Before the current opioid epidemic, the United States experienced a drug crisis in the 1980s and ʼ90s involving cocaine. Movies like Scarface and The Wolf of Wall Street highlight the cocaine crisis and the consequences of the powerful stimulant. However, cocaine continues to be a significant problem, now overshadowed by another addiction epidemic in the opioid crisis.
Cocaine was once used as a medicinal drug, and it’s still federally classified as a Schedule II drug, which means that it’s addictive but has currently accepted medical uses.
However, cocaine has been largely replaced by other medication, but it’s still commonly used as a recreational drug. When abused, cocaine has an extremely high potential to cause physical dependence and addiction. Addiction can lead to physical and psychological problems, withdrawal symptoms, and overdose. However, addiction can be treated with the right help.
If you or someone you know may be developing a substance use disorder related to cocaine, you should learn the signs and symptoms of addiction. Being aware of the problem can help you get the treatment needed before experiencing some of the most serious consequences. However, even the most severe cocaine addiction can be treated.
Cocaine is a powerful stimulant drug primarily used as an illicit recreational substance. It was once more widely used as a medication for a variety of ailments from toothaches to a local anesthetic for eye surgery. However, it’s rarely used for medical purposes today. The drug works by blocking the reuptake of dopamine in the nervous system. That means, instead of removing and recycling excess dopamine from your system, cocaine leaves it to bind to more receptors, causing feelings of excitement, power, and increased energy.
However, brain chemicals like dopamine are closely related to the brain’s reward response, and the reward center of the brain is the primary target of addiction. When your brain mistakes cocaine use for normal healthy, rewarding activities, it can alter your reward center into encouraging compulsive cocaine use.
Cocaine addiction is a disease that typically comes after some signs and symptoms. However, if you’re abusing cocaine, a substance abuse disorder can develop quickly, so it’s critical to seek help as soon as possible. That being said, even severe substance use disorders can be treated.
The first sign that cocaine use is turning into a disorder is a growing tolerance to your usual dose. If you’ve used cocaine a few times and then notice that your regular effective dose seems to have less of an effect on you, you may be developing a tolerance. This means that your brain and nervous system are adapting to the cocaine in your system. If you keep using cocaine or increase your dose, you may become chemically dependent or cause changes in the brain.
Dependence is a phenomenon that happens when your brain starts to integrate cocaine into your balanced brain chemistry. In other words, instead of relying on your naturally occurring brain chemicals, it will start to depend on cocaine to facilitate normal brain function. That means quitting cocaine will cause uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal symptoms can include:
A substance use disorder becomes an addiction when you start using the drug compulsively. Cocaine is often used for recreation in party settings. But when you become addicted, you may stop using for fun or recreation and start using it out of a feeling of necessity. Eventually, drug use gets out of control, and you may continue to use even if the drug causes serious consequences.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) relays that cocaine exposure causes the brain to adapt, and the reward pathways become less sensitive to natural reinforcers. On that same note, the circuits involved in cocaine addiction become increasingly sensitive, which leads to increased displeasure and negative moods when someone is not using the substance.
Cocaine can cause damage to many other organs in the body as well. The drug can reduce blood flow in the gastrointestinal tract, which can ultimately cause tears or ulcerations. Chronic cocaine abusers lose their appetite and will experience weight loss and malnourishment.
In addition to the increased risk of seizures or stroke, neurological problems can occur from long-term cocaine use. There are reports of bleeding in the brain and bulges in the walls of cerebral blood vessels. Studies have also shown a wide range of cognitive functions that are impaired, such as:
Cocaine addiction treatment is a process that involves medical treatment and psychotherapy with the goal of helping you achieve lifelong sobriety. Addiction is a disease that can be treated with evidence-based treatment and experienced medical professionals, therapists, and clinicians.
When you first enter addiction treatment, you’ll go through a process of intake and assessment that will help your therapist and clinicians find the right treatment options for you. Your health and safety are the first factors to be assessed. If you have pressing medical needs, you’ll need a higher level of care.
Medical detox is the highest level of care in addiction treatment and involves medically managed care 24 hours a day. The main goal of detox is to get you through the withdrawal period that’s common with many psychoactive drugs as safe and as comfortable as possible.
Drugs may have different effects during withdrawal, depending on the type of drug and how it works in the brain. Stimulants like cocaine affect dopamine and serotonin, which primarily regulate your mood, so withdrawal symptoms are also likely to affect your mood. People going through cocaine withdrawal may feel depressed, apathetic, and sluggish. They also may experience an inability to feel pleasure.
Because cocaine withdrawal isn’t life-threatening or physically dangerous, medical detox might not be necessary to avoid any serious medical complications. However, withdrawal can cause powerful drug cravings that can make it difficult for you to achieve sobriety on your own.
Plus, some cases of withdrawal can lead to deep depression and suicidal thoughts. If you start to have suicidal ideations, it’s vital to recognize that cocaine may have caused a severe chemical imbalance in your brain. Seek professional help immediately.
Medical detox can help people who enter treatment with other medical issues like injuries, diseases, and chronic illnesses.
Inpatient treatment is the next level in the continuum of care after medical detox. It can involve medical monitoring or clinically managed care that’s ideal for people who still have high-level medical or psychological needs after detox. Inpatient treatment offers 24-hour care every day, and it can involve medical treatment and psychotherapy.
Residential treatment programs also fall into the inpatient category. A residential program can be ideal for someone in the early stages of treatment who doesn’t have a living environment that will help their recovery. For instance, if you live with an abusive family member or a roommate who still uses drugs, your sobriety may be at risk.
As you progress in treatment, you will eventually be able to live independently, and you may move on to an outpatient program.
Outpatient treatment is separated into two categories: intensive outpatient (IOP) and standard outpatient. Intensive outpatient treatment involves nine hours of treatment or more every week. IOP also encompasses partial hospitalization services, which is the highest level of care you can attend while living independently and can include as much as 12 hours of treatment services every day.
Outpatient treatment involves fewer than nine hours of care every week. It’s an excellent step in the treatment process for people who have completed more intensive programs. It offers a transitional process between intensive treatment and complete independence. As you step into the real world with the responsibility of safeguarding your recovery, you will have the opportunity to bring newly discovered triggers and struggles to individual or group therapy sessions.
ASAM. (n.d.). What is the ASAM Criteria? Retrieved from https://www.asam.org/resources/the-asam-criteria/about
Drug Enforcement Administration. (n.d.). Drug Scheduling. Retrieved from https://www.dea.gov/drug-scheduling
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018, August 09). Overdose Death Rates. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/trends-statistics/overdose-death-rates
Uzzaman, M. M., Alam, A., Nair, M. S., & Meleagros, L. (2010, November). Gastric perforation in a cocaine user. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3033545/
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (n.d.). What are the long-term effects of cocaine use? Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/cocaine/what-are-long-term-effects-cocaine-use
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (n.d.). What are some ways that cocaine changes the brain? Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/cocaine/what-are-some-ways-cocaine-changes-brain