Ritalin addiction is a very serious substance use disorder. Ritalin is a stimulant used to treat ADHD but that is also often abused for its ability to increase energy and wakefulness and provide a feeling of euphoria. Abuse can lead to dependence and a risk of fatal overdose. It is important to know the signs of Ritalin abuse and addiction and to get professional treatment for someone who struggles to stop using it. With therapy and social support it is possible to overcome this harmful addiction.
What Is Ritalin Addiction?
Ritalin is a brand name for the generic drug methylphenidate. It is a stimulant, which means it increases activity in the central nervous system. It increases heart rate, breathing, wakefulness, energy, and body temperature. Methylphenidate is a prescription drug that is approved to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy, a sleep disorder.
Methylphenidate is a schedule II controlled substance. It was placed in this category by the Drug Enforcement Administration because it has a high potential for abuse and can lead to a substance use disorder. Similar medications that are stimulants used to treat ADHD and are also susceptible to abuse include Adderall (amphetamine), Focalin (dexmethylphenidate), and Dexedrine (dextroamphetamine). Other brand names for methylphenidate are Concerta and Metadate.
Addiction to Ritalin is possible for anyone who misuses this drug. Anyone who has been prescribed Ritalin for valid medical reasons and who take it as directed run a very low risk of developing an addiction. However, misuse, meaning using more than the prescribed dose, taking the drug too frequently, or using it when it has not been prescribed, can easily lead to dependence and a very serious substance use disorder.
People may misuse Ritalin for a variety of reasons. Some abuse this stimulant in order to stay awake, to study, to party, or even to drive overnight. Others misuse it because they like the feeling of euphoria and increased energy. Someone with Ritalin addiction will struggle to stop using it, develop a tolerance, experience withdrawal when not using, and risk having an overdose.
Facts and Statistics
Ritalin and other prescription stimulants can be very useful in helping children with ADHD focus, concentrate, be able to sit still, and avoid impulsive behaviors. However, when this drug is misused it can cause serious side effects and lead to addiction. It isn’t only young people who may abuse Ritalin and other prescription stimulants; statistics show that five million adults misused them in the last year.
- Two percent of U.S. adults have misused prescription stimulants, including methylphenidate.
- About 0.2 percent of the adult population has a substance use disorder related to prescription stimulants.
- The main reason cited by adults who misuse Ritalin and similar prescriptions is to improve cognitive function, or in other words to be more alert and to be able to concentrate better.
- Abuse of prescription stimulants, including Ritalin and Adderall, has generally decreased in 8th, 10th, and 12th grade students over the last decade.
- In 2017, 1.3 percent of 12th-grade students reported having misused Ritalin in the past year, as compared to 5.5 percent who misused Adderall.
- According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), overdose deaths in teens related to psychostimulants, which includes Ritalin, rose by nearly a half percent from 1999 to 2015.
Symptoms and Diagnosis of Ritalin Addiction
Anyone who is misusing Ritalin is at risk of developing an addiction. Any misuse behaviors should be cause for concern. These include taking someone else’s prescription, taking more than prescribed, taking it more frequently than prescribed, using Ritalin for any purpose other than prescribed medical use, and using the stimulant to avoid coping with problems and emotions in healthy way. Misuse will not necessarily lead to addiction, but it puts an individual at very serious risk of becoming dependent on the drug. Some signs that a person is intoxicated from Ritalin misuse are:
- Feelings of euphoria and unusual energy and confidence
- Unusual or increased alertness and wakefulness
- Dilated pupils
- Elevated heart rate, body temperature, and blood pressure
- Aggression and other changes in behavior
- Rapid speech, often not making sense to others
- Paranoia or anxiety
- Poor judgement, impulsivity
- Confusion, hallucinations, or delusions
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders lists Ritalin addiction as a stimulant use disorder. There are several diagnostic criteria that mental health and addiction specialists use to diagnose someone with this condition. Depending on how many are met, a person may be diagnosed as having a mild, moderate, or severe stimulant use disorder:
- Being unable to control use of a stimulant like Ritalin
- Trying but failing to stop using the drug or to use it less
- Spending more and more time using it or recovering from being intoxicated
- Craving stimulants
- Not getting responsibilities taken care of because of Ritalin misuse
- Using Ritalin even when it causes problems with relationships
- Sacrificing other activities to use the drug more
- Continuing to use it even when it involve a dangerous situation
- Continuing to use the drug even if it causes or worsens physical or mental health issues
- Experiencing tolerance to Ritalin, needing more in order to get high
- Going through withdrawal symptoms when not using it
It is possible to overdose on Ritalin and other stimulants, and this can be fatal. It should be treated as a medical emergency. Signs of stimulant overdose include tremors, overactive reflexes, breathing very quickly, confusion, aggression, restlessness, panic, hallucinations, fever, and muscle pains. An overdose may trigger an irregular heartbeat, which can lead to a heart attack, seizures, dangerously high blood pressure, convulsions, and coma.
