Addiction is a word that often brings up images in our minds of a certain type of person who uses a certain type of drug. Stereotypes exist all around us in every part of our everyday lives and in the world of behavioral health that is no different.
When it comes to substance use disorder or substance misuse, cocaine is one of those substances that we have heard about time and time again from pop culture or our personal lives. Actually, according to a survey presented by the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), over 15% of American adults have tried cocaine.
Keep in mind that trying a substance once does not mean there is an addiction and nor will it immediately lead to addiction, but it does show us that cocaine is a widely known substance in our country. Within Oregon, as of 2019, we ranked #4 in the country for cocaine use.
An important step when it comes to trying to come up with solutions for the substance use problems in our state is to understand the substances themselves.
What Is Cocaine?
Cocaine is an addictive drug that is said to “up” levels of alertness, attention, and energy. It belongs to a class of substances known as stimulants. It’s made from the coca plant, which is native to South America.
Cocaine has many names, often known as street names. These other names for it include:
It can also come in different forms. The most common in the United States and in American pop culture is a fine, white powder. However, it can also be made into a solid rock crystal. This is often known as crack cocaine, rock, or simply crack. This name came from the sound that is made when this type of cocaine is heated up, which is necessary for use.
Most often though, cocaine is snorted in the form of the white powder into the nose. Sometimes it is also rubbed onto gums or dissolved in water and injected with a needle.
How Does Cocaine Work?
Like most other substances that create feelings of a high, cocaine works by changing up your brain chemistry. It turns out the brain is a fascinating organ that does everything based on chemical or electrical signals. This means that there are certain chemicals that can be related to certain feelings, thoughts or emotions. These are called neurotransmitters and they are often considered the chemical messengers of the body.
One of these neurotransmitters, or messengers, is dopamine. Dopamine is responsible for thoughts and feelings related to pleasure and happiness. A buildup of dopamine can cause intense feelings of high energy and alertness. It makes sense that since cocaine causes a high that is related to energy and alertness that it impacts the levels of dopamine in the brain.
The drug sends high levels of dopamine, a natural chemical messenger in your body, into the parts of your brain that control pleasure. This buildup causes intense feelings of energy and alertness called a high. So, how did cocaine use even start and where does it come from?
History of Cocaine Use
The history of cocaine use can be traced back over thousands of years. In South America, coca leaves (made up of erythroxylon coca) were often chewed for their stimulant type of effects. Within the last 100 years, these naturally occurring plant-based chemicals were purified into what is known as cocaine hydrochloride.
Part of this discovery is what led to the heavy usage of cocaine in many tonics, elixirs and other types of medicated liquids. These were said to treat a large variety of illnesses and pain. This is part of why it was used in Coca-Cola® which was initially designed for helping alleviate illnesses and pain. Doctors also often used cocaine hydrochloride for pain blocking and anesthetics before the development of other synthetic medications that are used today.
Years later, we found out that cocaine was actually quite addictive especially with repeated use!
But, how does cocaine cause changes in the brain?
Cocaine Chemistry: A Puzzle in The Brain
Cocaine is made up of a series of chemicals that impacts dopamine and dopamine receptors, like we saw earlier. The question is: how does that impact or change the brain?
The answer is that it stimulates or activates the brain’s reward system. This reward system is also called the mesolimbic dopamine system. This system can be activated by more than just substances of use. In fact, food can even activate the reward pathways in our brains.
This special circuit is not only dedicated to rewards, it is also in control of emotions and motivations. In the normal brain, dopamine is naturally produced and released into the brain by what is known as a neuron. The dopamine then finds its way to its receptor.
Think of it like a puzzle, the jagged edges find their way into the right open spot. Once they match up, it is a perfect fit. The same can be said for dopamine and its dopamine receptor. This is what makes dopamine a neurotransmitter. Remember, neurotransmitters are the messengers of the brain. Once the dopamine has linked up with its receptor, a protein comes along and removes it from the receptor. Think of this as taking apart the puzzle and putting it away for a rainy day.
When using drugs such as cocaine, this communication process can get all out of whack. This can cause the dopamine to stay connected to its receptor longer. And when the puzzle doesn’t get reset then dopamine starts to flood the brain. This causes an amplified signal, also known as euphoria or a high.
It isn’t really surprising that with such a link to a high or euphoric feeling that cocaine is used frequently, but did you know that the feel-good feeling is less related to someone developing an addiction than say their predisposition, or likelihood of developing an addiction prior to using?
