Futures of Palm Beach, and we have an impressive track record of success. Please call us to find out how our treatment programs work, and learn more about how they might benefit you.