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A Basic Guide to Recovering from Amphetamine Abuse

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Though pharmaceutical amphetamines have several legitimate therapeutic applications, many people abuse these drugs for nonmedical reasons, including simply to get high. Amphetamine misuse can lead to a number of negative consequences and take a serious toll on your health and well-being. In addition to its detrimental physical and mental health side effects, amphetamine abuse can even result in death. However, by identifying the signs of abuse and engaging in proper treatment, you can begin the process of getting help.


What Are Amphetamines?

close-up of woman holding prescription bottle of amphetamine pillsAmphetamines are manmade drugs that function as central nervous system (CNS) stimulants. Stimulants increase CNS activity, resulting in elevated feelings of alertness, attention, and energy. These drugs also increase heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure.1,2 Amphetamine-containing drugs include:

  • Adderall.
  • Dexedrine.
  • Desoxyn.
  • Vyvanse.

When prescribed by a doctor, drugs that contain amphetamines are used to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), narcolepsy and, less commonly, obesity and binge-eating disorder.1 Methamphetamine is a synthetic derivative of amphetamine with relatively more powerful CNS effects. Though pharmaceutical methamphetamine exists and is approved for use in the management of ADHD and narcolepsy, it is increasingly rarely prescribed. Compared with amphetamine, methamphetamine is a more potent, longer-lasting stimulant. Of the two, meth is more water-soluble and is rapidly absorbed into the blood when smoked, snorted, or injected.5

People may abuse these drugs to stay awake, lose weight, or merely to get high. Prescription amphetamine and methamphetamine may be swallowed, dissolved and injected, crushed and snorted, or smoked. Some illicit methamphetamine resembles a crystalline rock (known as crystal meth), which can be smoked in a pipe. Methamphetamine is also frequently encountered in powder form, which can be snorted, swallowed, or injected.1

Among the 5.3 million people aged 12 or older who misused prescription stimulants in the past year, 4.8 million misused amphetamine products.

Depending on the specific type, some street names for illicitly abused amphetamines include the following:1

  • Amphetamine: Bennies, copilots, eye-openers, lid poppers, pep pills, speed, uppers, wake-ups
  • D-amphetamine: Dexies
  • Methamphetamine: Chalk, crank, crystal, speed, zip
  • Crystal meth: Ice, crystal, glass
  • Combination of amphetamines and barbiturate: Goofballs

According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, amphetamines were the most commonly prescribed stimulant type among people age 12 and older, with 11.3 million people reporting having used amphetamine products in the past year. The survey also reports that “among the 5.3 million people aged 12 or older who misused prescription stimulants in the past year, 4.8 million misused amphetamine products.”3 Additionally, 879,000 people aged 12 and older reported misusing methamphetamine at least once in their lives, with 226,00 reporting misuse in the past year.4

Can They Be Abused?

Prescription amphetamines are relatively safe when used as directed. However, because of their potential to elicit a rewarding high and their ability to aid with weight loss and increase energy, amphetamines do have potential for abuse and addiction.5 Methamphetamine has a very strong potential for addiction, and the crystal meth form, in particular, is reported to have an even higher abuse and addiction potential than other forms of the drug.5

pharmacist handing prescription paper to customer

Someone who abuses amphetamines may quickly ramp up their doses to fight a growing tolerance. As someone continually ups their dose, they put their physical and mental health in harm’s way and risk overdose.6

Over time, the individual may find that their body no longer feels okay without their drug of choice. They may need to continue using simply to avoid withdrawal symptoms that arise when they stop. This is referred to as physical dependence, and it can develop quickly in someone who abuses amphetamine-type stimulants. The severity of dependence is linked to the route of administration—for example, injection users tend to experience the most severe cases of physical dependence and withdrawal.5

Effects of Amphetamines

Amphetamines can produce feelings of euphoria and pleasure, but they also have many potentially harmful effects. The specific symptoms associated with amphetamine use will be influenced by the dose used and the method of use, itself.5 When combined with other drugs, these symptoms may be enhanced. Unfortunately, polysubstance use is not rare among amphetamine users, with drugs like marijuana, alcohol, and ecstasy (MDMA) commonly combined with amphetamines.5

In most cases, the effects of amphetamines can last for several hours after use.1

Short-Term Effects

The pleasurable and intoxicating short-term effects of amphetamines can include:1

  • Euphoria.
  • Increased alertness.
  • Increased energy.
  • Decreased feelings of fatigue.
  • Improved feelings of well-being.
  • Reduced social inhibitions.
  • Heightened sense of intelligence or power.

The initial period of intoxication doesn’t come without some risks, however. Negative effects that can come on quickly include:1,5

  • Dry mouth.
  • Nausea.
  • Heart palpitations.
  • Irregular heartbeat.
  • Hypertension.
  • Increased body temperature.
  • Tremors or muscle twitches.
  • Hostile or paranoid behavior.