What Is Cocaine Addiction?
Cocaine addiction–like other forms of addiction–stems from the chemical dependency and emotional dependency on the substance. An addiction is often referring to some type of physical or mental dependence on a substance.
Addiction in general is a complex condition. It is a brain disease that is categorized by compulsive substance use despite harmful consequences. People with addiction (severe substance use disorder) have an intense focus on using a substance, like cocaine, to the point that it takes over their life.
Symptoms of addiction or substance use disorder fall under four categories:
- Impaired control: a craving or strong urge to use the substance; desire or failed attempts to lower use
- Social problems: substance use causes failure to complete major tasks at work, school or home
- Risky use: continued use despite known problems
- Drug effects: tolerance or withdrawal symptoms
It can also cause an intense feeling of dependency on a substance. These dependencies can come with serious side effects. These side effects could be from use or from withdrawal.
Short-term side effects of cocaine may include:
- Extreme sensitivity to touch, sound, and sight
- Intense happiness
- Paranoid feeling
- Decreased appetite
People who use cocaine often may also have more serious side effects and health problems, like:
- Convulsions and seizures
- Heart disease, heart attack, and stroke
- Mood problems
- Sexual trouble
- Lung damage
- HIV or hepatitis if you inject it
- Bowel decay if you swallow it
- Loss of smell, nosebleeds, runny nose, and trouble swallowing, if you snort it
Cocaine may lead someone to have strong cravings for the drug and the high it brings. But the more you use cocaine, the more your brain will adapt to it which leads to dependency and tolerance. This means that a stronger dose will be needed to feel the same high.
Stronger, more frequent doses can also cause long-term changes in brain chemistry. The body and mind begin to rely on the substance for those feelings. This can make it harder to think, sleep, and recall things. This can lead to a dangerous addiction or overdose.
People with a substance use disorder have what is called distorted thinking. This can lead to bad behaviors and abnormal body functions. Changes in the brain’s chemistry are what cause intense cravings and make it hard to stop using. Studies that focus on brain imaging show changes in the areas of the brain that relate to judgment, decision-making, learning, memory, and impulse control.
Yet, despite the risks and side effects, many people still use or will try cocaine. Let’s take a look at the statistics that surround cocaine use within the United States.
Statistics on Coke’s Effect on Everyday Life
According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health(NSDUH), cocaine use is staying pretty stable and has since around 2009. Within 2014 there were 1.5 million users aged 12 and older.
The same study also found that approximately 913,000 Americans met the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (also known as the DSM-5) criteria for dependence on cocaine. We also saw in 2011, as reported by the Drug Abuse Warning Network, that cocaine was involved in 505,224 of the 1.3 million visits to emergency rooms for drug misuse.
More recently, we have also seen that men are more likely than women to use cocaine and that adults aged 18-25 are more likely to use as well. In fact, during the year of 2014, NSDUH saw that 1.4% of adults in that age range reported use of cocaine within the month of the survey.
These numbers can tell us a lot but they don’t tell us one very important piece of information: why?
The Causes of Cocaine Addiction
Like all addictions and mental illnesses, the scientific community has yet to decide on a 100% “fool-proof” reason why–or a cause. Generally, most mental illnesses and addictions relate to a series of risk factors. Not everyone who uses certain substances will become addicted. If you think of alcohol for an example, not everyone who has a drink immediately develops an addiction and the same is true for other substances. Often, people abuse multiple substances such as cocaine and alcohol, for instance.
However, cocaine is unique in that it does tilt the scales due to its chemical makeup. Let’s talk about the chemistry of cocaine again briefly and then we will get more into why risk factors make such a big difference.
First, we know that cocaine works by using the dopamine puzzle in the brain and that it floods us with feel-good chemicals. Well, it turns out that cocaine can also impact the stress pathway in the brain. This is related to why your brain will crave the substance when you don’t have it and why it is common to relapse when trying to recover from a cocaine addiction. Currently, research says that cocaine also increases stress hormones, which can lead the brain to develop a sensitivity to the drug and the feelings it provides.
Like we said above, it is chronic use that impacts this and people will not experience any signs of addiction from one use. However, those of us with what are called confounding factors–or risk factors–are more likely to experience addiction than others.
Risk factors of developing an addiction to a substance like cocaine are:
- Genetics: A person’s genetic makeup can make them more likely to develop a mental illness or addiction. In the case of all mental illnesses and some chronic illnesses, genetics can be combated with healthy lifestyles and decision-making
- Environmental Triggers: Chronic stress or traumatic events can often trigger a substance use or mental health disorder.
