Methamphetamine addiction is a physical dependence on the stimulant drug. Methamphetamine (Meth) abuse can lead to addiction, which in turn may cause serious harm including long-term health problems, mental illness, and potentially even death from an overdose. Meth addiction can be treated with residential treatment, ongoing behavioral therapies, and access to a strong support network, although there is no medication currently approved to treat this addiction.
What Is Methamphetamine Addiction?
Methamphetamine addiction is a brain disorder and a chronic condition in which a person cannot stop using the drug methamphetamine, or meth. Meth is a stimulant and a very addictive substance. When abused regularly it is possible for someone to become physically dependent on it. This means that the person is unable to control how much and how often they use it, they develop a tolerance to it, and they experience withdrawal if they try to stop using it.
As with other types of addiction, meth addiction can be very dangerous. It can cause long-lasting mental and physical health problems, and can even be fatal. It is also a treatable and manageable condition. With commitment to a complete program of behavioral therapy and proven treatments, someone living with this addiction can make positive changes and get their life back.
Facts and Statistics
Methamphetamine, also known as meth, is a stimulant drug that is highly addictive. A stimulant causes an increase in activity in the central nervous system resulting in greater alertness, higher blood pressure, a faster heart rate, and rapid breathing. While there are medical reasons to use stimulants, these are also drugs that are commonly abused, often to stay awake and be more alert or to get a high.
- Methamphetamine is listed as a Schedule II controlled substance by the Drug Enforcement Administration because of the high potential for abuse and dependence.
- Abuse of methamphetamine is generally in decline, but there are regional variations. Parts of the Midwest still have a lot of meth use among residents.
- Meth can be used as a white powder or pill, but is also abused in crystalized form. This is known referred to as crystal meth or ice. Other street names for meth and crystal meth are crystal, speed, crank, shards, and chalk.
- Methamphetamine can be abused through snorting, injecting, inhaling, or ingesting.
- As a prescription drug, methamphetamine is not often used but may be prescribed for narcolepsy, ADHD, or severe obesity that doesn’t respond to other treatments.
- Use of meth by young people is at a record low. The Monitoring the Future survey for 2016 showed that rates of past year use were at 0.6 percent for 12th graders, down from 4.7 percent in 1990.
- Past year use of meth by adults between the ages of 18 and 25 was 0.8 percent and for adults over 26 was 0.5 percent in 2016.
- Long-term effects of meth abuse include severe dental problems, sleeping problems, paranoia, extreme weight loss, anxiety, high blood pressure, aggression, and infectious diseases in those who inject, including hepatitis B and C and HIV.
Symptoms and Diagnosis of Meth Addiction
Signs that someone is addicted to methamphetamine are not the same as the symptoms of abusing the drug. Signs of actual addiction include cravings for more meth, being unable to limit use of meth, needing to use more and more in order to get the same high or sense of euphoria, and experiencing withdrawal when not using. These are the characteristic signs of addiction to any substance, but there are also specific signs of meth use and abuse:
- Increased wakefulness, alertness, and activity levels
- Decreased appetite and weight loss
- Increased blood pressure
- Rapid breathing
- Increased body temperature, which can lead to fainting
- Severely itchy skin
- Disturbances in sleep patterns
- Rapid talking
- Anxiousness, nervousness, and mood swings
- Repetitive behaviors, like picking at skin or pulling out hair
- Aggression and violent behavior
Abusers of methamphetamine not only run the risk of becoming addicted and suffering from both short- and long-term health problems, they are also at risk of overdosing. An overdose is a toxic amount that may kill the user if not treated immediately. Signs of an overdose may include:
- Chest pain
- Irregular heartbeat
- Stopped heart or heart attack
- Trouble breathing
- Extremely high body temperature
- Paranoia and confusion
- Severe abdominal pain
An overdose is a medical emergency. Any observed signs should result in a call for emergency assistance. Treatment for a meth overdose may include using activated charcoal or laxatives to get the substance out of the body or neutralize it. Other treatments may depend on the symptoms the patient is experiencing: breathing support, IV fluids, restoring blood flow to the brain or heart, or treatments for damaged organs.