Long-Term Effects

Over the course of time, amphetamine abuse can impact your physical and mental health and compromise your ability to function in everyday life.

man leaning over with hand on head portraying an individual feeling long-term effects of amphetamine abuse Some of the long-term physical effects of amphetamine abuse include:1, 5

  • Frequent bouts of dizziness or vertigo.
  • Consistently irregular heartbeat.
  • Chronic breathing difficulties.
  • Malnutrition.
  • Vitamin deficiencies.
  • Skin problems.
  • Repetitive motor movements (stereotypy).
  • Loss of physical coordination.
  • Heightened risk of falls.
  • Sleep disorders.
  • Elevated risk of seizures/convulsions.
  • Increased risk of death from cardiac event (e.g., stroke, malignant arrhythmia).

One study found that young adults who abuse amphetamines have a higher risk of stroke and death.7

Long-term amphetamine abuse can adversely affect your psychological state as well, causing problems such as:1, 5

  • Cognitive impairment.
  • Mood changes.
  • Depression.
  • Suicidal thoughts or actions.
  • Psychosis resembling schizophrenia, which can include paranoia, hallucinations, and skin-picking (as a result of specific types of hallucinations).
  • Panic attacks.
  • Aggressive or violent behavior.

In addition, if you snort amphetamines, you may suffer additional long-term consequences, such as:9

  • Nosebleeds.
  • Damage to your nasal passages.

If you shoot amphetamines, you may also be at increased risk of contracting:9

  • Tetanus.
  • Hepatitis B and C.
  • HIV/AIDS.

Amphetamines and Your Brain

Amphetamines cause changes to your brain chemistry. Specifically, you experience a surge in the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine and a subsequent inhibition in the reuptake of these chemicals. These chemical mechanisms underlie the heightened sense of pleasure and increased feelings of alertness and concentration associated with amphetamine use.1 ,8

Surges in and decreased reuptake of dopamine can affect the brain’s reward system and motivate the user to take amphetamines again and again. Dopamine changes in the brain are often referred to when discussing a drug’s addictive potential. Because the effects of a drug on dopamine can be so much stronger than that of a natural reward (e.g., eating), the user may, over time, find that nothing else feels as good as taking their drug of choice. However, the subjective effects of that drug still decrease as tolerance grows, and the user must keep upping their dose to achieve the effects they’re seeking (if they can get it at all).8

The harm associated with amphetamine abuse isn’t limited to your mental or physical health. Your lifestyle can be severely impacted by abuse of these drugs. You might experience problems such as:9

  • Lowered inhibitions, resulting in negative consequences like STDs or unintended pregnancy.
  • Financial turmoil.
  • Work/school issues, such as declining performance or job loss.
  • Relationship conflict.
  • Legal problems.

Is it Possible to Overdose?

People who use large amounts of amphetamine drugs can overdose. Some of the symptoms of overdose include:10

  • Restlessness.
  • Motor tremor.
  • Hyperreflexia.
  • Rapid respiration.
  • Severe confusion.
  • Hallucinations.
  • Panic.
  • Hyperpyrexia (dangerously elevated body temperature).
  • Rhabdomyolysis (damage to muscle fibers and release of their contents into the blood).
  • Extreme fatigue.
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps.
  • Cardiovascular problems such as arrhythmia, hypertension, and circulatory collapse.
  • Seizures/convulsions.
  • Coma.
  • Death.

A number of factors may increase the risk of overdose, including:1, 11

  • Using the drug in a way not medically intended (such as by snorting or injecting it).
  • Using high doses of the drug.
  • Mixing amphetamines with other drugs or alcohol.
  • Using after a period of abstinence, during which your tolerance has decreased.

If you suspect that you or someone you care about is overdosing, call 911 right away. Never leave a person who may be overdosing. While awaiting emergency personnel, you can help by:

  • Staying calm. Reassure the person that you are going to stay with them until help arrives.
  • Finding out as much as you can about the type of drug and dosage that was taken.
  • Obtaining information about any other drugs used or medical conditions the person may have.
  • Offering first aid, if you are qualified to do so. 911 operators may be able to guide you through this process.
  • Providing CPR if the person is unresponsive or not breathing. You can find a step-by-step guide from the Red Cross here.
  • Providing as much information as possible to medical personnel.

Amphetamine Dependence and Withdrawal

Someone using amphetamines over a period of time may develop physiological dependence and may experience both physical and mental discomfort upon trying to quit. An uncomfortable withdrawal syndrome may arise as the body adjusts to the sudden lack of drug in the system. According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, stimulant withdrawal symptoms can include:12

woman on couch with face in pillow suffering from amphetamine withdrawal and dependance

  • Fatigue.
  • Unpleasant and vivid dreams.
  • Dysphoric mood (meaning you feel unhappy, irritable, anxious, or dissatisfied with your life).
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia (sleeping too much).
  • Increased appetite.
  • Psychomotor retardation or agitation (meaning a slowing down or speeding up of thoughts and movements).

