What is opioid dependence?

Regular use of heroin or other opioids can lead to physical and psychological changes to both the mind and the body respectively. The changes to your body may happen quickly and may be visibly obvious to you and others close to you whereas damage to your emotional and mental wellbeing may not be so clearly visible, nor understood.


Your body ‘gets used to’ having heroin on a regular basis. Over time the opioid may be needed for your body to function ‘normally’. When this happens stopping or cutting down opioid use can be very difficult because you feel withdrawal symptoms and cravings.1 You may have flu-like symptoms with muscle aches and pain. You may also get diarrhoea, feel restless, vomit, have difficulty sleeping and sweat frequently.2,3 This is referred to amongst opioid users as ’cold turkey’ or ’clucking’ or ‘rattling’. Such unpleasant physical feelings can be managed with the correct supervision leading to gradual reduction and withdrawal.


Your thoughts and emotions may make you fixated on opioid use. Therefore, you may mentally ’crave’ the drug which means you may not be able to control your urges to use it despite knowing that it can cause you possible financial, legal, work and relationship problems which may impact significantly on both you and your family and friends.1
If you use regularly and intravenously, your mind can become fixated on the habitual methods of use which can leave you feeling the urge to inject. This is referred to as having a ‘needle fixation’. Consequently one of the side effects with the use of heroin or other opioids is the loss of control of your life which means you become completely dependent on using it.1,2

Find out if you may have opioid dependence

Not all people who use heroin or other opioids become dependent on them.1 To help you find out if you may have opioid dependence go to:
How do I know if I am dependent on opioids?

  1. Volkow ND, Koob GF, McLellan AT. Neurobiologic Advances from the Brain Disease Model of Addiction. N.Engl.J Med 2016; 374: 363-371.
  2. Evans CJ, Cahill CM. Neurobiology of opioid dependence in creating addiction vulnerability. F1000Res. 2016; 5.
  3. Bond AJ, Witton J. Perspectives on the pharmacological treatment of heroin addiction. Clinical Medicine Insights: Psychiatry 2017; 8: 1-10.
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