When it comes to prescription drug abuse, the current national focus is on the widespread opioid crisis, and as overdose statistics continue to rise, opioid medications draw more attention. However, opioids are far from the only prescription drugs that are seeing a rise in abuse and addictions. Amphetamines in the form of prescription stimulants have seen a steady rise in the rate of misuse, abuse, and addiction. In 2013, of the 2.5 million emergency room visits for drug abuse, amphetamines accounted for between roughly 71,000 and 103,000.
Perhaps the most worrying thing is that children and young adults are at the highest risk for potential amphetamine abuse and addiction, as it is typically prescribed to children and adolescents to treat attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder or ADHD. While prescription stimulants can be very useful for treating the symptoms of ADHD, they are also highly addictive and frequently abused not only recreationally but also by students who are trying to boost their academic performance.
Individuals struggling with an amphetamine addiction can and should learn to seek help and treatment. This is why it is vital to understand how amphetamines work, the potential damage they can cause, and how to spot the signs of addiction. If you or someone you know is struggling with amphetamine abuse, we are here to help.
What are Amphetamines?
Amphetamines are synthetic psychoactive drugs called central nervous system stimulants. Stimulants work by increasing the dopamine levels in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter often referred to as “the brain’s pleasure center,” due to its association with euphoria, movement, and attention. When the increased dopamine is released, nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord are activated, significantly improving memory, the ability to concentrate and stay awake, along with a general boost in mental focus. When prescribed by a physician, the stimulant is slowly introduced at very low doses until eventually, it reaches a therapeutic effect.
Name-brand amphetamine stimulants such as Adderall, Vyvanse, and Dexedrine are prescribed primarily to treat the symptoms of ADHD and narcolepsy, but also occasionally for depression and, in some instances, obesity, due to the common side effect of appetite suppression.
The physiological effects amphetamines are nearly identical to those of cocaine, but the effects of amphetamines last significantly longer. Because of this association, it’s not surprising that there has been medical controversy surrounding the use of amphetamines as prescription medication and whether or not the benefits outweigh the potentially harmful side effects and risk of dependency and addiction.
The reasons behind excessive amphetamine use and abuse are typically related to trying to lose weight, increasing academic performance, and getting high on the euphoric effects. Students, in particular, are among the highest demographic of prescription amphetamine abusers, often based on feelings of academic pressure and the low stigma surrounding drugs like Adderall, which is seen as “safe” for use during study.
This misuse is even more widespread on college campuses, where students experience their first taste of freedom, and drugs such as Adderall are more readily available and easily accessed. As of 2014, roughly one in five students at Ivy League universities were abusing prescription stimulants.
When taken in the excess or by snorting or injecting crushed pills for a more intense sensation of euphoria, addiction occurs from the repeated and dangerously rapid rise in dopamine. After prolonged use, withdrawal symptoms such as depression, fatigue, and disturbed patterns of sleep, foster an unhealthy dependency that can shift into addiction.
What are the Signs of Amphetamine Addiction?
There is a wide range of signs and symptoms of an amphetamine addiction that signify dependency and increasing abuse. Some common signifiers of amphetamine addiction include:
- Significant weight loss
- Visual and auditory hallucinations
- An increased tolerance that requires larger doses to get high
As amphetamines and getting high become the center of an individual’s life and the driving force behind their decisions, there are also many behavioral warnings signs of amphetamine addiction, including the following:
- Missing work or school
- Prioritizing use over hobbies, responsibilities, friends, and family
- Difficulty in performing day-to-day tasks
- Poor hygiene and lack of concern with physical appearance
- Making excuses to rationalize using
- Wanting to stop using amphetamines but being unable to
- Hiding your abuse from others
- Obtaining amphetamines by any means available, including theft
If you’ve experienced at least three of these symptoms within the span of 12 months, or have seen them in someone you know, it is indicative of an amphetamine dependence. Professional help should be sought out as soon as possible to avoid further prolonged abuse and stem the mental and physical damage it can and may have already caused.
What is Involved in Amphetamine Addiction Treatment?