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Causes and Risk Factors
The cause of meth addiction is meth abuse. Anyone who abuses methamphetamine is at risk for becoming addicted. While meth has a high potential for causing addiction, it is not instantly addictive, and it will not necessarily cause addiction in every person who uses it. The more often it is used and the larger the doses, the more likely a person is to develop an addiction. Some people may have more risk factors for addiction to meth or any other drug that go beyond abusing the drug regularly:
- Family history of drug abuse and addiction
- A personal history of abuse of other substances
- Engaging in risky behaviors of all types
- A personal history of psychiatric disorders
- An impulsive personality
- Easy availability of meth
On a chemical and biological level, what causes meth addiction is not fully understood. Studies of the effects of meth on the brain show that the drug causes changes in the structure and functioning of the brain; these changes could play a role in developing addiction. Imaging studies show that meth causes changes to the dopamine system, the chemical messaging system in the brain related to pleasure and rewards. It also causes changes to parts of the brain that are related to memory and emotions.
Meth Addiction Withdrawal and Detox
When someone is addicted to a mind-altering substance like methamphetamine, stopping use of the drug causes side effects that may be uncomfortable, painful, or even dangerous. This is called withdrawal. In order to recover from meth addiction, it is necessary to first get the drug out of the body. The process of doing that is called detoxification or detox. During the detox period, a person will experience withdrawal. Withdrawal is a major cause of relapse with any type of addiction.
Some of the symptoms of withdrawal that someone addicted to meth may experience include paranoia, itchy eyes, apathy, fatigue, difficulty sleeping, increased appetite, and decreased sex drive. Studies have also found that people detoxing from meth may have symptoms of depression and intense cravings for methamphetamine.
Co-Occurring Disorders and Substance Use
Drug addiction commonly co-occurs with mental health disorders. This is because drug abuse can trigger mental illness symptoms, because mental illnesses may trigger drug abuse, and because both addiction and mental illness have risk factors and causes in common, such as trauma, stress, and genetic predisposition.
A significant proportion of people addicted to methamphetamine also experience psychosis or psychotic mental illnesses, like schizophrenia. Many meth users will also have symptoms of anxiety disorders or depression, especially when in withdrawal. In some cases the symptoms are enough to meet the criteria for a diagnosis of major depression or anxiety disorder, but in others the symptoms are attributed to drug use and not considered to meet the criteria for a diagnosis.
Meth and Opioids
A popular but dangerous combination of drugs is called a speedball. Traditionally a mix of heroin and cocaine, it is increasingly common to combine meth with opioids like heroin. The combination of a stimulant and a depressant is risky. The effects of methamphetamine, the stimulant, can mask the depressant effects of heroin, which can in turn can make a heroin overdose more likely.
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Methamphetamine Addiction Treatment and Prognosis
According to research, behavioral therapies and residential treatment are the most effective treatments for meth addiction. People with other types of addictions may benefit from medications, but there is no approved drug to treat meth addiction. Cognitive behavioral therapy, contingency management, and motivational incentives have all been proven to help people recover from meth addiction and minimize relapses.
Behavioral therapies include using one-on-one therapy, family therapy, 12-step programs, and support in other areas of a person’s life, such as getting job skills and work, managing relationships, and finding affordable housing. Contingency management and incentives may also be used. This involves offering the patient incentives, like cash, to stay in treatment and to abstain from using methamphetamine or other substances.
Initial treatment is not necessarily the hard part of overcoming meth addiction. Where many people who have abused drugs like meth struggle is in avoiding relapse. A good treatment program should include strategies for minimizing or preventing relapses in the future. There are many ways in which a person can reduce the risk of having a relapse, including:
- A solid foundation of treatment in a residential facility.
- Committing to ongoing treatment or attendance at support groups, and not becoming complacent with sobriety
- Recognizing and avoiding high-risk situations and triggers
- Having a strong support network
- Creating and sticking with a daily routine that includes healthy habits
- Maintaining good physical health with adequate sleep, good nutrition, and plenty of exercise
- Having a plan of action ready in the event that a relapse does happen
Meth addiction is difficult to overcome, and the reality is that most people who struggle with any type of addiction will have a relapse at some point. In fact, relapse rates are similar to those seen in chronic physical conditions like diabetes. This means that, like those illnesses, addiction can be managed. If it is considered to be a chronic, lifelong condition, meth addiction can be managed with long-term treatment. The prognosis for those who have this outlook and who commit to ongoing treatment and self-care is good.