Heroin’s Destructive Effects on Vital Organs: Brain, Kidneys and Intestines

It’s not well-known that heroin abuse damages the brains of users. A 2007 study noted that “brain disintegration becomes apparent very soon after an onset of chronic heroin abuse.” Brain damage also results from non-fatal overdoses and head injuries that are more likely to occur in an impaired person (especially polydrug abusers). Remnants of injuries that trace back to a lack of oxygen to the brain, either from these overdoses or injuries, are commonly found in long-term heroin addicts.


A study from the University of Edinburgh autopsied the brains of 34 opiate abusers (they were using heroin or methadone). None of them had a history of head injuries. But the brains showed brain damage similar to the early stages of Alzheimer’s. The average age of the drug users was 26.

There are many other studies that show brain damage and deterioration from injected or smoked heroin abuse, including the deterioration of the brain into a spongy state, resulting in overall weakness, spastic attacks and permanent hand tremor.

Short oxygen deprivation from opiate overdoses that are survived can still cause cognitive decline. Research shows that even when a person injects heroin in quantities too low to cause overdose, they tend to cause a brief (five to thirty minute) drop in blood oxygen levels that are sufficient to cause brain and organ damage after repetitive occurrences.

The sleep apnea (breathing that repeatedly starts and stops during sleep) that is suffered by some heroin addicts can further contribute to a lack of oxygen reaching the brain.



This is another type of injury that is not well known. Heroin abuse has been associated with high levels of protein in the urine, a condition that can lead to kidney failure. Causes are thought to be bacteria or viral contaminants in heroin, or toxins in the substances used to dilute the drug. The presence of hepatitis C or HIV in some drug-abusing patients was also considered to be a possible factor.

When a person becomes comatose after a non-fatal overdose of heroin, the muscles that experienced the unmoving weight of the body may begin to break down. This is called rhabdomyolysis. The chemicals released by this breakdown are destructive to the kidneys. Recovery usually requires dialysis and may require a kidney transplant.


Heroin and other opiates reduce the action of muscles in the intestines, making constipation a constant problem. This can result in hemorrhoids, anal fissures or damage to the rectum that may require surgery to repair.

Heroin addicts are intimately familiar with this problem and the rupturing that can occur when bowel movements stop. Some of them let themselves go into the early stages of withdrawal every few days, just so their bodies will trigger the diarrhea that is typical during withdrawal. In that way, they avoid the impactions that build up over the ten days to two weeks between bowel movements.

Heroin also threatens one’s life by spreading deadly diseases, by setting up the right conditions for gangrene, through triggering an impulse toward suicide, and other effects. Those effects will be covered in the last section of this report.