- Early Exposure To Drugs Or Alcohol: Due to the potential effects of brain damage, those with brains that are still in development are more at risk to develop a dual diagnosis later on in life if used during important brain development years.
The next natural question to consider is how can we treat cocaine addiction and what are the options.
Treatment Program to Help With Cocaine Addiction
Counseling and other types of therapy are the most common treatments for cocaine addiction. In 2013, cocaine additions accounted for 6% of all admissions to drug abuse treatment programs.
Some may need to stay in a rehabilitation center (or rehab). Attending an addiction treatment center for a cocaine addiction can lead to an increased likelihood of lifelong recovery. While attending addiction treatment, there will be a variety of types of treatments that may be used.
Cocaine Detox Therapy
First, it will be important to detox from current use. Medical detox centers can help your body adjust to treatment.
Other Cocaine Treatment and Recovery Options
Sessions with a trained therapist can help you make changes to your behavior and thought processes. Many behavioral treatments for cocaine addiction have proven to be effective in both residential and outpatient settings. Behavioral therapies are often the only available and effective treatments for many drug problems, including cocaine addictions. However, the integration of behavioral and medication-based treatments prove to be the most effective approach when it comes to mental illness or addiction.
As of now, no medicines are approved to treat cocaine addiction. There are medications that some providers may prescribe during treatment for other problems or symptoms that come up during treatment. Most of us with addictions also tend to struggle with some other type of mental illness, so it is possible that medications may be prescribed to treat these co-occurring disorders.
As for the behavioral approaches, below is a short list of some therapy types that are known to be both available and effective for cocaine addiction.
- Contingency Management: This type of therapy is also known as motivational therapy and it uses a prize-based system that rewards good and healthy habits like abstaining from substance use. The prizes are usually also meant to help establish healthy habits, like gym memberships and some are for recreational benefits like movie tickets. This method is most effective early in treatment and it can help provide incentives to stay in treatment. Evidence is still being gathered on how effective this is in the long term for lifelong recovery.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): This is the most effective approach for treating addiction and mental illness. CBT has been seen to be one of the most effective evidence-based approaches for preventing relapse. Some 60% of those struggling with an addiction will relapse during recovery. CBT is meant to help lower that number by helping to recognize thought patterns and behaviors. Once bad behaviors are recognized, CBT helps to create healthy strategies for dealing with negative thoughts and feelings.
- Therapeutic Communities (Group Therapy): Unlike CBT, this style of therapy is not on an individual basis. In this type of therapy, those with substance use disorders are able to meet in groups and provide support to one another in safe and judgement-free zones. This has been found to be an effective strategy to limit drug use, however it usually requires 6-12 months of intensive treatment, sometimes including residential stays at onsite facilities.
Of course, the type of care that studies show works best is a mixture of strategies and types. Combination–or integrated care–is the best option for those struggling with addiction and it is one of our specialties here at Serenity Lane.
Seeking Cocaine Addiction Treatment in Oregon With the Help of Serenity Lane
If you or a loved one are showing signs of addiction to cocaine or some other substance, don’t wait to reach out for help. The burden of dealing with an addiction can be overwhelming and Serenity Lane is here to help.
We offer individualized, effective, and innovative solutions for your clients, neighbors, colleagues, friends, acquaintances, and family members struggling with opioid dependency and any other addiction. Our residential treatment center in Coburg, Oregon can help you or a loved one today. Give us a call at 800-543-9905 to get your life back.
We also know that you may still have questions so here is a short list of common questions.
Cocaine Recovery FAQs
How long does cocaine stay in your urine?
Cocaine and the metabolites, or chemical pieces that come from cocaine use, are usually seen in urine for up to three days. Heavy use, on the other hand, can lead to detection in the urine for up to two weeks, or 14 days. Cocaine is also known to be seen in a blood or a saliva test for up to two days and in a hair test for months. In some cases, cocaine can be detected via a hair test years later.
Where does cocaine come from?
Cocaine initially came from the coca plant found naturally in South America. Now it comes from a purified synthetic type of cocaine known as cocaine hydrochloride.
What does cocaine do to you?
Cocaine changes the way your brain naturally processes chemicals in order to provide a high or euphoric feeling. To do this, it changes your brain chemistry which can cause a lot of unwanted side effects like mood swings, heart palpitations, and more. Cocaine can also lead to an addiction if used repeatedly, which can bring its own complicated symptoms.