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Causes and Risk Factors
The causes of Ritalin addiction are complex and impossible to pinpoint in any one individual. Of course, the ultimate cause is misuse of Ritalin, although not everyone who abuses the drug will develop a substance use disorder. Certain risk factors make it more likely someone will become addicted. These include the method of use. When Ritalin is ground into a powder and snorted like cocaine, it provides a much quicker and more intense high. This can lead more rapidly to tolerance and increase the risk of addiction.
Other risk factors and potential contributing causes for addiction to Ritalin include genetics and environment. Family history is a risk factor, as is the experience of trauma during childhood, stressful life events, and being around people, such as peers, who misuse stimulants. Mental illness is also a risk factor, especially having one or more conditions that are not being treated. Having easy access to Ritalin, which is not uncommon as it is widely prescribed, can also increase the risk of abuse and subsequent addiction.
Withdrawal and Detox
Withdrawal refers to the experience of the body and brain coping with no longer having a drug like Ritalin. For someone who has become dependent on it, withdrawal can be very uncomfortable. The process of going through the symptoms as the drug leaves the body is called detox, and it is the first step in treatment. Symptoms of stimulant withdrawal can include disturbed sleep patterns, tremors, depression, anxiety, sensitivity to touch, and changes in appetite. Because withdrawal is so uncomfortable it can easily lead to a relapse and should not be attempted without supervision.
Addiction to Ritalin may co-occur with other substance use disorders or with mental or behavioral conditions. Because it is prescribed to treat ADHD this is a common co-occurrence. Most people with ADHD who take stimulants to treat it will not abuse them, but some do and that can lead to a substance use disorder. The symptoms and complications of ADHD can cause significant distress, which is one reason an individual may turn to any substance of abuse as a way to cope.
Abuse of Ritalin may also co-occur with misuse of other stimulants including cocaine or other prescriptions. Mental illnesses that may co-occur with stimulant abuse are depression and bipolar disorder. Both of these can cause low moods, and the high that comes with a stimulant may provide temporary relief. This kind of self-medicating is unhealthy and can lead to an addiction.
Treatment and Prognosis
The outlook for someone struggling with Ritalin addiction and who is willing to seek out and stick with professional treatment is positive. Most people who go through treatment will be able to stop using the drug and restore normal function to their lives. Especially important in treatment is to diagnose, address, and treat any co-occurring disorders at the same time.
There are currently no medications that are approved to treat any type of stimulant addiction, although researchers are studying some that may have potential to help people in the future. The main focus of treatment is therapy. Behavioral therapies can be used to help patients in either a residential or an outpatient setting. These therapies help by guiding patients to become more aware of what underlies their drug use, triggers that may lead to a relapse, and their negative emotions and behaviors. They can then learn and practice healthier strategies for coping with bad moods and emotions, potential triggers, and stress.
Treatment for Ritalin addiction should also place a big emphasis on relapse prevention. Identifying and avoiding triggers, making positive lifestyle changes, involving family and friends for support, and finding new, positive activities and friends can help individuals avoid relapse and live well without abusing stimulants like Ritalin.