Most symptoms of amphetamine withdrawal are not life-threatening, but withdrawal can be physically uncomfortable and psychologically difficult. While many people attempt withdrawal on their own, there can be a high risk of relapse. Additionally, studies have indicated that people who develop psychotic features in association with methamphetamine abuse may be at risk of additional psychotic episodes even after ceasing use, which can make withdrawing on your own even more challenging.13

Treatment for Stimulant Addiction

Recovery is a lifelong process that doesn’t end once you finish treatment.There are a number of treatment options for people dealing with a stimulant addiction. Detox is usually the first step in the recovery process, but it does not represent a full picture of addiction treatment; a better way to look at it is the precursor to treatment. You need to stabilize your body and mind by clearing yourself of the drug so that you may begin your recovery journey from a healthy starting point. You are assisted and supported through the withdrawal process by medical staff and qualified substance abuse professionals so your body can be detoxified as safely and comfortably as possible. Once this process is complete, you can begin to work with counselors and other treatment professionals to work on changing the thoughts and behaviors that contribute to and maintain your drug use. You can do this in one or more of many environments, including:14

  • Inpatient or residential treatment. You receive 24-hour supervision, intensive addiction treatment services, and access to medical care in a hospital or residential environment. In a residential setting, you reside at a treatment center for up to 90 days in most cases, but longer if necessary.
  • Outpatient treatment. You continue to live at home while attending treatment at the outpatient center at least once per week. This is a less intensive option for people with relatively less severe addictions or for those who are unable to reside at a treatment facility. In some cases, outpatient treatment programs serve as a step-down option for people who’ve completed inpatient treatment but wish to extend their care.
  • Partial hospitalization. This is a time-intensive form of outpatient treatment where you live at home but attend treatment during daytime hours. You participate in a combination of individual and group counseling. People who have recently completed inpatient treatment often step down to this form of treatment.
  • Intensive outpatient program (IOP). You live at home and travel to a rehab center for counseling, typically for 6-9 hours per week.
  • Recovery support groups. These are free self-help groups that may be available in your community. Self-help groups are also incorporated into many treatment programs. Recovery support groups might include those based on the 12-step model of recovery, such as Narcotics Anonymous (NA), or alternative secular programs, such as SMART Recovery.

Different forms of behavioral interventions are used to treat amphetamine addiction, including:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). This form of talk therapy allows you to learn to identify and change negative or unhealthy thoughts and behaviors that contribute to substance abuse.
  • Contingency management (CM). This form of treatment is based on positive reinforcement for achieving desired goals and tasks. For example, you might receive a voucher for a negative drug test.
  • Matrix Model. Several studies have found this form of treatment to be very effective for sufferers of stimulant abuse.15 This is a structured and time-limited form of treatment that integrates a number of different treatment types, such as group and family therapy, drug education, relapse prevention education, and self-help groups. You obtain support and guidance from a trained therapist throughout the treatment process.

Recovery is a lifelong process that doesn’t end once you finish treatment. People often continue their recovery with some form of aftercare. The main goal of aftercare is to prevent relapse. Aftercare may involve:

  • Regular attendance at 12-step meetings.
  • Engaging in ongoing individual therapy or group counseling.
  • Arrangements to reside in a sober living home or therapeutic community.

Amphetamine abuse can take a major toll on your life and the lives of those who care about you, but you don’t have to let it continue. Reach out for help today to get off amphetamines for good.


References

  1. Australian Government Department of Health. (2004). The Amphetamine Withdrawal Syndrome.
  2. Barnhorst, A. (2017). Amphetamine-Related Psychiatric Disorders Clinical Presentation.
  3. Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs. (N.D.) Overdose Overview.
  4. U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2012). LABEL: ADDERALL XR-Dextroamphetamine Sulfate, Dextroamphetamine Saccharate, Amphetamine Sulfate and Amphetamine Aspartate Capsule, Extended Release.
  5. Alcohol and Drug Foundation. (2017). Amphetamines.
  6. Berman, S., O’Neill, J., Fears, S., Bartzokis, G., & London, E. D. (2008). Abuse of Amphetamines and Structural Abnormalities in Brain. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences1141, 195–220.
  7. Westover A.N., McBride, S., & Haley, R.W. (2007). Stroke in Young Adults Who Abuse Amphetamines or Cocaine: A Population-Based Study of Hospitalized PatientsArchives of General Psychiatry, 64(4), 495–502.
  8. National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens. (2017). Tolerance, Dependence, Addiction: What’s the Difference?
  9. World Health Organization Western Pacific Region. (N.D.) Technical Briefs on Amphetamine-Type Stimulants.
  10. Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. (2016). Results from the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Detailed Tables. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Rockville, MD.
  11. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2016). Prescription Drug Use and Misuse in the United States: Results from the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
  12. Berman, S., O’Neill, J., Fears, S., Bartzokis, G., & London, E. D. (2008). Abuse of Amphetamines and Structural Abnormalities in Brain. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1141, 195–220.
  13. Center for Substance Abuse Research. (N.D.). Amphetamines.
  14. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2006). Detoxification and Substance Abuse Treatment. Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 45. HHS Publication No. (SMA) 13­4131. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
  15. Vocci, F. J., & Montoya, I. D. (2009). Psychological Treatments for Stimulant Misuse, Comparing and Contrasting Those for Amphetamine Dependence and Those for Cocaine DependenceCurrent Opinion in Psychiatry22(3), 263–268.
Last updated on July 13 2019
2019-07-13T17:19:11+00:00
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