The treatment of amphetamine addiction can be a challenge due to how chronic substance use can rewire the brain. Depending on the length and severity of abuse, withdrawal symptoms can include intense depression, violent mood swings, and even suicidal behavior. Because of the magnitude of these symptoms, choosing to detox in the professional medical environment of an in-patient treatment center is essential to safely undergo detoxification.
However, medical detox is only the first step in effective recovery treatment. Even after the withdrawal symptoms fade, the acute loss of pleasure and deep depression that remain create a high risk of potential relapse. Undergoing residential rehabilitation treatment and therapy will help mitigate that risk as well as provide a network of support that can make all the difference in not just getting on but staying on the path to recovery. While treatment plans will vary based on what is deemed most helpful for an individual person based on assessment and evaluation, they will typically involve a mix of at least some of the following:
- Addiction education
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
- Dialectical Behavioral Therapy
- Family counseling
- Group therapy
- 12-Step support programs
With the right treatment program and helpful management techniques, addicts can better understand and, therefore, change their behaviors to avoid triggers that might cause a relapse.
Quitting Cold Turkey
In case you didn’t know, the term “cold turkey” refers to the immediate cessation of a drug. In an attempt to detox and treat themselves, many people with amphetamine addiction will attempt to go cold turkey. While quitting all amphetamine abuse immediately sounds good on paper, it can lead to serious side effects.
When someone is addicted to a drug, especially amphetamines, their body slowly normalizes the constant intake and adjusts itself accordingly. Certain chemicals are produced faster or slower, depending on the drug, and the body requires time after quitting a drug to slowly adjust back to sobriety.
“When quitting cold turkey, however, the time for the body to adjust to its sober state is completely diminished. The sudden lack of drug use, which the body now considers normal, incurs withdrawal symptoms. From seizures to even vivid hallucinations, withdrawal symptoms can be very dangerous. Quitting cold turkey boosts not only the chance of experience withdrawal symptoms but the intensity and length of the symptoms as well. ”
For this reason, quitting cold turkey in almost any case of drug or substance abuse and addiction is very dangerous. Professional help is always advised, and disregarding the correct treatment can seriously damage someone’s health, and may even prove fatal.
How Dangerous are Amphetamines?
The stigma surrounding prescription stimulants such as Adderall is significantly lower than many other prescription drugs. Because of this, many people don’t know the very real dangers posed by amphetamine abuse, and, therefore, are less wary of developing an addiction. Even at regularly prescribed doses, stimulants can cause an increase in body temperature, blood pressure, and heart rate, as well as a decrease in both sleep and appetite. At higher doses, they can lead to far more serious cardiovascular problems, stroke, small blood vessel blockage, and more. Other common health problems that can occur as a result of amphetamine abuse include:
- Muscle spasms
- General loss of muscle control
- Mood swings
- Malnutrition from lack of appetite
- Withdrawal symptoms such as depression and fatigue
There also have been recent studies that linked prolonged or excessive amphetamine use to an increased risk of Parkinson’s disease. However, the gravest danger posed by amphetamines is what can happen when they’re mixed with alcohol and other drugs. Many people who use amphetamines are likely to also engage in what is known as polydrug abuse to enhance the effects of amphetamines.
While sometimes combined with sedatives like heroin, alcohol is the most common secondary drug in amphetamine polydrug use. Mixing amphetamines and alcohol places considerable strain on the heart, which is already working harder from the amphetamines. The increase in alertness and wakefulness can also suppress the effects of intoxication and lead to over drinking and consequently:
- Alcohol poisoning
- Irregular or decreased heartbeat
- Slowed breathing to the point of coma risk
Using multiple drugs in conjunction with amphetamines also significantly complicates a person’s ability to detox safely or even successfully, and increases the difficulty of recovery.
Amphetamine Abuse Statistics
- 45% of emergency room visits involving prescription stimulants also involved other pharmaceutical drugs; 21% involved illicit drugs, and 19% involved alcohol.
- A person’s likelihood of misusing prescription stimulants doubles if they attend a highly selective college.
- Amphetamines such as Adderall are among the top 10 most commonly abused prescription drugs.