Is Ritalin Safe to Use Long-Term? Exploring Ritalin’s Addictive Potential
Ritalin can have positive effects on the thinking and behavior of children or adults with ADHD. But when the drug is taken for extended periods and by recreational users, the drug’s neurological effects can lead to addiction. People often want to know, is Ritalin safe long term? It does seem to be for most users, as long as consumption is controlled. But taking it without a prescription is a recipe for trouble. Anyone abusing Ritalin can recover with drug and alcohol treatment services, and residential care is highly recommended if long-term abuse of Ritalin has created serious life complications.
Each year five million American adults misuse prescription stimulants. Nearly one-in-10 of these individuals will develop substance abuse issues as a result of these activities.
Ritalin is on the list of the most misused and abused substances, primarily because of its purported ability to help students improve their academic performance. Long-term use of the drug can be dangerous if it occurs in a non-medical context.
What Is Ritalin and How Is It Used?
Ritalin (generic name methylphenidate) is a prescription stimulant that can help young people with ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) manage their symptoms. It is also given to adults diagnosed with ADHD, who may or not have experienced symptoms in childhood.
The use of psychiatric medications in children is controversial. Nevertheless, evidence suggests that Ritalin can be effective if its use is monitored closely.
Physicians determine the dosages of Ritalin given to patients. But the use of the drug is not confined to those with a specific medical condition. A thriving black market exists for those who want to purchase Ritalin. As a result, those who plan to use it recreationally, or to help them with school, usually have no trouble finding supplies.
Long-term abuse of Ritalin is a problem on college campuses. Ominously, that behavior has begun to bleed over into high school.
The Dynamics of Ritalin Abuse
Ritalin is a central nervous system stimulant. Like other stimulants, Ritalin can elevate mood and boost mental energy.
It does this by changing patterns of activity in the brain. It affects the production of neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine that control feelings and emotional responses. Ultimately, these alterations in brain activity can have a significant impact on behavior.
This is the secret of the drug’s success against the symptoms of ADHD. Despite its chemical identity as a stimulant, Ritalin helps correct chemical malfunctions in the brains of people associated with ADHD. Paradoxically, people with ADHD actually become calmer and more in control under the effects of this drug.
But outside of a medical context, long-term abuse of Ritalin can have profoundly negative effects on the brain. When drug use is confined to the terms of a prescription, dependency will seldom develop. But normal neurotransmitter cycles become disrupted through Ritalin abuse.
In particular, taking too much Ritalin for too long can damage the brain’s capacity to produce adequate supplies of dopamine. This neurochemical is essential for healthy neurological functioning.
Dopamine shortages can lead to powerful cravings for Ritalin. At that point, consumption of the drug is the only way to satisfy the brain’s desire for more of this neurochemical. The sudden release of dopamine following Ritalin use creates a rush of pleasure and energy, which only strengthens the dependency.
When drugs are used compulsively they are also used irresponsibly, and almost inevitably in excessive amounts. This is how cocaine or methamphetamine addiction develops in the brain, and Ritalin addiction will follow this same pathway.
Addiction is not the only negative consequence of Ritalin abuse. Studies have linked heavy methylphenidate use to depression, and to frontal lobe damage that inhibits impulse control and the ability to manage emotions.
To pin down all the potential side effects, more research is needed into the long-term effects of Ritalin abuse. One 2017 University of Buffalo study, where mice were fed a steady diet of Ritalin, revealed some of the possibilities.
“We saw changes in brain chemistry … that are known to have an impact on the reward pathway, locomotor activity, and other behaviors, as well as effects on body weight,” explained lead researcher Panayotis Thanos. “These changes in brain chemistry were associated with serious concerns such as risk-taking behavior, disruptions in the sleep/wake cycle, and problematic weight loss, as well as increased activity and anti-anxiety and anti-depressive effects.”
Physicians are often asked, is Ritalin safe long term? It can be if it is used responsibly. But long-lasting abuse of Ritalin will almost assuredly cause unfortunate and potentially dangerous side effects.
Ritalin Abuse on Campus
Among college students, the abuse of Ritalin is rampant. Studies indicate that between 14 and 38 percent of university students have used, or are currently using, the drug.
There is a subculture on campuses that indulges in ADHD drugs. Some take it recreationally, for the euphoric effects it can produce. But it is used primarily by those who believe (and not without merit) that it can improve their academic performance.
When taken by adults not suffering from ADHD, Ritalin can increase focus, concentration, and mental stamina. It is often used as a study aid by students who are preparing for exams. It is also popular with marginal students who are struggling to keep up with the daily demands of classwork and homework.
In normal doses, the effects of Ritalin are likely to wear off in two-to-four hours. Extended-release versions can be effective for up to eight hours, but at less concentrated doses.
Consequently, the motivation for college students to abuse Ritalin is high. Its effectiveness as a study enhancer would be limited if it were used strictly as prescribed. Naturally, with no doctor’s warnings to guide them, students using Ritalin illicitly are likely to misuse it and to continue doing so even after symptoms of dependency develop.
Once long-term Ritalin abuse transitions into addiction, the drug will no longer have the same effects as it did initially. The grades of students addicted to Ritalin will inevitably begin to slide. If they try to quit using the drug on their own, they may find themselves unable to do so. Their physical and psychological dependence on the drug is too strong to overcome based on willpower alone.
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Signs of Ritalin Abuse and Options for Treatment
People who misuse Ritalin can easily fall into dependency, if they don’t pay attention to the signs that indicate use is spiraling out of control.
The distinctive symptoms of Ritalin abuse include:
- Anxiety and agitation
- Loss of appetite
- Chest tightness or pain
- High blood pressure
- Memory loss
- Nausea and vomiting
When mood disorders like depression and bipolar disorder are already present, abuse of Ritalin will often cause their symptoms to worsen. People of any age addicted to Ritalin will become preoccupied with obtaining more supplies of the drug, and their obsession will have negative effects on their personal, professional, and academic lives.
These indicators of abuse should not be ignored. People who experience them should be evaluated by a physician or addiction specialist. If chemical dependency is diagnosed, treatment should begin immediately.
Residential inpatient treatment programs will likely offer the best chance for a full and sustainable recovery from Ritalin abuse.
Alta Mira offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with drug and alcohol addiction as well as co-occurring mental health disorders and process addictions. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Bay Area programs and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward lasting recovery.