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Stimulants: Amphetamines and Methylphenidate

Written By
Matt Gonzales
This page features
11 Cited Research Articles

Prescription stimulants are drugs used to treat a variety of disorders, including certain types of mental illness. But popular stimulant medications — including Ritalin, Concerta and Adderall — are often misused for their euphoric properties. Abusing prescription stimulants can cause addiction, mental health disorders and numerous other health consequences.

Stimulant medications are a class of drugs that boost attention, alertness and energy. They are used to treat sleep disorders, concentration conditions and, in some cases, depression.

Prescription stimulants have also been used to treat asthma, obesity and other health problems that affect the central nervous system. They are often prescribed to children, teens and adults suffering from attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

Prescription stimulants can be addictive when they are misused for their euphoric effects. In addition to taking medications without a prescription, people may crush tablets and snort or inject them to achieve a more powerful high. These methods of administration can increase the risk for a substance use disorder.

Help is available for people who are addicted to prescription stimulants. Many rehab centers provide an outpatient treatment plan called the Matrix model, a program specifically for stimulant drug addiction. It uses daily therapy sessions and group meetings focused on early recovery, relapse prevention and social support to teach people how to live healthy, sober lives.

Who Uses Prescription Stimulants?

As many as 4 million children have been prescribed amphetamines to manage their ADHD, according to the National Drug Intelligence Center. When used properly, the medications are effective and drug abuse is not a serious risk. But misuse is common among people of all ages.

About 1.7 million Americans aged 12 or older reported past-month misuse of stimulants in 2016, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

92,000
Adolescents ages 12 to 17 misused stimulants in the past month
767,000
Young adults ages 18 to 25 misused stimulants in the past month
876,000
Adults ages 26 and older misused stimulants in the past month

Source: National Survey on Drug Use and Health

Many college students misuse stimulant medications, also known as “study drugs,” to help them focus or perform better academically. However, studies have shown that study drugs do not enhance learning or thinking ability when taken by people who do not have ADHD.

Commonly Used Stimulants

The two most commonly misused types of stimulants are amphetamines and methylphenidate. The Food and Drug Administration classifies both substances as Schedule II drugs, a category of drugs with a high potential for abuse and physical or psychological dependence.

Amphetamines

Amphetamines are a group of synthetic drugs used to treat ADHD, obesity, narcolepsy and sometimes depression. Drugs in the amphetamines group include amphetamine, dextroamphetamine and methamphetamine.

Popular brands of amphetamines include:

Individuals who use amphetamines experience euphoria, energy, wakefulness and increased concentration. These drugs may also decrease appetite.

Methylphenidate

Methylphenidate is used to treat ADHD and narcolepsy. The drug increases attention and decreases restlessness in adults and children experiencing hyperactivity, concentration problems and impulsivity issues.

Popular brands of methylphenidate include:

Methylphenidate is often used in conjunction with a treatment program that addresses social, educational and psychological problems. However, the medication can cause chest pain, irregular heartbeat and slow growth.

Signs of Stimulant Abuse

People experiencing stimulant addiction face a number of physical, emotional and behavioral changes. The more severe the substance use disorder, the more drastically different a person may act.

Signs and symptoms of prescription stimulant addiction:

  • Dilated pupils
  • Bad breath
  • Frequent lip licking
  • Dry mouth
  • Trouble sitting still
  • Argumentative behavior
  • Lack of interest in food or sleep

Stimulant addiction can strain relationships, cause financial problems and decrease performance at work or school. Amphetamine or methylphenidate addiction may also cause individuals to feel tired because they are unable to get quality sleep.

Side Effects of Stimulants

Amphetamine and methylphenidate are safe when used as directed by a physician. However, misusing these drugs can result in a range of physical and mental problems that may have devastating consequences on a person’s health.

Short-term effects of prescription stimulant use include:

  • Dry mouth
  • Rapid breathing
  • Headache
  • Increased talkativeness
  • Nausea
  • Palpitations
  • Tremors
  • High body temperature
  • Paranoia
  • Cardiovascular system failure

Long-term effects of prescription stimulant use include:

  • Ulcers
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Dizziness
  • Flush or pale skin
  • Unusual tiredness or weakness
  • Pounding heartbeat
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Psychosis
  • Mental disorders
  • Convulsions, coma and death

When people snort or inject amphetamines, levels of the chemical dopamine rise rapidly in the brain. This could increase the risk for developing prescription drug addiction. When stimulants are abused chronically, a person’s tolerance to the medications increases. Over time, withdrawal symptoms such as fatigue, sleep disturbances and depression can occur if the person stops using stimulants abruptly.

How Prescription Stimulants Affect the Brain

Amphetamines and methylphenidate have chemical structures similar to those of dopamine and norepinephrine, key chemicals that are used to relay messages between brain cells. When people use stimulants, the drugs boost the effects of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain and body.

Amphetamine activates nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. When this happens, people experience improved mental focus, concentration and wakefulness. The effects of stimulants can last several hours, and combining stimulants with alcohol or other drugs enhances the effects.

Seeking Help for Stimulant Abuse?

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Treating Prescription Stimulant Addiction

Treatment for prescription stimulant addiction uses behavioral therapies, such as contingency management, to help people learn ways to resist drug cravings, avoid triggers and build healthy lives.

Popular behavioral therapies used to address stimulant addiction include:

Cognitive behavioral therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy helps people identify, understand and change their behaviors related to drugs such as prescription stimulants. This form of therapy also helps people identify triggers, recognize high-risk situations and manage cravings.

The Matrix model

The Matrix model is a therapy approach specifically used to treat stimulant addiction. The treatment plan incorporates a number of evidence-based therapies, including cognitive behavioral therapy and motivational interviewing.

Contingency management

Contingency management uses tangible rewards to encourage positive behaviors during addiction treatment. This learning concept aims to modify a person’s behaviors through rewards.

No medication is FDA-approved to treat prescription stimulant addiction, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. However, preliminary research has suggested that the stimulant modafinil, which is used to treat narcolepsy and other sleep disorders, may reduce amphetamine and cocaine cravings. But further research is needed to support this hypothesis.

Rehab centers can assist people in overcoming prescription stimulant addiction. These treatment facilities use evidence-based techniques and the latest innovative approaches to treat substance use disorders.

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